At debate after debate, mayoral candidate Paul Vallas offers a sweeping promise when pressed on what immediate steps he will take to reverse the surge of crime and violence that swept Chicago in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to fully recede.
“I know for a fact that there are hundreds of officers who will return if there is new leadership,” Vallas said twice at Tuesday’s debate hosted by WGN-TV, citing his experience helping Chicago’s largest police union negotiate a new contract with the city.
However, efforts by the leaders of large cities across the country to bring back officers amid a nationwide staffing crunch have fallen short, and law enforcement analysts told WTTW News there is no evidence that Chicago will prove to be any different.
Approximately 1,000 officers left the Chicago Police Department in 2022, while some 950 officers were hired, the most since 2018, the last time the city stepped up efforts to hire new police officers in response to an increase in crime, according to city data.
Retired officers are eager to serve in a “part time capacity to work in the detective’s bureau, analyzing cases, protecting witnesses, responding to domestic violence complaints,” Vallas said.
During the WGN debate, Brandon Johnson called Vallas’ promise “ridiculous.”
The number of sworn Chicago police officers dropped approximately 13% between August 2017 and June 2022, according to an analysis by the Civic Federation, a nonprofit government watchdog group. That decline contributed to the city’s $210.5 million police overtime bill, as police brass canceled officers’ days off to handle the increase in crime and violence.
Vallas often decries the fact that it took an hour or more for an officer to be dispatched to one out of every 24 high-priority 911 calls from January to November 2022, according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune. That makes the need for more officers self-evident, according to Vallas.
An agreement between the Chicago Police Department and the police union reached on Feb. 27 – one day before Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid for a second term — sets out the rules for officers to return to the department on an expedited basis.
In response to a question from WTTW News after Tuesday’s debate, Vallas said he would lift the requirement that Chicago police officers be vaccinated against COVID-19. The department’s current policy requires all returning officers to be inoculated against COVID-19 or have a valid exemption for religious or medical reasons.
“Let them come back,” said Vallas, saying he would not want to “impose” a requirement to get vaccinated against a virus he said was no longer a threat. In all, 8,097 Chicagoans have died from COVID-19, including 239 since Jan. 1.
The current policy will not allow officers to maintain their seniority, which means they will not be able to request plum assignments. Vallas wants returning officers to keep their seniority.
But the biggest incentive officers need to return is his victory, said Vallas, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. He faces Johnson, a Cook County commissioner. Election Day is April 4, and early voting is already underway.
“If you put the right leadership in place in the Chicago Police Department, if you return police to community policing strategy in which there is beat integrity, in which the police officers are on those beats and not being moved all over the city, if you return them to a normal schedule, and they feel they can be responsive, responsive consistent with the consent decree when it comes to arresting people who commit violent acts, I believe that you are going to significantly slow the exodus,” Vallas said after the debate.
During the WGN debate, Johnson called Vallas’ promise “ridiculous.” In a statement, Johnson spokesperson Ronnie Reese said Vallas’ claim that “hundreds of retired officers will come out of retirement simply because of how much they like him is both laughable and irresponsible.”
Police departments across the nation are struggling to keep officers on the job, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that found resignations jumped 43% and retirements increased 24% from 2019 to 2021.
In Portland, Oregon, a push to rehire retired police officers to relieve a severe staffing crunch fell far short of expectations. Just two out of 81 eligible officers rejoined the department, according to the Oregonian newspaper.
In San Francisco, a handful of retired officers now work as “ambassadors” in the city’s central business district, known as Union Square. But they do not have police powers – only radios to summon officers and Narcan to reverse drug overdoses, according to CBS News Bay Area.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass backed plans to rehire 200 retired police officers in January. However, representatives of the police union representing Los Angeles officers said there had been very little interest from retired officers, according to the Los Angeles Times. The department has yet to announce if any officers have rejoined the Los Angeles Police Department.
Vallas’ promise is “uniformed, naïve or dishonest,” said Tom Needham, who served as the top lawyer for the Chicago Police Department between 1998 and 2002. He now operates his own law firm and is not publicly supporting a candidate for mayor.
“It is just not going to happen,” Needham said. “He should stop saying this or offer some proof.”
Most officers decide to retire for a host of reasons after they serve at least 29 years and one day on the force, ensuring they maximize their pension benefits, said Needham, a resident of Edison Park who comes from a family of police officers. Officers also face a mandatory retirement age of 63, according to departmental policy.
“I don’t believe guys up and retire because of who is in the mayor’s office,” Needham said. “They definitely grouse about it, though.”
Under the new policy, officers who want to return to the Chicago Police Department must be younger than 50, have left no longer than three years ago and undergo a background check, according to the policy. All will serve at the rank of police officer, regardless of their last position, and they will not retain their seniority or place on lists of officers eligible for promotions, according to the policy.
It will likely take the department between two and six months to complete the process of rehiring an officer, according to the policy.
Ken Corey, who retired in 2022 after 35 years with the New York Police Department, said he did not believe officers who left the Chicago Police Department to join a different law enforcement agency would return in large numbers if Vallas wins the election.
“I don’t think they are coming back,” Corey said. “I think most of them are very happy with where they are.”
The election of Eric Adams, a former police officer who campaigned on a platform similar to Vallas’ tough-on-crime approach as mayor of New York, did not prompt a significant number of officers to return to the New York Police Department even after Adams lifted the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Corey said.
However, if Vallas implements the changes as he has promised, the exodus of veteran officers could slow – and more people will consider joining the department, Corey said.
“The climate is important,” said Corey, who retired as the NYPD's highest-ranking officer.
“Being treated fairly and having practical support will go a long way,” said Corey, a consultant with the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
The Chicago Police Department’s 2023 budget, which totals $1.94 billion, includes 14,093 positions. The Chicago data portal lists 12,318 active employees of the Police Department, which means 87.4% of all budgeted positions are filled. That is essentially unchanged from July, one month after the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate was fully implemented.
While Vallas says the city should hire as many new officers as possible to reduce crime and violence, Johnson has not committed to filling the department’s vacant positions. Instead, Johnson has proposed increasing funding for youth employment programs and mental health services, and vowed to redirect $150 million within the police department's budget. That includes an additional $50 million to fund reform efforts and comply with the consent decree, according to Johnson's campaign.
Johnson has also vowed to expand the Chicago Police Department’s detective ranks by promoting 200 officers and charge them with solving crimes, including the disappearances of several Black women from the West and South sides.
“That’s smart policing,” Johnson said.
Vallas called Johnson’s plan “foolish,” saying it would only deplete the ranks of patrol officers, allowing crime to rise even higher.
Approximately 15% of Los Angeles Police Department members are detectives, while 8% of the Chicago Police Department hold the rank of detective, a statistic that Johnson often cites during debates.
Rules that keep Black and Latino Chicagoans from qualifying to serve as a Chicago police officer because of misdemeanor offenses and poor credit scores should be changed as part of an effort to fill vacant positions in the Chicago Police Department, Johnson said.
Johnson has also promised to increase spending on efforts to change the way the Chicago Police Department trains, supervises and disciplines officers, known as the consent decree, to $50 million annually.
Craig Futterman, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, said the culture of the Chicago Police Department must be overhauled to comply with the consent decree.
“If the officers who are leaving aren’t on board with the reforms or what should be a new era for the Police Department, that’s not a bad thing,” Futterman said. “The old notion some police officers had of ‘us versus them’ and the machismo culture that went along with it has not served the city well.”
Alexandra Block, the senior supervising attorney of the ACLU of Illinois, said she was seriously concerned that the policy designed to expedite the return of former Chicago police officers to the department will allow those who resigned while under investigation to be rehired at the “discretion of the director as to the egregiousness, seriousness and nature of the allegations and/or penalties,” according to a list of frequently asked questions published by the department.
The problems facing the Chicago Police Department are “firmly rooted in its backwards, racist culture” and the department should not rehire officers who contributed to those issues, Block said.