Chicago Spent More Than 1 Million Overtime Hours on ‘Scarecrow’ Police Shifts Since 2022 Before Abandoning the Approach

Police vehicle file photo. (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)Police vehicle file photo. (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)

Over the past two summers, police officers sitting in a prominent spot with their emergency lights flashing were a common sight in most Chicago neighborhoods. 

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Called the strategic deployment initiative, or SDI, the effort was introduced as part of an overall plan to fight crime across the city.

CPD launched the plan in February 2022 to “curb public-violence incidents throughout the city,” according to its annual report.

Sometimes called “scarecrowing” by officers and critics in reference to the way it stationed officers in easy-to-see spots to deter trouble, the recently terminated initiative was often defended by former boss David Brown but criticized by current Supt. Larry Snelling.

Records provided to WTTW News show police officers, detectives, sergeants and lieutenants worked more than 1 million hours under the program, all paid out as overtime. 

The data provided by CPD showed each officers’ SDI assignment daily for about two years, and allowed WTTW News to analyze how often the program was used and the total number of hours logged on these shifts. 

SDI cops were visible throughout the city most days, often stationed in their vehicles with the emergency lights on across the city.

The department did not answer questions about the total cost of the plan, nor did it provide details about how the program impacted violence and crime across the city following its implementation.

Snelling announced he was ending the program earlier this year, and has pledged to do more to reduce the cost of overtime by the department, which hit a record of $293 million last year, according to records from the Department of Finance. Overtime is a critical focus for CPD, which spent almost $200 million more than it budgeted in 2023, records show.

The current summer will be the first in which SDI has not been used since 2021. Summer is often one of the most violent times for the city.

Despite past and current pledges to reduce costs of overtime, records provided to WTTW News show the monthly total of hours assigned for SDI shifts reached its highest level under Snelling in the final three months of operation.

Records show about 36% of sworn officers participated in the initiative. The identities of some officers who worked on specific drug, gang or vice squads were redacted, though records of their shifts were provided.

There were about 30 officers who worked more than 200 shifts over the initiative’s two years, records show. One officer worked almost 300 shifts in 25 months.

Officers who worked SDI shifts were expected to perform high visibility patrols including vehicular and foot patrols and CTA premise checks. According to reports, officers could be assigned anywhere in the city depending on current crime patterns or emerging trends. 

SDI was expanded in July 2022 to seven days per week and on all watches following an initial test run. 

A report by WBEZ from 2020 looked at overtime connected to the violence reduction initiative, intended to reduce gun violence across the city, between 2012 and 2017. The reporting showed an average annual total of overtime hours similar to the total from records about the SDI program.

The initiative was widely criticized from the outside and within the ranks. Brown promised a study of the effectiveness of CPD deployment, which could help judge the effectiveness of programs like SDI, but departed before a study was complete.

A recent measure passed in February by the Chicago City Council will conduct a comprehensive analysis of department staffing, which could shed light on past practices as well as future plans.

Matrix Consulting Group, based in the San Francisco area, will be conducting the evaluation following an agreement on the scope of work, according to Ald. Matt Martin (47th Ward). There is currently not a contract with Matrix listed on the city’s procurement site. A plan is due to City Council by June 18. 

‘Lethal Violence is So Concentrated’

CPD did not respond to questions about how it judged the efficacy of the SDI plan. The city did announce this year’s summer safety plan before the Memorial Day weekend. The plan would continue canceling officers’ days off to make up for staffing issues as it has in the past.

Records provided by CPD show summer was the season with the highest use of canceled days off, hitting its peak in September 2023.

CPD did not answer specific questions submitted in April about how forced shifts contribute to overtime, and its effect on the health of officers, saying the questions were “under administrative review.”

Forced work shifts on normal off days and vacation days were widely criticized by officers and their largest union. A 2022 investigation by the Office of the Inspector General found many officers were scheduled to work 11 or more days in a row, and some did.

The report said the city “will be best-served by using and sharing clear and accurate data” about police staffing.

Researchers use a number of techniques to judge how effectively a program addresses crime. They use different methods than government agencies, many of which may be more focused on decreasing crime rather than identifying the exact driver of the change.

Some of the basic concepts of SDI are backed by academic literature.

“Most of the research finds that additional police visibility does have a modest effect on serious crime,” Aaron Chalfin, associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said.

Chalfin had not explored the SDI plan specifically, but spoke generally about how researchers might judge the success of a policing program using techniques including regression analysis.

Most of the research finds that additional police visibility does have a modest effect on serious crime

- Aaron Chalfin, criminologist  

Regression is a statistical method used to examine the relationship between two or more variables. It helps in understanding how the dependent variable, which you want to predict or explain, changes when one or more independent variables shift.

This technique is widely used across different fields including criminology.

Researchers use random assignment to see the influence of assigning officers to an area that could potentially benefit from greater police visibility.

Chalfin said the priority of police is to make a dent in crime rather than run perfectly controlled analysis. However, he said researchers could examine data before and after a program was initiated to explore whether a plan impacted crime in different areas in a quasi-experimental manner.

According to Chalfin, increased enforcement combined with targeted social services and the resources to work major cases can be part of a diversified portfolio to lower violent crime.

Chicago skyline. (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)Chicago skyline. (Michael Izquierdo / WTTW News)

Looking Toward This Summer

The city presented its summer safety plan as a plan for community safety including economic, housing, health and education components.

Chalfin said carefully targeted investments by the city can be part of the apparatus for crime reduction.

“You really want to invest in the ability to identify the people who are driving the violence, and build cases against them,” Chalfin said. “That can have a big payoff because lethal violence is so concentrated among a small number of people.”

At the beginning of the May 24 news conference on the community plan for summer safety, Mayor Brandon Johnson began by addressing the persistent threat of violence in Chicago.

“In the past year, we have made tremendous strides,” Johnson said. “Murders are down. Shootings are down. But there is still so much work to be done.”

The city spent a year coming up with this safety plan, Snelling said during the news conference. He highlighted a new citywide robbery task force as a new tool for the department in a presentation involving many key city departments and agencies.

“We’re dealing with human beings who have families,” Snelling said about the discussed changes to canceled days off and deployment.

The exact deployment strategies and specific policies to reduce overtime were not detailed during the presentation.

Chicago will continue to use overtime and cancel days off, Snelling said, but will be “judicious” when making these decisions.

Contact Jared Rutecki: @JaredRutecki [email protected]

A Safer City is supported, in part, by the Sue Ling Gin Foundation Initiative for Reducing Violence in Chicago. 

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