What do Chicagoans get for our $1.9 billion? A look inside the numbers of public safety and policing

“Our current state of affairs is the direct consequence of a wholesale failure of competant leadership and public safety.”

— Paul Vallas’s “Public Safety” section on paulvallas2023.com

“This campaign has been laser-focused on making sure voters understand that crime and their safety is Paul Vallas’ top priority.” 

— Joe Trippi, Vallas’s chief strategist, Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 24, 2023

“We are not a city and will never be a city that bows to those arguing for de-funding. That’s not who we are. And that’s not what our residents want.”

— Mayor Lori Lightfoot, October 2021


Today is Election Day, our second straight wide open mayoral election, and one question looms larger for me than any other.

What do we get for our $1.9 billion?

That’s the portion of Chicago’s public safety budget that goes to the police department, 64.3% to be exact. For all of the attention on public safety heading into the election, all of the attention on violent crime, and most of the mayoral candidates — led by Mayor Lightfoot and Paul Vallas — pushing increased policing as the solution, no one can say how we judge the success or failure of that spending. 

Even now, in today’s data-driven era, and three years into our consent decree, no mayoral candidate has provided KPIs on police spending, (a topic that is murky at best), nor data that shows whether we’re meeting those KPIs. This would be relevant in any year, but especially now, when nearly every mayoral candidate along with most Chicago voters have identified “crime” — AKA violent street crime or property crime — as the #1 issue in the city today.

Notably, one new poll from WBEZ, the Sun-Times, NBC5 and Telemundo asked voters for “the most important issue to you in determining your vote in the mayor’s race.” Of the 13 choices (including “other” and “none”), 44% selected “crime & public safety.”

An even newer poll from Illinois Policy Institute asked Chicagoans for their “biggest issue facing Chicago right now.” Seventy-one percent chose “crime.” Another question — “Why would you prefer to leave Chicago?” — resulted in 85% picking “crime or safety.” Asked to state their level of satisfaction on five areas of city life, 75% of respondents said they were “dissatisfied” with how the city handled “public safety.”

These polls bring us back to the question of public safety, and the city’s public safety budget of just over $3 billion. That budget is split into seven line items. The biggest is Chicago Police Department, which in 2023 receives $1.9 billion — $1,943,389,802 to be exact.

That’s 64% of the public safety budget alloted to just one of its seven line items. Of the other six, three are police-related: the Civilian Office of Public Accountability ($15 million) evaluates police misconduct cases, the Chicago Police Board ($588k) handles the actual discipline, while the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability ($3.1 million) evaluates CPD, COPA and the Police Board.

So four of the seven items in “public safety” are either police or police-related, a budget of $1.96 million, or just under 65%. The fire department takes 26% of the budget, administrative duties are 6% and Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which includes 911 and 311, is 3.6%.

In other words, when it comes to public safety, the city puts 65% of its eggs in one basket. And even that’s misleading because, again, 25.5% of the public safety budget goes to the fire department. And no one from Brandon Johnson on the left to Mayor Lightfoot and Paul Vallas on the right is referring to fire safety when they talk about why people don’t feel safe in Chicago.

Paul Vallas in particular says that if elected, one of his first orders of business would be to “rebuild sworn officer staffing from the current 11,710 to the fully appropriated 13,500 level when I was the city of Chicago budget director.” Vallas was budget director from 1990 to 1993, a run that included the city’s highest homicide count in the past 50 years: 1992, with 940.

The way Vallas and Lightfoot tell it, there is a correlation between police funding and public safety. But I’m looking at the numbers and I cannot figure out what it is. Let’s look at sworn officers, homicides and total offenses, clearance rate for both, and the percentage of the public safety budget that goes to police:

Here we have four key years:

  • 1994: the first year without Vallas heading the city budget department
  • 2001: a year with 13,683 sworn officers, above Vallas’s current desired total of 13,500
  • 2010: the final year of the Daley administration
  • 2021: the last year that CPD has its annual report public

Vallas says he wants to get the total of sworn CPD officers up from 11,710 to 13,500, but in 2001 we had 13,683 sworn officers, and the city’s clearance rates for both murders and total criminal offenses were each lower than they were in 1994, when we had nearly 1,000 fewer officers. Of the four selected years, 2010 had easily the lowest murder clearance rate at 33.9%, but we also had easily the fewest murders at 437 — all while having 1,400 fewer officers in 2010 than in 2001, when the clearance rate was 20% higher. 

So we had fewer officers and fewer murders solved, but we also had way fewer murders. I think if you asked most Chicagoans whether they would choose more murders at a higher clearance rate or fewer murders at a lower clearance rate, they would choose the latter.

2021 was one of our most violent years since the 1990s, but the clearance rate was up at 50%. All the while, the police have been somewhere between 63% and 73% of our public safety budget, with the fire department #2 and the emergency communication system a distant #3.

This is the problem with not knowing — or perhaps not having — policing KPIs. It’s nearly impossible to connect police spending to public safety. Admittedly, I’m a budget and police data novice, so if you see errors I’ve made, please tell me. (Hell, even the city’s simple budget infographic is tough to sort out.)

But even a novice can see that in 2023, an under-staffed police department is still two-thirds of our public safety budget — again, 64% this year — at a time when every mayoral candidate and every voter poll says that crime is our #1 issue.

Pro-police candidates like to intertwine police funding as a public safety measure with the wellbeing of individual officers. What we’re seeing now with staffing shortages in CPD, suicides, burnout rate and overtime — to me, those are labor issues that affect individual workers. Workers deserve and demand support. Police are people, and they should not be cranking out shifts day after day after day with no break.

But the wellbeing of individual police officers is separate from addressing the ills of policing. Even stripping away questions in CPD around multiple officers with ties to the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, the problematic gang database, the annual $82 million settlements budget, the history of Jon Burge and the history and present practice of Chicago police violence against civilians, at a base level, policing is part of the public safety budget, meaning it is purportedly designed for public safety. At 65% of the public safety budget, if Chicagoans are not safe, and don’t feel safe, then it makes sense to pause our knee-jerk annual increase in police spending and evaluate what exactly we’re getting for our $1.9 billion.

It’s what voters want too. In August and September of 2020, just after the Jacob Blake shooting and in the continuing aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd, the city released a budget survey, asking Chicagoans how they wanted the city to allocate its budget. The 38,336 respondents were clear: more money for community services, public health and infrastructure, less money for policing:

“We very much value the feedback we’ve gotten from a range of different sources, a survey being one of them,” Lightfoot said after the results were released. “We expect that a lot of feedback will be reflected in the budget that we present to city council.”

And sure enough, CPD’s budget did drop from $1.757 billion in 2020 to $1.699 billion in 2021.

But it jumped back up to $1.879 billion in 2022, and was up again in 2023 to $1.943 billion — up from $1.656 billion when Lightfoot took office.

In September, the city held another public budget engagement meeting, and while the results are more challenging to parse than the 2020 version, the document contains pages and pages and pages of community statements. What jumps out reading those comments are the high number of Chicagoans who just want to see new public safety solutions, with more money spent on education, mental health and public health, and a reduced number of police engagements.

Those are questions that the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability raised in November in its “Annual Report on the Proposed Chicago Police Department Budget.” At a swift 18 pages, the report is worth your time (I pulled some highlights here), but their introductory letter to City Council lays it plain:

“The report raises a number of very serious concerns, including whether the Police Department is using its workforce in a way that is best meeting the city’s public safety needs.”

As history shows, that’s a legitimate concern.

In short, if you’re voting for Mayor Lightfoot because you feel comfortable with an incumbent, or you’re voting for Paul Vallas because he’s playing the white card, and you vibe on his “take back our city” dog-whistle slogan, and you don’t like what you view as “CRT” and the charter school expansion that he’s pushing will help eliminate that, then fine, vote for Lightfoot or Vallas. I don’t have anything I can tell you.

But if you’re voting for Lightfoot or Vallas because “crime” is your #1 issue, and they both say, “We’ll let police do their jobs and we’ll fully fund them” and so forth, then just know: You’re not going to get what you’re voting for. You are not going to get a safer city. Because we already spend 65% of our public safety budget on policing.

When it comes to police KPIs, the onus should be on Vallas, Lightfoot, a range of alderpeople and CPD/FOP to share the metrics on how policing makes communities safer. In a data-driven world, that should be easy to produce.

I don’t know what kind of mayor Brandon Johnson will be. But I want to give him a chance because other than Ja’Mal Green (who I think has great ideas in a vacuum but whom I find unnecessarily combative), Johnson is the one candidate who has been most explicit about funding solutions to crime other than the police. It won’t be a quick fix. It will be, I believe, better in the long run for those of us who plan to raise our families in Chicago.

That’s why I’m voting for Brandon Johnson. He is, at the end of the day, the crime and safety candidate.

Along with a host of links in this story, I recommend Tom Tresser’s book “Chicago Is Not Broke.” If you want to learn how to read our budget — and think critically about our budget, especially TIFs, which I didn’t even mention in this piece — that’s a great primer.

*** March 16, 2023 addendum ***

Since writing this article, I’ve been reading more on police budgets and alternate police strategies, including the 911 re-routing systems that several cities are taking on, including Chicago. Ours is “CARE” and began as a pilot program in 2021. Here is more on these programs nationwide:

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