Why are towns cutting police officers?

  • Besides the six officers Prospect Heights recently laid off, the village had to close the police station to the public and post signs on the front door of the building instructing visitors what to do if they needed assistance.

      Besides the six officers Prospect Heights recently laid off, the village had to close the police station to the public and post signs on the front door of the building instructing visitors what to do if they needed assistance. BARBARA VITELLO | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/12/2010 11:41 PM

Once considered sacred cows of municipal budgets, police departments around the Chicago suburbs these days are more akin to ground chuck.

A number of communities are cutting police staffing in an effort to reduce citywide costs. In past years, municipal leaders usually cut evenly throughout all departments. In some cases the cuts were deeper in other departments to spare public safety departments the pain. But not this time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Last year we laid off in our public works department," said Anne Marrin, Prospect Heights city administrator. "But the fact of the matter is police departments, not just in Prospect Heights, are the largest portions of all these budgets."

Prospect Heights recently axed six officers. Those cuts came after an arbitrator said the police union's contract forbids the village from requiring the officers to take 30 furlough days a year like the rest of the village's employees. Though the officers voted they were willing to take the furlough days, the arbitration ruling was binding and the cuts had to be made, Marrin said. The department lost almost a third of their sworn officers.

"This broke our hearts to have to do this," she said.

Municipal leaders all take aim at the police union's unbending negotiating tactics as the cause for the cuts, but union officials say police departments are an easy scapegoat because of their union contracts.

"I'm seeing an inordinately abundant number of police officers being laid off when the economy seems to be on an upswing," said Tamara Cummings, Illinois Fraternal Order of Police labor attorney. "I find it unusual and I find it troubling, especially in a place like Naperville where the community is pretty well off and there's millions of dollars in the general fund."

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Naperville also recently cut six police jobs. The layoffs came less than a week after the city council approved a new police union contract. City officials said they warned union representatives the staffing cuts would come if concessions weren't made.

"This new contract gives them $2.6 million more than we have," said Naperville City Councilman Dick Furstenau. "Those were the first in line. I would bet my last bottom dollar we're going to see more personnel changes."

Cummings believes the cuts were made to "send a message" to other unions that are getting set to renegotiate contracts in Naperville.

Aurora city officials are also talking cuts if the police union doesn't make concessions. Sleepy Hollow had to cut overnight patrols. Lake in the Hills laid off two officers and demoted a sergeant to cuts costs earlier this month. Wheeling had discussed cutting five jobs late last year. Arlington Heights and Palatine officials are also looking to make cuts that could reduce police personnel numbers.

Data from the state police union shows 80 officers have lost their jobs statewide over the last year.

"We're now in the third year of the Great Recession and these local governments have been experiencing the double whammy of the decline of their revenue sources and the state's own fiscal crisis," said Laurance Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan group that monitors and analyzes government budgets. "Most forward-looking municipalities have already made significant changes in non-public safety budgets. It's very likely municipal leaders have very little options than to look at public safety now."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, extra funding from state and federal resources was also significantly more abundant than it is these days. When combined with a dip in the normal funding sources, the loss of public safety grants has made it more difficult to find revenue to pay for public safety costs, officials said.

"You were able to get all kinds of grants, funding and support for training and staffing after 9/11," Marrin said. "That just isn't available anymore."

Crime statistics aren't available for 2010 yet and only a small number of Chicago suburbs are listed in the 2009 Uniform Crime Report compiled by the FBI, but those reports don't show a significant uptick in crime from 2008 to 2009.

Naperville police officials said they have not experienced an increase in crime nor an increase in calls for service over the past two years since they've begun reducing staff.

While Cummings admits she hasn't seen any hard data, she has heard from officers in departments she represents that crime is increasing.

"I don't know what the actual specifics are, but I'm hearing about a lot more crime," she said. "I think in most places the perception is crime is increasing."