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Amid record violence, Chicago's Rahm Emanuel to hire more police officers

Chicago has historically had a high per capita rate of police officers, but after the deadliest month in 20 years, city officials are asking if more might still be needed.

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Diann Aldridge hugs her grandchildren, Summer, (l.), 12, Sincere (r.), 10, and Shavae (c.), 8, during a vigil for their mother, Nykea Aldridge, at the Willie Mae Morris Empowerment Center, Sunday afternoon, in Chicago. Ms. Aldridge, a mother of four, and the cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade, was pushing her baby in a stroller near a school where she'd planned to register her children when she was shot in the head and arm.

Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times/AP

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Chicago is in the midst of a wave of violence unseen for years, if not decades, and opinions are varied as to how to tackle it. Central to the debate is the city’s police force.

Up until this point, in an effort to address the spiraling crime, the answer has largely been to call upon police officers to work deep stretches of overtime, an approach that has both proponents and critics. Now, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Rahm Emanuel, the city’s mayor, is choosing a different tack – hiring hundreds of new officers.

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“It’s less of a change in strategy and more of a response to this incredible streak of gun violence,” the mayor’s city council floor leader, Pat O’Connor, told the Times. “By doing this, we hope to begin to get control of the gun violence that seems to grow all the time.”

The month of August saw 90 homicides in Chicago, more than the city has seen in any month since August 1996. A total of 472 people were victims of shootings, an average of more than 15 people each day.

The murders are blamed largely on gang violence, and, in an effort to rein in the crime, the city spent a record sum of $116.1 million on police overtime. This reflected a strategy to address the increasing shortfall in officer numbers as retirements outpaced new hires.

Supporters of the approach underscore the financial savings, pointing out that by having the same number of officers simply working more hours, there are no additional costs of pensions and benefits that would need to be found for new recruits. Moreover, for many officers, the additional income is welcome.

Yet there is a balance to be found, as many observers acknowledge: Too much overtime can lead to officer burnout and an increasingly unbalanced and unhealthy lifestyle, which serves neither the officers themselves nor those they serve.

The next question to decide is how many extra officers Chicago needs. According to the Chicago Justice Project, a nonprofit that promotes evidence-based reforms, the city has consistently had the highest number of officers per capita, alongside New York, when compared with some of the nation’s biggest metropolitan areas, including Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Yet its homicide figures have also been the highest, highlighting the fact that a multitude of factors needs to be considered when determining the right number of officers for a given city.

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When Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago came to office, he promised to hire 1,000 extra officers, a pledge that has since been amended and adapted to save money. Ald. Ray Lopez, who represents part of Chicago's South Side – one of the areas suffering most from the surge in violence – says it is time for that original promise to be fulfilled.

"We have to decide if having our streets fully protected, if having our streets be places where children can come out without getting a bullet in their stomach just by sitting on the porch is worth paying for," Alderman Lopez told the Times.