As president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, Mark Donahue isn’t happy about any of the scores of vacancies in the Chicago Police Department. But he’s particularly frustrated that the department hasn’t filled more than 100 openings for field training officers who provide rookie cops with on-the-street training, and he’s outraged that the program has just been scaled back further.

“What they’ve implemented for field training officers is probably going to devastate the entire training program,” Donahue says.

As much as the union and elected officials love to talk about putting more police on the street, training and deployment strategies typically have a far greater impact on law enforcement than a handful of extra cops. And Donahue says that when the field training program is working right, the training officers can show inexperienced police how to work with the community—a key to improving relations as well as reducing crime.

But in a year when murders are up, deadly clashes between police and civilians still happen regularly, and the department rank and file is suffering low morale, the department only had 149 field training officers on the payroll as of August, well under the 267 called for in this year’s budget.

Worse, Donahue says, the department recently decided to cut in half the number of police districts that use the field training program—it’s now down to just six of the city’s 25. That’s a huge disincentive, according to Donahue, since most veteran cops would have to transfer to a new district to participate. 

“As many as 50 percent of training officers are going to be resigning because of the stipulations they’ve put on them,” Donahue says. “It’s unthinkable that the department would make such a decision.”

I’d like to report what the department’s take on this is, but no one from its news affairs division responded to my call.

The backdrop for all of this, of course, is the city’s $420 million budget hole, which will likely require hundreds of layoffs, unfilled positions, and early retirements to plug–though the Daley administration hasn’t been saying much about it. Some aldermen, though, are quietly suggesting that Donahue’s union could pay for a few more jobs if it were willing to give up a few costly perks. On top of their regular pay, officers receive $730 every three months for “duty availability”—that is, simply being on call, even though they get additional overtime pay if they actually have to take an extra shift. They receive another $600 every three months to pay for new uniforms, and they can take a check for any furlough time they deserve but don’t use. These benefits add up to about $73 million a year.

“Apparently the aldermen grumbling about such things don’t see the hypocrisy of their grumblings,” Donahue says. “The average police officer coming out of the police academy onto the force is going to make an investment of $7,000 to $9,000 dollars—the department doesn’t buy the uniform, doesn’t buy the guns, doesn’t buy the shoes. What would the aldermen say if we proposed cutting the money for their staff and expenses?”