If he hadn’t seen it, Eric Hudson wouldn’t have believed it. Fifteen to 20 young men—gangbangers, he calls them—out on the street as the police cars pulled in.

But instead of scattering in the face of the advancing officers, they stood their ground and began to taunt them.

“They were yelling, ‘Fuck the police, fuck the police,'” says Hudson. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Believe me, I’m no fan of police brutality—but this shit is getting out of hand.”

Hudson had never before seen such brazen defiance in the face of authority, but the incident was far from the first this summer in his corner of Logan Square, near Drake and Cortland. “The gangbangers will shoot off guns or keep us up late or break a window, and we’ll call the police, and they’re slow to respond,” he says. “If they’re openly defiant to police officers, how are ordinary citizens going to be safe? There’s a loss of authority here.”

The apocalyptic worldview Hudson has taken away from these experiences is echoed by a dozen or so police officers I’ve talked to over the last few weeks. They don’t want their names used because they fear retaliation, but they’re surprisingly candid about their growing sense of helplessness.

As they see it, it’s open season on cops—and the cold-blooded murder July 18 of Officer Michael Bailey as he waxed his car in full uniform at six in the morning outside his Park Manor home is just the latest evidence.

“The problem is there’s not enough police on the street—period,” says one senior officer. “I’ve been at this job for 20 years and it’s never been this bad.”

Like so many others in this faltering economy, the police are being asked to do more with less. What the decrease means in terms of public safety is hard to say because there’s been no corresponding statistical crime spike—as Daley and police superintendent Jody Weis continuously remind the public. Even so, common sense says the falling number of beat cops will eventually pose a public safety issue that Chicago must come to terms with.

To count cops, I went through the last few city budgets. The current one—passed by the City Council last fall to govern this calendar year—accounts for 7,413 beat officers. These are the frontline cops, the first responders to 911 emergency calls. I spent the better part of several afternoons counting them—they’re code number 9161 in the budget.

The 2009 budget accounted for 7,813 beat officers, the 2008 budget for 7,976. That was a jump over 2007, but the overall direction has been down. There were over 8,000 beat officers in 2000.

And if there are 7,413 beat officers in the current budget, that doesn’t mean there are 7,413 beat officers on the streets. A budget is nothing more than a projection of what a department expects to pay for in the coming months. The city doesn’t guarantee that it will make good on these projections, and it hasn’t made good on it with beat cops.

Since 2008, 944 police officers have retired, according to the police department’s pension fund. During that same period, only 310 new officers have been hired.

Many of the retirees were 9161s. Others were higher-ranking officers—sergeants, lieutenants, and commanders. The department promotes from within, so those vacancies have largely been filled, if they were filled at all, by 9161s moving up. The only way to replace all those 9161s would be to hire a lot more new cops than the city’s been willing to.

But that’s not clear from the city budget. The police department bean counters are playing an old trick: robbing Peter to pay Paul. They’re letting money be earmarked as salaries for officers who aren’t hired, then spending it on other departmental needs.

(Actually, I’m making an optimistic assumption here that the money’s being spent at all. If the recent report by Chicago’s inspector general on Central Loop TIF expenditures is any indication, the money not being spent on beat cops might just be sitting unnoticed in some bank account.)

“It’s an old trick all right,” says Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti. “They’re using attrition in the force to balance their budget. They don’t fill vacancies and then use the money somewhere else. This stuff’s been going on for years.”

But more aldermen are starting to complain as they get heat from residents over slow police response times. “We get constituent calls saying ‘we need more police,'” says Fioretti. “I’m not the only one. I just came from a closed-door meeting with the mayor’s budget guys. Aldermen were telling him—you’re balancing the budget by not filling vacancies.”

When we take into account the number of vacancies, how many beat cops are there actually on the force? About 6,480, says Mark Donahue, president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police.

But that doesn’t mean there are 6,480 cops on the street at any given time. The real number’s nowhere close.

At least 700 beat cops are usually on disability or medical leave, according to the city. And at least 750 rarely, if ever, see the street. These are the cops inside the stations who answer phones, book suspects, file documents, guard the lockup, and assist the commander. Another 950 are assigned to special units, such as the vice squad, the mobile strike force, and the gang-crimes unit.

“To be fair—and we always want to be fair—the officers assigned to special units are doing important police work,” says Donahue.

Absolutely. But they’re not patrolling the streets. They’re not responding to calls about gang fights, domestics disputes, missing children, unruly house parties, and gunshots fired on Eric Hudson’s corner.

“There are just not enough men in the street,” says Donahue. “The guys who are on the street are running from call to call. This is why it makes them almost ineffective in doing proactive police work, like investigating something that looks suspicious. They’ve just about gelded the beat officer ’cause they’re down in manpower so much.”

Assuming overlap in the three groups above—for example, officers in special units on medical leave, and the possibility that attrition might have diminished those groups, I generously estimated that there are about 5,000 beat officers on the streets. The police work three shifts, so that would be 1,666 beat officers out at any given time—minus everyone who’s got the day off or is taking vacation.

Then a high-ranking police insider showed me some documents. On a recent day shift, there were fewer than 1,100 officers actually working the streets. Compare this force of first responders with the 75,000 gang members the police estimate are out there. “We’re outmanned,” says this officer.

I called and e-mailed police spokesman Roderick Drew for comment, even sending a list of specific questions, but at press time there’d been no response.

The same staffing declines are occurring with other positions, like detectives. Don’t get cops started on that subject. “We don’t have enough detectives,” says the senior officer.

If fewer cops on the street means fewer crimes prevented, fewer detectives means fewer crimes solved. One shortage feeds the other. Clearance rates, meaning the percentage of cases where a suspect is charged, have been steadily falling. In 2001 the clearance rate for murders was 54.2 percent. In 2008, the latest year for which the department has released numbers, it was 37.4 percent.

As election time approaches, Mayor Daley’s walking a thin line on this issue, and he knows it. According to the Chicago Tribune, roughly half the respondents to a recent poll by the newspaper said they felt “Chicago’s crime problem is growing worse.” But as Daley also knows, with the city facing a $650 million deficit he won’t have the money to fill all the police vacancies unless he jacks up property taxes. And he’s not going do that before February. (Whether he’ll do it after the election is another story.)

At a press conference on August 3, Daley and Weis tried to reassure the public by pointing to a falling crime rate as evidence that high-profile crimes such as the murder of Michael Bailey aren’t indicative of a spiraling problem.

“Despite reading the screaming headlines and the nonstop coverage that these violent incidents receive—as well they should—the fact is that the decline in violence over the past two decades is significant,” Weis told reporters.

And to make sure that nobody thought he or his superintendent were unsympathetic to crime victims, Daley had this to say the next day: “As a father and grandfather, I share in the pain of those who have lost loved ones and friends to violence. I’m not satisfied that the numbers show that homicides are far fewer than a decade ago.”

Crime statistics can be misleading as budget statistics. The murder rate is down in Chicago—as it is in cities all over the country—for a host of reasons, experts say.

“Since 1990, there’s been a tremendous decline in crime throughout the country—so you would expect Chicago’s crime rates to go down,” says Bernard Harcourt, a law and criminology professor and poli-sci department chair at the University of Chicago and the author of several books on crime and policing. “Factors that affect crime tend to be part of a national phenomenon, like youth demographics and economic conditions and incarceration and drug usage.”

Is it possible that the number of police on the street actually has little impact on the numbers of crimes committed?

Experts say no. “In general, I think police get too much blame when things go wrong and too much credit when things go right,” says Craig Futterman, a U. of C. law professor who has studied law enforcement issues and served as a trial attorney in the juvie division of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. “It would be silly to say, ‘Hey, get rid of the police and we’ll be good.'”

Futterman and Harcourt say that as more criminals get away with more crimes, a sense of fearlessness sets in. “Most research shows a correlation between higher number of cops and lower crimes,” says Harcourt. “I’m a critic of the broken-window policing strategy where you crack down on minor crimes with the idea that that will lead to a drop in more serious crimes, like murder. To me it’s the general feeling of the police presence that’s important.”

The real fear is that if police cuts continue, the proverbial tipping point will be reached when everyone in town—bad guys included —realize the city’s underpoliced. From Eric Hudson’s perspective, we’ve already reached that point. For him it started last summer, when “gangbangers” moved into a house on his block. In the last few months, he says, there’s been persistent gunfire and open drug dealing almost every day.

Hudson has repeatedly called the police, and he’s sure the gangbangers know it. At around midnight on July 22 he was walking his dog when “five guys surrounded me and started hassling me. One of them said, ‘We’re fucking gangsters—we run this corner. We run this neighborhood.'”

After they let him go, Hudson called the police, but by the time officers responded—about half an hour later, he estimates—the group had dispersed. He sent an e-mail to his CAPS sergeant wishing the police could be more diligent in handling his complaints, and the next day officers from the 14th District gang squad arrested two of Hudson’s neighbors. They were charged with assault.

The problem isn’t with the police in his district, says Hudson—he thinks they generally do a good job. There just aren’t enough of them. It’s a problem cited by every police officer I’ve talked to. “You’re running from call to call,” says one lieutenant who’s been on the job more than 20 years. “There’s no time for proactive police work, like doubling back on a hot spot.”

The showdown Hudson witnessed, when the hoodlums stood their ground against and cursed the police, was July 25, two days after the arrests. “Every weekend something happens,” says Hudson. “This is hell.”

On September 9 Hudson will have to go to court to testify against his neighbors. “This is not some abstract discussion we’re having—this is real, we’re living under this,” he says. “Weis says the murder rate’s going down and I’m supposed to be happy with that? OK, so we haven’t been killed yet. But what about people living in terror ’cause of gangs? I know our neighborhood is not alone here. If it’s like this in Logan Square, what’s it like on the west and south sides?”

In the last few weeks, Daley has proposed setting aside money in next year’s budget to hire 100 new police officers. But officers tell me the department should really hire 1,000 just to keep pace with the rate of retirement. That would cost the city upwards of $60 million.

Where would we ever find that kind of money? Well, our old friend the tax increment financing program (you knew I’d get there sooner or later) collects about $500 million a year in property tax dollars.

Now, I’m not telling Donahue and other FOP leaders how to do their job. But they might take a page from the Chicago Teachers Union, whose newly elected president, Karen Lewis, is demanding that CPS pull out of the TIF game to free up an estimated $250 million a year for the city’s classrooms.

The Daley administration estimates it has about $700 million in unspent TIF money sitting in various accounts. If Mayor Daley were to clear those accounts to pay current bills, most of the money would be divided among the Chicago Public Schools, the Park District, Cook County, and other taxing bodies. The city would be left with about $140 million for the police and other basic services. And if the TIF program were ended, each year the city would get roughly $100 million more.

That could pay for a whole bunch of police officers.   

Hear Ben Joravsky discuss this and his other articles with journalist Dave Glowacz at http://mrradio.org/theworks.