CHICAGO -- Hundreds of Chicago police officers are hitting the streets on overtime every night in dangerous neighborhoods, the latest tactic by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration to reduce killings in a city dogged by its homicide rate and heartbreaking stories about honor students and small children caught in the crossfire.
The decision by Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy last month to put small armies of officers working overtime in specific "hot zones" corresponds with a notable drop in homicides in the nation's third-largest city in February and March. But the latest "Violence Reduction Initiative" raises concerns about whether the policy is sustainable for the financially struggling city and whether it could further strain officers working long hours at a stressful and dangerous job.
If it continues, the tactic would cost millions of dollars each month – putting the one initiative on pace to exceed the department's entire overtime budget by fall.
Some Chicago officials even wonder if the decline in violence has less to do with the extra officers and more to do with colder weather compared to last winter, when a spike in murders generated national attention.
McCarthy is careful not to say the increased patrols directly caused the drop in a homicide rate that climbed past the 500 mark last year and spiked again in January higher than 40 for the first time in more than a decade.
"This is not a cure for cancer, not the salvation," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It is another tactic we are using to address violent crime."
Aldermen who represent the worst afflicted neighborhoods are openly questioning whether the overtime effort will work. Some wonder whether the city can keep it going through the hotter summer months when gang violence tends to spike.
"I don't know if this is sustainable. What happens in May, June and July?" said Alderman Howard Brookins, Jr., who has grown increasingly critical of police efforts since the city suffered more than 40 homicides in January, including the slaying of a 15-year-old honor student about a mile from President Barack Obama's Chicago home.
McCarthy said he was pleased with the efforts of the 200 officers working nightly on overtime to patrol what police have identified as crime "hot zones." He said he hoped to expand it to 400 officers and 40 sergeants a day and members of the department say the number of officers working extra shifts is now approaching that number.
The city recorded 14 homicides last month, half the number from February 2012 and the lowest monthly total since the 12 homicides in January of 1957, McCarthy said. That trend has continued, with the number of homicides between Feb. 1 and March 19 totaling 23 compared to 57 for the same period last year.
McCarthy said the overtime effort was patterned after what was done in New York with uniformed foot patrols when he was a high-ranking member of that city's police department. It is designed to deploy officers to specific spots where computer analysis shows a high percentage of the city's violent crimes have occurred in the last three years.
Just what all this is costing Chicago is unclear, since neither the police department nor City Hall has released the overtime tab. But Brookins said officers have told him they are earning $350 for every shift they work. That means that if 400 officers a night are working overtime, the tab for the city is just under $1 million a week. And that means that this single initiative could eat the equivalent of the department's entire $32 million overtime budget by the fall.
When asked about the figure, the police department didn't dispute it but declined to provide other numbers.
The NATO summit last year provides a glimpse at how much police overtime can add up. Officers earned an extra $14 million in overtime that weekend alone, though the federal government reimbursed it.
City officials believe it is worth whatever cost. Since the spike in murders, the city also has demolished dozens of abandoned buildings believed to be gang hangouts and signed a $1 million contract with a group that uses convicted felons to mediate gang conflicts. Although it has previously spent extra money on officer overtime, it was at a far lower scale than the current effort.
"Right now one of the biggest priorities is to change the appearance of the city of Chicago," said Alderman Willie Cochran, a former police officer. "We have to change the news stories."
Others express doubt that the overtime initiative is mainly responsible for success on the streets. Some officers quietly talk about the recent weeks of snow, rain and frigid temperatures, jokingly thanking "Officer Weather" for keeping people off the streets.
"I hope the number (of homicides) is real and not based on worse weather in February than we had in January," Brookins said. "If it is a real number, kudos to the superintendent."
McCarthy said the initiative makes sense both financially and tactically.
"It's cheaper to pay a cop overtime than to hire a fully loaded cop with health benefits," he said. "Second, we can do it right now; we don't have to hire somebody and wait" several months for the officers to be trained.
As to the idea of burning through his overtime budget far before the end of the year, McCarthy said Emanuel has assured him money will be there for him to protect the city.
"I have an overtime budget, but the mayor freed up other moneys to do this," he said.
The $32 million allotted for police overtime is $3 million more than was allotted for overtime the year before but more than $1.7 million less than what was spent in 2011. Emanuel has not spelled out where the money would come from if and when the department burns through its own overtime budget.
What it all is costing the officers themselves is also a question that's being asked, with some on the force quietly expressing concerns about officers burning themselves out before the summer.
"Working long hours takes a toll on one's body," said Mike Shields, the president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, who has been calling on the city to hire more officers.
Brookins said many officers are signing up for as much overtime as they can.
"They're loving this," he said.