08/01/2012 11:57 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

While the Meter Runs on the City's Legal Tab, Children Lack Protection

$82 million for public safety.

That's how much Mayor Rahm Emmanuel slashed from the city's budget to reduce the deficit.

The move was one of "the tough decisions to re-invent, re-think how we as a government operate," the mayor told reporters on Monday. "But our work is not done."

In times of bloated budgets and tapped out taxpayers, it's hard to quarrel with the mayor's goal. But what about the impact on residents concerned with Chicago's skyrocketing murder rate?

The $82 million austerity measure means the city will shutter three district police stations, the first such closings in 50 years. And, 1,252 police vacancies won't be filled. Will parents in Englewood, North Lawndale and Austin be forced to rely increasingly on the Nation of Islam to keep their children safe?

Not if the mayor had looked more closely at the city's appropriations, where he would have found the same amount as his safety cutbacks.

$82 million for legal services.

That's how much Chicago has spent to defend police misconduct claims since 2003, according to a report this week in the Sun-Times. About a quarter of the money has gone to fighting torture claims against Commander Jon Burge and his midnight crew. And that's not counting the $29.6 million paid in settlements to Burge's victims or the millions more spent by Cook County government on special prosecutors. For now, however, let's focus on the city's legal tab.

Where did the $82 million go? Apparently, the 270 lawyers who work at taxpayers' expense for the Law Department have better things to do than manage Burge's mess. So the city instead pays private lawyers to argue that the brutal grand inquisitor is, deep down, a beloved officer friendly.

It's outsourcing, Chicago-style. Ten lawyers or their firms have grabbed more than 90 percent of the financial windfall, with the largest slice of the pie -- $20.6 million - going to Andrew M. Hale and his associates. Turns out Hale has a pal in former Corporation Counsel Mara S. Georges, a Rich Daley crony who steered the city's legal business to Hale after working with him in private practice at a clout-heavy private firm.

I know Hale -- from a deposition he took in a Burge torture case my students looked into 12 years ago, finding no game-changers. Smart guy. Aggressive advocate. Well prepared.

Unfortunately, it was a colossal waste of tax dollars for Hale to spend seven hours asking me about issues that had absolutely nothing to do with the prisoner's eventual exoneration and civil rights suit. And, it was troubling to think how much Chicagoans spent to have an assistant corporation counsel observe the meaningless colloquy, contributing only a hypothetical question at day's end.

Riding home, I turned on the news and heard additional details about the June 27 shooting death of yet another black child. Her name was Heaven Sutton, and she was 7 years old, shot in the back during a gang crossfire while she was selling snow cones to her neighbors. Heaven became the 45th school-age murder victim in Chicago this year.

And I wondered: What if the mayor stopped writing checks to defend the indefensible and instead hired the 1,252 cops whose jobs he cut? What if those officers were properly trained and walked the beats of neighborhoods like Heaven's?

Do the math, Mr. Mayor: $82 million for fat-cat lawyers or $82 million to protect the kids?