The Chicago Police Department had 18 officers who collected $100,000 or more in comp time in 2020, with most of them retiring. (Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

In the old days, companies would give employees a gold watch at retirement to reward their decades of service. Chicago Police have a different incentive that often puts the timepiece tradition to shame.

The department paid out more than $33 million in compensatory time in 2020, according to data compiled for the Illinois Public Salaries Database via a public records request. 

This included 18 former employees who each collected $100,000 or more in comp time, most of whom were headed to retirement. The top earner in the department, a sergeant previously assigned to the detective bureau with 25 years on the force, cashed in more than $300,000 in extra pay before putting in for his pension, When combined with his regular salary, he made twice what Supt. David Brown was paid in 2020, records show.

These payments are guaranteed by contracts and are dwarfed each year by the total amount of overtime paid to police — which was $187.6 million in 2020. As Chicago police face canceled days off amid growing concerns over crime, some cops view these payments as both an incentive for their service and compensation for the years not spent with their families.

Total comp time payments rose 11.7% between 2018 and 2020, according to city payroll records. On average, an officer receiving these payments collects about $15,000.

Comp time is a type of overtime benefit available to city employees but earned mostly by police in the city of Chicago. Officers who work more than their scheduled days or hours in a given shift are given a choice between collecting overtime immediately or saving it as a credit. It can be used as compensation for days off or in place of sick time. There is no limit to the amount of comp time an officer can save, and no limit to the amount they can cash out when they retire. Typically, in private industry, employees cannot bank a career’s worth of comp time and cash out when they leave but rather need to use it by a certain deadline.

While other city departments can get comp time, no other department accumulates it like CPD. In 2020, all of the other city departments combined received $2.8 million in comp time. The Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which oversees the city’s 911 center,  paid about $750,000 in comp time in 2020.

Most of the 18 officers collecting six-figure comp time payouts could not be reached for comment or did not return messages.

Those who were reached described a department where many find it difficult to take time off with staffing shortages throughout the ranks. They remember regularly being denied time off. Some view it as the cost of keeping the city safe. 

Comp time is a type of overtime benefit available to city employees but earned mostly by police in the city of Chicago. (Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

One of the retired officers, who asked not to be named, saw the money as a way to help pay for his child to go to college.

As the CPD continues to struggle to recruit new officers to its ranks and police retirements surge, no one expects the comp time or the overall overtime problems to lessen any time soon.

Ralph Martire, the executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said the staffing shortages are fueling the large overtime figures. 

“Part of the reason so much is spent on overtime is because they don’t have enough police officers,” Martire said. “Right now, the city says it wants to have 9,000 on full-time patrol. They are short 271 officers. That personnel shortage will end up raising the bill for overtime.”

City staffing has been decreasing for decades, he said. 

Martire suggested a cautious outlook on what some view as inflated police salaries. “If you adjust for inflation, the current 2023 budget is actually 1% less than it was in 2017.” 

Salaries are only one part of the total expenditure for the police department, a cost which also includes health insurance, pensions and lawsuits.

“When you have a public service focused on emergencies, funding plans are not going to be able to predict how officers will be used in all situations,” Martire said.

Another culprit for increased costs for the police department, Martire notes, is insufficient pension contributions over the years. 

The median annual pension for a retired officer was about $64,000 in 2021. Comp time benefits and overall overtime are not included as part of the final rate of earnings to calculate a Chicago police officer’s pension.

The latest funding figures from the Illinois General Assembly’s bipartisan commission estimated the funding ratio for the pension to be 23.1% for the 2020 fiscal year.

Not all of the comp time payments were going to officers collecting a pension. Marco DiFranco received about $150,000 in comp time, which was paid as a death in the line of duty benefit, according to records and the DiFranco family attorney. DiFranco was the first reported Chicago police officer to die of COVID-19. His family has filed a $1 million wrongful death claim against the city, which is pending.

While rising crime was a common narrative during the COVID-19 quarantine, many opposed to the massive total of police spending believe it would be more economical for the city to fund mental health services and invest in communities in place of law enforcement. Protesters appeared in City Hall during police budget hearings in October.

The 2022 budget appropriation for the police department was about $1.9 billion, about 11% of the city total. The 2023 budget appropriates about $100 million for overtime and about $25 million for comp time. Increases in projected overtime represent a 1% increase from the previous year as a percentage of the budget.

The Mayor’s Office, the Office of Budget Department, the Police Department and the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund all declined to offer insight into comp time use by police.

The police department said in general: “We understand how important it is to ensure public safety while also being fiscally responsible. We will continue to review our deployment procedures to ensure sufficient and effective use of resources.”

The 2023 city budget appropriates about $100 million for police overtime and about $25 million for comp time. (Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

Police work can be demanding, as evidenced by public reports of suicide in the ranks. And morale is low, as many note while pointing to low counts of homicide cases being solved by Chicago police.

“There is a correlation between staffing and your case closure rates,” Martire said. “The ability of police to respond to emergency calls, and reducing stress to keep police officers in a better frame of mind, is important to fix this.” 

A November investigation by the Office of the Inspector General identified numerous flaws preventing CPD from meeting officer wellness needs and showed a lack of recognition of these problems from command staff. The department issued a timeline for fixing some of these issues within six months. 

Another OIG investigation into cancellation of off days for police and days worked in a row released in August highlighted a number of issues with officers being able to take time off and being forced to work for days without breaks. Brown announced a new policy limiting days that could be canceled following the publication’s release.

The department response to the report said they would continue “to work with the labor organizations representing members to strike the appropriate balance between officer time off and public safety.”

Jared Rutecki was an investigative reporter and data coordinator at the Illinois Answers Project (previously known as the Better Government Association) from 2016 to 2023.