Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:24:24 PM CST

Top Stories

Uniform Coverage: The price a Chicago police officer must pay

by Meg Handley
June 11, 2009

Meg Handley/MEDILL

Drag and drop the clothing items to dress a Chicago police officer.

Field jacket? $220. Handcuffs? $30. Being a Chicago Police Officer? Pricey.

The policy of police officers purchasing their own equipment dates back to the early 1980s when duty availability and uniform allowances first appeared in union contracts, Chicago police said.

“All officers are given the same uniform allowance,” CPD spokesman Roderick Drew said in an email. Uniform allowances amount to about $1,800 per year paid out quarterly.

“In addition to equipment, the allowance pays for uniform maintenance, upkeep and changes as an officer moves from patrol to specialized units like SWAT,” Drew said.

Besides dress uniforms, officers must also purchase field uniforms and other equipment. Medill takes a look at the price of being a police officer in the table accompanying this article.

Whether they’re patrolling Chicago’s streets or handling the phones at headquarters, much of a police officer’s job involves public perception: that solid and impenetrable wall of blue with each policeman and policewoman outfitted in the instantly recognizable Chicago Police uniform.

But what you might not know is that your neighborhood “Officer Friendly” shells out thousands of dollars for everything from her impeccably pressed shirt to the gun and holster she carries.

And though officers receive an annual equipment allowance of about $1,800, the costs add up quickly. If officers bought just one each of the minimum required equipment – a scenario police spokesman Roderick Drew said isn’t common – the price tag totals nearly $4,000.

“The only thing the city does give them is a bulletproof vest,” said Frank DiMaria, police officer and a vice president of the police union. “I’m on 28 years…it’s always been that way.”

Chicago isn’t alone in its self-armament policy. Other large departments, including New York City and Los Angeles have similar equipment policies. With more than 13,000 sworn officers in its department, Chicago ranks as the second largest police force in the country after New York City, which employs more than 35,000 cops.

The sheer volume of officers makes equipping them expensive and a huge budget strain, said Illinois State Police Director Jonathon Monken.

“The bigger the organization, the harder it becomes to actually budget to purchase all this equipment for the individual officers,” Monken said. “For the Illinois State Police, only having 2,100 officers, it’s actually possible for us to budget that.”

Starting in 2010, the Illinois State Police policy will provide equipment for all incoming state troopers. But Monken is careful to distinguish the Illinois State Police from the Chicago Police Department.

“I’m sure that everybody just assumes, ‘Of course they get issued their gun,’” he said. “But that’s not really the case for a lot of police agencies out there. They don’t have the budget to be able to sustain that.”

Though CPD doesn’t issue standard equipment, officers receive quarterly payments on top of their base salary to help defray the cost of maintaining and replacing equipment, police spokesman Drew said.

More than a dozen uniform and equipment retailers in the Chicago area cater to law enforcement. Police purchase equipment from a prescribed department-compiled list, which many officials say provides the necessary flexibility to accommodate all officers.

“The advantage of the uniform allowance is that it relieves officers of the burden of paying out-of-pocket expenses to maintain [a] professional appearance and have optimal functioning equipment,” Chicago police Sgt. Antoinett M. Ursitti said in an email. “The disadvantage is officers may wish to make a larger purchase, such as a bulletproof vest, and uniform allowances would need to be saved in order to pay for it.”

Though Chicago’s police officers are responsible for selecting and purchasing their own equipment, when it comes to weapons, it’s not a free-for-all. Officers are limited to a department-approved list, DiMaria said.

“It’s a preference market,” he said. “What works for you may not work for the next person so I give them the whole list. They’re allowed to purchase a Smith & Wesson, Sig, Beretta.”

“The consumer has to be comfortable,” DiMaria added.

Though the flexibility of the policy might appeal to police officers, Chicago spent $24 million for uniform allowances this year and critics say the payments are uneconomical and not regulated enough.

Ninth Ward Ald. Anthony Beale -- an outspoken critic of police bonuses, duty availability and uniform allotments -- said giving officers vouchers to replace or update equipment as necessary would be a more responsible way to use city funds.

“Every officer has roll call,” Beale said. “If their superior officer sees that they need a vest, pants, a belt, they would get a voucher for that.”

Beale noted that cities around the country, and even the Chicago Transit Authority, use the voucher system.

“I think it would help taxpayers out in this time of budget crisis,” he said, “but still give them [police officers] the quality uniforms.”

As the economy clambers its way out of the clutches of a debilitating recession, some officials are pushing for changes to the city budget and union agreements that would affect CPD’s equipment policy.

“This is something that needs to be addressed in the contract,” Beale said. “My thing is if we can save the taxpayers money.”

Nevertheless, union representatives remain steadfast about the need for the uniform allowance despite the perennial budget woes of the city.

“Your pants wear out…The prices are very very expensive,” DiMaria said. “They work out in the field and their stuff takes a beating out there, it really does.”