Beck Suspends Controversial ‘Merit’ Promotions In Police Department

Who Is Charlie Beck? A Look At Chicago's New Interim Top Cop
Former Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck speaks after being named Chicago's interim police superintendent by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 in Chicago. In one of his first policy decisions Beck announced Tuesday that he would not make any so-called 'merit promotions.' Teresa Crawford / Associated Press
Who Is Charlie Beck? A Look At Chicago's New Interim Top Cop
Former Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck speaks after being named Chicago's interim police superintendent by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 in Chicago. In one of his first policy decisions Beck announced Tuesday that he would not make any so-called 'merit promotions.' Teresa Crawford / Associated Press

Beck Suspends Controversial ‘Merit’ Promotions In Police Department

Interim Police Superintendent Charlie Beck announced to Chicago police officers on Tuesday that he will not be using the department’s longstanding, and controversial, “merit” promotion system during his time leading the department, and will recommend the merit track be disbanded altogether.

Merit promotions, in which supervisors can nominate officers for promotions outside of the traditional exam-based system, were created in response to complaints that the Chicago Police Department’s promotional exams were discriminatory. Now, many officers believe the merit promotions are based on political connections, rather than true merit.

In an email Tuesday to officers, Beck wrote that he continues “to hear that members have been dissatisfied and discouraged by the merit promotion system.”

“Therefore, in consultation with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham, I decided that I will not make any merit promotions during my tenure as Interim Superintendent,” Beck wrote. “I will also recommend that my successor not utilize the merit promotion system and that the department hold promotional examinations every two years in the future.”

Merit promotions have been a part of the Chicago Police Department since the mid 1990s. They were the focus of a lot of officer dissatisfaction when the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the Chicago Police Department in 2016.

The DOJ report said the merit promotion system was a “major” subject of complaints from officers, who told investigators they believe merit promotions “are a reward for cronyism, rather than a recognition of excellence.”

“Many of the officers we spoke with—minority and non-minority alike—told us that they feel merit promotions are not truly based on ‘merit,’ but rather the ‘clout’ you hold in the Department or ‘who you know,’” the DOJ report reads. “This belief undermines officers’ faith in CPD supervisors and their acceptance of CPD’s systems of accountability and supervision.”

The Justice Department also found that CPD does not hold promotional exams often enough, a problem Beck is apparently attempting to address by calling for exams every two years.

It was through the merit promotion system that Chief of Patrol Fred Waller helped elevate an officer with dozens of misconduct complaints when Waller was a district commander.

Despite the fact that the merit promotion system was created to address racial disparities in promotions, a WBEZ investigation this year found black and Latino officers are still far less likely to be promoted than white officers.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.