Can The Right Superintendent Fix What’s Wrong With Policing In Chicago?
The last time the city of Chicago replaced its police superintendent, the dashcam footage of a police officer shooting down teenager Laquan McDonald was like a fresh wound on the city.
Community trust in the police was shattered.
The morale of officers had never seemed lower, their very willingness to fight crime in question.
Gun violence was soaring.
In March 2016, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel rejected outsider candidates for superintendent and tapped then-Patrol Chief Eddie Johnson, who had not even applied for the job. He was a Chicagoan. He had worked his way up the ranks. He had credibility inside the department.
Under Johnson, the city’s homicides and shootings have both returned to pre-2016 levels, and the city has entered into a sweeping police-reform plan. But Chicago’s murder rate still stands out among the nation’s largest cities. And CPD still faces deep community distrust, thanks to a legacy of abusive policing that dates back as long as anyone can remember.
Now that Johnson is stepping down after three-and-a-half years at the helm, the demands for the next superintendent are largely the same as they were for him: restore community trust, rebuild officer morale and reduce gun violence.
Experts say to achieve all three of those goals will require transforming the CPD, starting with remaking an entrenched department culture that devalues its officers and the people they police.
But that same culture, along with CPD’s sheer size, will make it difficult for any single leader to have a comprehensive, lasting impact.
It now falls to Mayor Lori Lightfoot — with the help of the entity she once led, the Chicago Police Board — to decide who is up to the task.
The challenges of the job are made clear by the disparate attributes people say are needed for it.
Some say it’s essential the pick have a history of rooting out racism and violence. Others warn that a superintendent who doesn’t project unwavering support for officers will devastate the department.
Local officials want someone who knows the city and will slide right in to the current set up. But outside experts say Chicago needs a transformational leader who has the experience and willingness to explode the status quo.
Whoever it is, the next superintendent will need the experience and know-how to be the CEO of an organization with an annual budget of nearly $1.8 billion, and a staff of 14,700 that includes some 1,500 middle managers between the top cop and the officers on patrol.
Those demands and organizational obstacles make picking the right person for the job even more critical.
“It is a hugely important position for people who care both about addressing systemic racism in the city and also about public safety issues,” Northwestern University law professor Sheila Bedi said.
The biggest culture issue facing the next CPD superintendent is race. That is partly because the police department, despite rapid expansion under Johnson, is actually less African American than it was before his arrival.
It’s also because of resistance from the department’s mostly white veteran officers.
“There was a lot of diversity training and cultural sensitivity training that came in under [Johnson’s] watch,” said Frank Giancamilli, who worked closely with the superintendent for two-and-a-half years as a department spokesman. “But you can only train someone out of their mindset so much.”
On top of that, former Superintendent Garry McCarthy said some of those veteran officers are in positions of power because of political connections rather than good police work.
“It’s not that everybody in the department is political,” McCarthy said, listing the obstacles to change at CPD. “But there are the haves and the have-nots, and the in-crowd and the out-crowd, and how you advance is based upon which crowd you’re in.”
The result, McCarthy said, is a department filled with supervisors more concerned with their own prospects than with the officers they’re overseeing, making it hard for any superintendent to make changes.
Another challenge, McCarthy said, is trying to instill discipline and to change CPD’s culture when the city’s police-accountability system includes two entities outside the superintendent’s control. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability investigates many types of misconduct. The Police Board makes the final decision on the most serious cases.
Still, policing experts say, there are things Chicago’s next superintendent can do to change the department’s culture.
Virginia Gleason, a deputy director of the Oakland, Calif., police department, said the top cop can convey this message to show what officers stand to gain: “Ways that we have been operating are now going to be different and we want to help you either have the skillset to get there or to be able to manage the change better.”
Gleason, a former prosecutor who has worked in four police departments, said it helps when officers “see that the superintendent is a believer in the reform and wants to help everyone get through it.”
Giancamilli, the former CPD spokesman, said the next superintendent can develop consensus for change by taking a page from Johnson’s book.
“He would gather a few officers that were in a district station and just chat with them about some ideas that we had or a policy change coming up,” Giancamilli said. “He’d ask for their opinions and say, ‘Right now you’re not talking to the police superintendent. You’re talking to another police officer. I really want to know what you think about this.’ ”
Kevin Graham, president of the union that represents rank-and-file Chicago cops, said the most important trait for the next superintendent is that he or she cares about officers.
“They have to know that they are going to be treated fairly and that somebody is watching their back,” Graham said.
Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th Ward, said the next superintendent will also need experience inspiring officers.
“You can be as smart as everything and if you can’t get these officers to follow you, you’re in trouble,” Burnett said. “I give Eddie Johnson a lot of credit. A lot of folks don’t recognize that after the Laquan McDonald thing … a lot of police did not want to work. They didn’t want to do anything because they felt like everyone was against them. It took a great coach to motivate them to continue to do the job.”
From outside or within?
A hot-button topic anytime Chicago leaders search for a superintendent is whether the leader comes from outside the department or inside.
Bedi, the Northwestern law professor, said there is no one inside CPD with a proven record as a change agent.
“It will be critical that the next leader has some experience with turning around the culture of police departments, that the leader is somebody who has embraced the idea that the power of police departments needs to be limited if we are going to get a handle on police violence and racism in Chicago,” Bedi said.
McCarthy, who ran for mayor against Lightfoot, said she ought to select “a proven leader” who has experience managing crises and fending off political pressure in a big-city department. He suggested the next superintendent be someone from outside of Chicago who can “bring a different way of thinking here.”
But putting an outsider in charge can meet stiff resistance from officers.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward, a former Chicago police officer, said both McCarthy and his predecessor, Jody Weis, who served from 2008 to 2011, “were never embraced by the city of Chicago and [never] embraced by the department.”
“I've always been very partial to having superintendents come from within the ranks,” said Taliaferro, who chairs the City Council’s public-safety committee. “They know the city, they know the people of the city, they know the department, they know the officers. But most importantly, they've served the city, and that means a whole lot to me.”
As the next superintendent grapples with CPD’s internal culture, he or she will face another set of challenges: Building trust with communities to help solve crimes and prevent them from happening in the first place.
Eddie Bocanegra, head of the anti-violence program READI Chicago, praised Johnson for work with community groups like his, which employs ex-offenders to reach out to gang members.
Police departments, Bocanegra said, “have not always been very receptive to really working with this population.”
“It just really has helped my staff and our partners in these communities who are doing street outreach to just have a better rapport with [the police],” he said.
Bocanegra urged Lightfoot to build on that approach.
But retired Detective Lesara Hair, who spent years in a South Side special-victims unit, said CPD superintendents have limited influence when it comes to strengthening community ties.
“Every one we get says, ‘Trust me, I’m going to change everything,’ ” Hair said. “But having a good relationship with the public is clearly not something that a superintendent can achieve by themselves. They can’t make people like the police. They can’t make people trust the police.”
Hair said what’s needed are more community leaders stepping up with a message to their people: “Trust the police. Like the police. You guys aren’t enemies. You all are on the same side.”
Ariel Atkins, an activist with Black Lives Matter Chicago, takes a different view: It does not matter much who takes the CPD helm.
“There wouldn’t be a need for police if we actually provided resources for the people that are struggling,” Atkins said. “A lot of crimes that people are being held for are crimes of survival.”
Gleason, the Oakland police official, suggested that Chicago’s next superintendent find opportunities for police officers to express how the city’s violence affects them personally.
“They see how much the public is hurting and it hurts them too,” Gleason said. “Having a command [staff] that really values that piece of healing together with the public would do a lot toward developing those relationships.”
Gleason said she suspects there is a link between the city’s gun violence and CPD’s high number of officer suicides. Over the last year, at least eight Chicago cops have killed themselves.
Alexa James, executive director of Chicago’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the city’s police officers “don’t feel like people have their back.”
“They are experiencing a lot of trauma and a lot of tragedy and a lot of heartache, and they don’t always have the support that they need,” James said. “Officers are hearing publicly, ‘Your wellness is important, we care about you, you’re not alone.’ But then their days off get canceled or then there’s policies that come down that they feel are negatively impacting them.”
Still, James credits Johnson for “significant efforts in talking about officer wellness” and said his replacement should be someone who will build on that work.
“I just don’t want to lose any ground with new leadership,” James said. “I’d want somebody who is just as engaged in crime fighting and violence prevention as they are at taking care of their own. To lose that, I think, would be devastating.”