Larry Snelling, the new pick to lead the Chicago Police Department, is inheriting a mandatory overhaul of the department’s culture and standards — a process that has moved so slowly over the past four years that it’s teetering on failure.
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson announced Snelling as his pick for police superintendent on Sunday. If the pick is approved by City Council, Snelling will take over a department that much of the public doesn’t trust. The force also includes discontented officers scrambling to deal with elevated levels of gun violence. Academics, activists and local residents who have pushed for reform say CPD would do a much better job supporting officers and fighting crime if the city was meeting the obligations laid out in a federal consent decree — a voluminous, court-enforced police reform plan in effect since 2019.
Implementing all of the desired reforms would mean fundamentally altering the makeup of the department and would require bucking a trend of inaction on reform that’s dogged police leadership for nearly a decade. But experts say the changes needed to truly overhaul the department — such as restocking the depleted ranks with reform-focused staffers, increasing the numbers of supervisors and injecting culture change throughout CPD — are largely within the superintendent’s control.
A slow reform process
Chicago has been lurching toward a wholesale cultural change within the police department since the 2015 release of dashcam video showing the police murder of Laquan McDonald. That video, and the outcry that followed, gave birth to multiple inquiries and recommendations, including a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found the Chicago Police Department had demonstrated a pattern of racist, abusive and unconstitutional policing. Those findings ultimately led to the federally-enforced police reform plan known as a consent decree.
However, city leaders were stressing change and a commitment to reform even before the release of the infamous Laquan McDonald video. The rhetoric never yielded meaningful results.
Chicago’s most recent permanent superintendent, David Brown, spoke convincingly about his commitment to the consent decree. But people inside CPD, and experts and attorneys outside the department said his actions never matched his promises, and the unit tasked with consent decree compliance was kept largely siloed from the rest of the department.
Last year, the federal judge overseeing Chicago police reform approved a three-year extension of the consent decree agreement, giving the department until 2027 to attain full compliance with the more than 500 individual requirements. The extension was necessary because of Chicago’s slow progress, which was no doubt exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The most recent report from Maggie Hickey, who was appointed by a federal judge to track and evaluate Chicago’s police reform efforts, painted a grim picture and blasted CPD leadership for failing to take “ownership of reform.”
“We continue to have significant concerns regarding the CPD’s commitment to have constitutional policing and reform efforts lead its crime-fighting strategies,” Hickey wrote in June.
Hickey’s report found Chicago had reached preliminary compliance on most of its consent decree obligations — changes meant to prevent police shootings, guard against racial biases and provide better support for street-level cops — but achieved “full compliance” on just 6%.
The numbers highlight a common complaint from experts and attorneys about the police department’s approach to reform: Police officials are checking boxes but failing to put the changes into practice.
The most recent monitoring report shows that over the years CPD has gotten better at writing policies and designing trainings that prioritize better treatment of residents and seek to avoid violent encounters. For example, CPD changed its use-of-force policy to mandate de-escalation techniques.
But the reports, combined with feedback from residents who live in heavily-policed communities, indicate that any reforms made so far have not translated to the way police interact with the public on a daily basis.
“Reforms are not being felt by the community,” Hickey wrote in the recent report.
Public approval of CPD has dropped since the consent decree went into effect in 2019, according to a community survey of Chicago residents conducted last year by Hickey’s team. The survey of more than 1,000 people found “Chicagoans rated the CPD both less positively and more negatively” on all questions of effectiveness compared to 2020.
Charles Fain Lehman, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, pointed to these survey results in his conclusion that the consent decree failed in Chicago.
Lehman said he believes the problems with policing in Chicago were overstated by protesters in the wake of the Laquan McDonald video release. Lehman’s view is shared by many police officers, including John Catanzara, the controversial head of the union that represents rank-and-file officers.
Lehman noted that even people who do believe CPD needs massive change should be skeptical of the consent decree.
“CPD’s public legitimacy really was suffering in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting. You had stakeholders on all sides saying there’s a real problem with community trust in CPD,” Lehman said. “Part of the goal of this process was to try to remediate that. So if they aren’t changing that perception, that’s a problem for the consent decree process.”
More training officers needed
In addition to diminished public trust in CPD, Snelling will also face sagging morale among rank-and-file officers, which may hamper his ability to reform the department.
Charlie Beck, the former Los Angeles police chief who filled in as interim CPD superintendent before Brown took over, has frequently said that successful reform must come from the ground up, starting with a change in the thinking of cops.
However, based on a review of consent decree monitoring reports, there are straightforward issues that Snelling could address, including a shortage of staffers in the reform unit and the lack of supervisors throughout CPD.
Hickey’s team found inadequate staffing in six separate departments related to reform. One example: A dearth of police trainers means new recruits are often being taught by officers who are only temporarily filling in as instructors and don’t necessarily have the needed qualifications and experience. According to federal court filings, those “lingering challenges” also mean CPD is not meeting the requirement that the department have a 10-to-1 officer to supervisor ratio across the city.
“Staffing challenges … continue to trend in the wrong direction, which not only stalls progress but also undermines the CPD’s ability to maintain hard-earned achievements,” Hickey wrote. “CPD continues to struggle to meet its supervision ratios, which prevents the CPD from providing officers with the internal support that they need to meet the expectations of the CPD, the Consent Decree, and Chicago’s communities.”
Snelling is taking over CPD at a critical time for the city’s reform hopes. In a statement in June, Hickey said the announcement of a new superintendent is “an opportune time for a renewed focus on the consent decree.”
Former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson said this might be the city’s last chance to use the consent decree to fix the relationship between Chicagoans and their police department.
“The performance to date … has left the public, and particularly the most affected communities who are supposed to benefit from the consent decree, with a deep skepticism about whether what they hoped would be the change in the historical experience that they’ve had, whether it’s going to happen at all,” Ferguson said in an interview with WBEZ before Snelling was announced as the new superintendent. “And once faith is lost in the consent decree, then we’re in a bad place.”