A top Cook County official was fired last month because of his work as a Chicago police commander, WBEZ has learned.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced Nov. 18 that Ernest Brown was no longer the executive director of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Preckwinkle has remained tight-lipped about why Brown left, but sources close to her say she dismissed him after reading an article that argued a code of silence protected corrupt cops working under him.
Brown commanded the Chicago Police Department’s Public Housing Section from 2000 to 2002. During that time, there were several investigations of his officers.
One of the probes led to the 2001 arrests of Sgt. William Patterson and Officer Daryl Smith for stealing $20,000 and five bricks of what they thought was cocaine. The cops were convicted the following year and sentenced to federal prison — Patterson for more than 24 years, Smith for 10.
Another public-housing sergeant who was investigated during Brown’s command of the section was arrested in 2012 for stealing drug money from what turned out to be an FBI informant. Sgt. Ronald Watts and an officer he supervised, Kallatt Mohammed, both pleaded guilty in the case.
Journalist and advocate Jamie Kalven, who wrote the article, became familiar with some of Brown’s officers while working in a housing development they patrolled.
“Under the leadership of Brown, some of the most abusive officers operated with complete impunity,” Kalven told WBEZ.
Brown, responding to WBEZ questions about his dismissal, wrote that he had “no knowledge” of Patterson’s corruption “until the day he was arrested.”
Regarding Watts, Brown wrote that “there were rumors of an investigation … for quite some time and I don’t recall the time frame.” But, Brown added, at “no time … while serving as commander of public housing was I ever informed of wrongdoing by Sgt. Watts.”
“Whenever I became aware of any allegation of wrongdoing against any member of the department, I initiated a complaint investigation through the proper channels,” Brown wrote.
Shannon Spalding, a police officer who served under Brown’s command in the housing section and later worked secretly with FBI agents to investigate Watts, accuses Brown of blowing her cover.
Brown denies that.
“I had nothing to do with Watts or any of the officers investigating him,” he wrote.
After his work in the housing section, Brown received several police promotions. He reached the rank of deputy superintendent in 2010 and oversaw the department’s patrol division.
“I am proud of my service to the citizens of Chicago,” he wrote. “I respected the people and the Constitution and consistently tried to make a positive difference.”
Brown left the department and served as chief of police in Darien, a suburb southwest of Chicago, from 2011 to 2015.
He next served 13 months in the Homeland Security post and received an annual salary of $160,000.
Preckwinkle did not return calls about his dismissal.
Brown, 63, now lists his occupation as “semi-retired” and “public-safety consultant” on LinkedIn.
On Tuesday, Kalven and some civil-rights attorneys brought a petition asking a Cook County judge to appoint a “special master” to identify wrongful convictions tied to Watts, one of the convicted sergeants.
Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.