Larry Snelling, the Chicago Police Department’s 54-year-old counterterrorism chief, is the city’s new top cop.
Determined to improve rock-bottom police morale, Mayor Brandon Johnson chose the 28-year CPD veteran he apparently believes is best equipped to do just that over two other finalists: Angel Novalez, the 50-year-old head of CPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform and Madison, and Wisconsin Police Chief Shon Barnes, 49.
In a statement posted to X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, Mayor Johnson said his selection of Snelling marks “a new chapter in our journey to create a better, stronger and safer Chicago.”
“Chief Snelling is a proven leader who has the experience and the respect of his peers to help ensure the safety and well-being of city residents, and address the complex challenges we all face related to community safety,” Johnson said.
“I am confident that by working collaboratively with the superintendent and all vested stakeholders inside government and beyond, we can develop and implement comprehensive strategies that address the unique needs of each community and improve public safety throughout the city.”
Snelling’s appointment to the $260,004-a-year superintendent’s job must be confirmed by the City Council. Before that crucial vote, he is expected to be introduced to Chicago residents during at least one public hearing where he will face questions.
If confirmed, Snelling will take over from Interim Supt. Fred Waller, praised recently by Johnson for giving up his summer to hold down the fort while a permanent replacement was chosen.
Waller’s work on “building the morale of our rank-and-file members has been absolutely remarkable,” the mayor told reporters. “Quite frankly, it’s something that some people didn’t believe we could do.”
Continuing that work is now up to Snelling, who must restore the trust of officers who quickly lost faith in David Brown, the retired Dallas police chief chosen by then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Many in the rank-and-file never believed Brown had their backs or understood Chicago.
Snelling’s to-do list also includes speeding compliance with a federal consent decree, restoring trust between citizens and police, driving murders and shootings down and homicide clearance rates up and stopping a troubling spike in North Side robberies that has literally made residents fear walking down the street, even in daylight.
‘He’s hard on us. But he’s also fair.’
Snelling has been the safe choice — and odds-on favorite — once the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability announced the three finalists on July 13. With police morale is in the tank, Johnson is determined to improve it and Snelling has the best chance to do just that, having already trained so many officers as a tough-love fitness instructor at the Chicago Police Training Academy.
Anthony Driver, president of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, led the exhaustive nationwide search for the finalists.
Last month, Driver told the Sun-Times what caught him “completely off-guard” about Snelling was the “variety of people” singing his praises.
“You’re at the FOP and they’re speaking highly of Larry Snelling. You’re talking to the attorney general … who oversees the consent decree and speaking highly of Larry Snelling. I’m at Areanah Preston’s funeral and officers pulled me to the side and were talking about Larry Snelling.
“It’s one thing to have community support. It’s one thing to have officer support. But the variety of people who speak highly of him — I found that to be really impressive. From community folks. … I don’t know the officer’s name who pulled me aside at Officer Preston’s funeral, but what she said to me is, ‘That’s our guy. He’s hard on us. But he’s also fair. And he pushes us to be our best.’ … Do I think he would have a positive effect on officer morale? No question.”
Snelling also delivered an “impassioned” and “compelling” speech to commission members comparing what he called “cowardly leadership” to “courageous leadership.”
Driver wouldn’t cite Snelling’s examples of cowardice. But he did relate Snelling’s story about serving as Englewood District commander during the tumultuous days of civil unrest that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
“Some misinformation had got out and there were hundreds of community members who were very upset thinking that a child had been shot multiple times by the police department. There were about a hundred or so officers out there. That’s my neighborhood. … I was out there on the scene. It was a very contentious moment. … I thought that my community was gonna go up in smoke,” Driver said.
“Through his relationships with that community and the people that he knows, he was able to work with them. He actually got all of the officers to leave off of that block. He gave the accurate information to the community. And nobody got hurt in that situation. And this is in the middle of 2020 when things were very tense. … That’s an example of courageous leadership.”
It was in that Englewood District — in the area where he lived — that Snelling started his CPD career as a patrol officer in 1992.
Proven leader, alderperson says
Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) is one of the police union’s staunchest City Council supporters. His Far Southwest Side ward is home to scores of Chicago police officers.
O’Shea said he saw Snelling’s leadership skills first-hand two years ago when he organized a prayer vigil outside the Morgan Park police district after the murder of Officer Ella French. French was fatally shot and her partner, Carlos Yanez Jr., was critically wounded after they pulled over an SUV with expired plates at 63rd and Bell.
After the vigil, O’Shea saw a dozen grief-stricken young officers surrounding Snelling, who was their deputy chief.
“You just watched this dynamic of this guy in uniform who clearly held the respect of all of these young police officers who were hanging on his every word. I’m talking really young — 22-, 23-, 24-, 25-year-old cops who all worked for him standing around and talking to him,” O’Shea recalled. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Look at this guy. … Here is someone who’s clearly respected by the rank-and-file. Here is someone that these young officers looked up to as a role model, as a mentor.’ I saw that and said to myself, ‘Wow. That’s what we need. … Wouldn’t it be great to have that in leadership of the department?’”
What police officers crave most after Lightfoot’s failed experiment with Brown, an outsider, is a leader. They will have that in Snelling, O’Shea said.
Snelling “commands the room. He exudes leadership by his mere stature. The way he carries himself. The way he speaks. He’s a proven leader,” O’Shea said. “The men and women on the Chicago Police Department — they want that. They want a strong leader that they know is gonna walk the walk as opposed to just talking the talk. And they know that Larry Snelling is gonna have their back. Now, more than ever, they need to believe in that.”
Brown’s tenure proved how important it is for a mayor to choose the right police superintendent — and the disastrous political consequences of picking the wrong one.
During a mayoral campaign dominated by the issue of violent crime, all eight mayoral challengers vowed to fire Brown, while Lightfoot refused to dump him. Even some of her closest Council allies pleaded with her to pull the plug.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the Council’s Police and Fire Committee, is a former CPD officer who got to know Snelling at the police academy. Taliaferro taught marksmanship and Snelling was physical fitness and education instructor.
Taliaferro predicted last week that CPD “will shine” under Snelling because he is humble, respected and beloved by the rank-and-file.
Defender of ShotSpotter
Snelling was promoted from deputy chief of the Area 2 detective division to chief of counterterrorism after the surprise resignation of Ernest Cato III, a semi-finalist in this year’s search.
As superintendent, Snelling now must help the mayor decide whether to renew the ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology contract. Johnson campaigned on a promise to stop using ShotSpotter, but signed an $11 million extension after taking office.
During a November 2021 Council committee hearing, Snelling defended the technology amid complaints from the inspector general’s office that it rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes and can change the way officers interact with residents.
Snelling urged committee members to view the glass as half-full, not half-empty.
“We can say that 85 [or] 90% of the time, the shot detection system doesn’t render any information. What we need to look at is the 10% of the time that it does,” Snelling told committee members.
That 10% of the time could be the difference between the officers arriving on the scene applying a tourniquet … to stop a victim from bleeding out or getting an ambulance there a lot quicker to get these victims to the hospital.”
Just because there is no evidence of a gun-related crime when police officers arrive on the scene of a ShotSpotter alert does not mean no crime occurred, Snelling said then.
“In a drive-by shooting, people are shooting from vehicles. Which means that, if they use a semi-automatic weapon, when that weapon discharges, the shell casings are probably inside the vehicle that they’re shooting from,” Snelling said.
“If someone uses a revolver, you’re not going to find evidence of shell casings. Or if they do it from an area where there is high traffic and traffic is moving through, that traffic can also destroy that evidence.”
Over his more than three decades with the department, Snelling has also served as the commander of the notoriously violent Englewood District and as a sergeant for recruit training at the police academy.
He notably designed the latest version of CPD’s training model on use of force, which is an integral part of the consent decree outlining the terms of federal court oversight over the Chicago Police Department.
Snelling was also a lead trainer ahead of the 2012 NATO Summit, when CPD was widely praised for diffusing a potentially volatile confrontation with Black Bloc protesters near McCormick Place with its non-confrontational approach.
Snelling’s performance shows his expertise in constitutional policing as he leads a department struggling to implement sweeping court-ordered reforms.
The most recent report from a federal monitor shows CPD has fully implemented under 10% of those mandates.
However, Snelling has been suspended at least twice over his long career.
A database compiled by the Invisible Institute shows a 1994 use-of-force complaint against Snelling triggered a two-day suspension. The following year, Snelling served a five-day suspension for conduct unbecoming. Details of both incidents were not known.