Fred Waller spent 34 years in the Chicago Police Department, rising through the ranks to chief of patrol, chief of operations and third in command.
Now, the man who considers himself a “beat cop at heart” will lead the department he loves, in what could be a summer audition for the permanent job.
As the Chicago Sun-Times was the first to disclose, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson has asked the 61-year-old Waller to return to lead the department he loves — at least until he chooses a permanent replacement for former Chicago Police Supt. David Brown.
Waller will replace Interim Supt. Eric Carter, whose resignation takes effect May 15, inauguration day for Johnson and the new City Council.
In 2020, Waller followed First Deputy Anthony Riccio into retirement and joined Riccio as a top executive at Monterrey Security.
His tenure as interim superintendent could be a trial run for the permanent job, especially if Chicago makes it through without the traditional summer surge of violent crime or a repeat of the videotaped downtown mayhem that gave Chicago another black eye around the world last month.
But the decision isn’t Johnson’s alone. The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, a new civilian-led panel, is currently conducting a nationwide search for superintendent candidates. The commission is charged with presenting three options to Johnson by July 14, although the mayor-elect can reject those choices and request three more.
Johnson has made it clear he is determined to choose an insider as Brown’s permanent replacement to help restore morale among the rank-and-file and stop and exodus of officers that has left Chicago with 1,700 fewer officers than when Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), the former Chicago Police officer now chairing the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, applauded the appointment for the message it sends to a demoralized rank-and-file.
“When police are fighting for a contract and that contract extended into several years without being settled, that’s always a time frame where police officers feel unappreciated. But also, our police department just came through a very difficult time where days off were canceled, they felt unappreciated. There were so many things happening within the police department itself. They didn’t have a lot of confidence in the superintendent. That caused demoralization of our police ranks,” Taliaferro said Wednesday.
“This sends a message to ’em that Mayor-elect Johnson is going to have their backs when it comes to looking out and looking at the needs of our rank-and-file. Mayor-elect Johnson is showing that he cares about their well-being. It’s inspiring and trying to motivate our police officers…Interim Supt. Waller bring great experience back to the police department. But, more important, he was really favored by the rank-and-file and had a great relationship with them. This will do well with morale.”
Taliaferro said Waller’s tenure will be “very much an audition for the permanent job” even though the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability has until July 14 to forward the names of three finalists to Johnson.
“He’s coming on at a very difficult time as we enter into our warmer days and summer months. What better position to be in than to implement some of the things that he may have done while on the department to help reduce violence?” Taliaferro said.
“This could very much be an audition for him if he’s chosen as one of the finalists that’s presented to the mayor.”
Anthony Driver, president of the Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability, said the civilian oversight panel is prepared to work closely with Waller during the summer months. But he flatly denied Waller has the inside track on the permanent job.
“We have to, by city ordinance, have three picks to the mayor by July 14th. So, that would be the shortest audition in the history of auditions for a job of this magnitude,” Driver told the Sun-Times.
“When we’re making our decision, we won’t even have a large body of work to go on. And that’s even assuming that he applies. We have no idea whether he is going to apply for he job. And if he is, that deadline closes in [four] days.”
The to the Chicago Police Department.
The 2020 exodus came just as CPD was working to implement a structural reorganization amid surging gun violence on the South and West sides, civil unrest and attacks upon police officers.
“I don’t want to feel like I’m walking away from a challenge, because I’ve never done that,” Waller told the Sun-Times then.
“I’ve always tried to absorb that challenge and walk into a challenging situation. But it just seems like it’s maybe the right time for me. I never want to be seen as someone who walks away from a challenge, so that’s the hard part for me in this environment that we’re in right now.”
Even after rising to the department’s command staff, Waller — whose son is also a CPD officer — said he still felt like a beat cop, and he’s worked to show rank-and-file that they have his support.
“I’ve always been on the front lines because at heart I’m a street cop,” Waller said. “I’ve always tried to be in front of things and to support the officers, to let them know that even at this level [on the command staff], I’m going to be with you. I’m going to be down there with you, helping you, struggling with you, facing those challenges with you.”
But that’s not to say he hasn’t enjoyed his time at the top of the department.
“The time to be at the table with the mayors and the decision-makers, to see different things behind the scenes, what they’re saying up at the podium, but [also] behind the scenes, the things that are being said, just to be part of that, I would not trade that for the world,” Waller said at the time he retired. “I really would not.”
One of his proudest moments in his career came in December 2018.
Officers Conrad Gary and Eduardo Marmolejo were both struck and killed by a commuter train on the Far South Side while the two were chasing a man suspected of firing a gun nearby.
That night, Waller was tasked with notifying both officers’ families of the deaths. When he returned to the train tracks, Waller saw his fellow command staff members working to collect the two officers’ remains. He felt compelled to join them.
“There’s no way I’m not going to be part of recovering their remains,” he said. “[It was] just one of the saddest and proudest days, just to see everyone in those white uniforms recovering their remains proudly. I had just spoken to their families so I knew this is something I had to be part of. It was just amazing. It was really amazing. And it was something that always will stand out with me throughout the years.”
One week after Waller announced his retirement, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Waller had been suspended for 28 days for using the word “rape” during a meeting at police headquarters to express his feelings about officers being moved out of police districts to other units.
“Grope me, don’t rape me,” Waller said at the meeting, police records show.
He made the remark before a group that included federal monitor Maggie Hickey and Christina Anderson, the police official riding herd over court-ordered reforms. Anderson filed an internal affairs complaint against Waller over the comment.
At the time, Waller was in charge of officers in Chicago’s 22 police districts. It was rare for someone in the highest reaches of the department to be suspended.
Some of the 18 people in attendance said they were stunned by Waller’s statement and that the room went silent, according to the internal affairs report.
Waller told an investigator his comment was “crude and improper” but that he was trying to make a point that “resources taken from patrol aren’t given back to patrol.”
After Waller’s comment, Hickey told him, “Don’t ever say that again,” according to witnesses quoted in the internal affairs report.
Anderson later told an investigator: “As a manager, I was concerned for the well-being of persons under my command who were in the room and who may or may not have traumatic histories with, I hope not, but I just don’t know if they’ve had traumatic histories with that kind of abuse.”
Waller told an investigator he later apologized to Anderson, Hickey and others who were at the meeting, the records show.
Discussing the suspension with the Sun-Times in 2020, Waller said the suspension didn’t have anything to do with his retirement, which he said was based on changes in insurance and “the grind” of the job. He said he wasn’t forced out and that he continued to work despite the suspension, instead giving up vacation days and personal days, so he could help the department address the city’s rising violence.
Waller said the punishment was “somewhat harsh” but that he understood “the message they wanted to send.”
“I was trying to make an emphatic point. Do I advocate rape? No. It wasn’t meant in that context,” he said. “Looking back on it, inappropriate.”
Waller said he considered himself a “watchdog” for the patrol division, making sure its resources weren’t depleted. “Everybody, when they need bodies, patrol is where you go. But we also need those bodies to man those districts,” he said.