Chicago PD leadership departures makes superintendent the ‘hardest position to fill’
The new chief will face diminished morale, a rise in violent crime and calls for accountability
By A.D. Quig
CHICAGO — The end of David Brown’s nearly three-year tenure as the Chicago Police Department’s leader comes at a pivotal time: The city is in the midst of a heated mayoral runoff between candidates offering contrasting takes on policing; CPD still grapples with diminished morale, shrinking ranks and a recent spike in violent crime; and calls for accountability that started before the death of George Floyd remain strong.
“Today, it is probably the hardest position to fill,” said Chuck Wexler, longtime director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based police think tank that has helped with executive searches in Chicago and across the country.
Nationally, “expectations have never been higher. You’re coming in at a time when policing is being challenged from every direction,” Wexler said. Chicago is also a special case: “You have significant violent crime, you have a consent decree, you have morale issues, and you have hiring issues. All of those issues require a leader with extraordinary knowledge of policing and just genuine leadership.”
The appointment of Brown’s permanent replacement will also be the first major test for the new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, a civilian body tasked with soliciting applicants and picking three appointees to deliver to the next mayor.
The commission is made up of seven interim members, including youth and community organizers, a pastor, an attorney and the head of Lawndale Christian Health Center. All were chosen by outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot last August. Their perspectives will be distinct from the body that used to help pick the superintendent: the Police Board, which decides disciplinary cases involving Chicago police officers and whose members are mostly attorneys.
“You have multiple lenses making up this commission. That in and of itself should yield — or at least should lend to — a more robust conversation about what a good candidate should have,” said Mecole Jordan-McBride, the advocacy director of the Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative who helped organize the push for the new community commission.
Brown’s last day is Thursday. The commission has already announced a national search and scheduled listening sessions across the city to solicit community input. According to the new selection rules, the group has 120 days — until July 14 — to present its choices to the next mayor.
In the meantime, Brown’s deputy, Eric Carter, will lead the department’s 11,700 sworn members and, for now, decide how to deploy them during the summer months, when violent crime typically rises.
Mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas — who both pledged to fire Brown, if elected — each say they prefer a local nominee, but declined to name their potential shortlists at a recent NBC Chicago debate.
“You have to have compassion, be collaborative and competent. I’m looking for someone who possesses those qualities” and is “tethered to the city of Chicago,” Johnson said. Shortly after Brown announced his exit, Johnson told WTTW that he would search “for the right talent all over the country, if necessary.”
Despite Johnson’s past explicit support of the “defund” movement, his plan for public safety maintains “the current CPD budget while making the department more efficient and providing new investments in additional public safety initiatives outside of the police department, including new teams of non-personnel first responders for mental health crisis calls,” according to his campaign. He has also called for the promotion of 200 detectives to help improve the department’s clearance rate, but has not specified whether he would fill posts left empty by those promotions.
Vallas’ campaign has been centered on law and order: He courted and won the support of the Fraternal Order of Police, helped negotiate the union’s latest contract, and has family in law enforcement. He has pledged to boost the ranks up to 13,500 members, encourage “proactive policing,” including ramping up low-level arrests, and revoke the city’s foot pursuit policy, which was instituted after back-to-back fatal police shootings of two people, including 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who were being chased by officers.
When Brown announced his resignation, Vallas released a statement pledging to select a candidate who would “prioritize community policing, end the failed friends and family promotion system and invest in building trust between the police and our communities.”
“I have talked to specific police officers in senior levels of responsibility,” Vallas said when asked at the NBC Chicago debate about his superintendent choice. “Take this to the bank: I will promote all the officers from within, both interim superintendent, first deputy, chief of patrol, as well as evaluate who’s been promoted into the exempt ranks.”
Close department watchers say a brain drain in recent years has led to a shallow bench, a symptom of dwindling police ranks locally and nationally.
Whether recently exited leaders would return is an open question. Interest in the superintendent job has dropped: According to the city’s Police Board, there were 44 applicants during the 2011 search, 39 in the 2016 search and 25 in 2020.
Among the prominent departures: Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan, who left for a job at Google earlier this year; executive director of constitutional policing and reform Robert Boik, who was fired last summer after criticizing some of Brown’s staffing decisions; counterterrorism Chief Ernest Cato III, a former finalist for the superintendent job who retired abruptly last year; Chief of Operations Fred Waller, who retired in 2020; and Deputy Superintendent of the Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform Barbara West, who retired not long after Waller.
Anthony Riccio, who stepped down as first deputy superintendent in 2020 and is now director of public safety at Monterrey Security, said the effects of that brain drain “have really been evident” since Brown took over, noting how many officers — including himself — left early during Brown’s tenure.
Brown rapidly promoted people into those jobs that predecessors had spent years preparing for, gaining valuable exposure and leadership skills, Riccio said. “There’s experience that comes with every rank, and you need to spend time in those ranks in order to gain that knowledge and that experience in order to gain credibility among rank and file.”
Even so, Riccio said he’s spoken to retired CPD leaders “who I feel would want to come back ... and get the department back on the right track,” depending on the outcome of the mayoral election. Given the complexity and politics of running CPD, he said, “I don’t think we can keep going outside the department.”
The selection of a new top cop during an inflection point is nothing new for Chicago. Modern mayors have swung between favoring outsiders who bring a fresh perspective to the crises of the day and department veterans who know the city and have the trust of the rank and file.
The first outsider to break a 50-year run of insider superintendents was Jody Weis, an FBI veteran chosen by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley in the wake of a scandal surrounding the Special Operations Section and infamous barroom beating by Officer Anthony Abbate. Weis started in 2008 and left in 2011, right as Mayor Rahm Emanuel was taking office.
Terry Hillard, who had served as superintendent between 1998 and 2003, was named the interim superintendent following Weis’ exit. Emanuel, seeking an outsider, ran a “separate but parallel” recruiting process alongside the Police Board. He was outspoken about picking his own top cop, the Tribune reported at the time. He ultimately landed on New Yorker Garry McCarthy.
But by 2016, the city was left reeling for several months after the video release of Laquan McDonald’s murder by Chicago police Officer Jason van Dyke, and McCarthy was fired amid the public fallout, including allegations of a cover-up. Emanuel opted for an insider: longtime Chicago cop Eddie Johnson, who did not apply for the job.
In hiring Johnson, Emanuel officially scrapped a list of three finalists his appointed Police Board had sent him after conducting a national search. The City Council’s public safety committee passed an ordinance introduced by Emanuel that bypassed the Police Board process for picking candidates. It was automatically repealed following the next City Council meeting in April 2016.
When Johnson announced his retirement from CPD, Lightfoot took the unusual step of tapping an outsider, former Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck, to fill the role on an interim basis in the fall of 2019. Before Johnson could step down, however, Lightfoot abruptly fired him, saying he’d intentionally misled her about his conduct after he was found asleep in his running vehicle near his South Side home.
Lightfoot, too, opted for an outsider: former Dallas Chief David Brown. Her announcement came one day after the Police Board named Brown among its three finalists. Lightfoot told reporters Brown’s name was “certainly on my radar screen” at the beginning of the process, and the head of the board says he had kept her apprised of their search efforts throughout.
Ghian Foreman, who’s served on the Police Board since 2010, said the City Council deserved as much blame as Emanuel for subverting the board’s process when he picked Johnson. Lightfoot, similarly, was overly criticized for “hand-picking” Brown, Foreman said. “Every superintendent is the mayor’s hand-picked superintendent.”
Wexler said he hopes the community commission works with the next mayor, since he will ultimately be the one to wear the jacket for the department’s performance. “But this is new in Chicago, I don’t know how this is going to play out.”
The commission was created after decades of organizing dating back to the 1969 police killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Community-led oversight of the department was a key call among reformers and protesters following Laquan McDonald’s death, but it was sidelined repeatedly during Emanuel and Lightfoot’s tenures before finally passing in 2021.
Commission President Anthony Driver said its mission is “to inject the community’s voice into the process” and predicts this search will “be the most transparent process the city’s ever had.”
Transparency can have its drawbacks, Wexler points out: Applicants should expect to have their candidacy made public if they make the final three. That could dissuade people from applying for fear of losing their current jobs if their name is made public but they aren’t selected.
Commission members are still weighing whether to work with an outside search firm and to what extent they will solicit input from CPD’s rank and file. Driver and other commission members have spoken with officers, but there has been pushback from “brass,” he said.
The commission will be guided in part by goals it set for the superintendent before Brown resigned. Among them: improving department culture around wellness “to help officers manage their stress and trauma appropriately, reduce officer suicides and improve morale.” Another goal is “stable assignments for patrol officers to allow them to develop longer-term relationships with community members and supervisors.”
“I think rank and file wants a leader that will support them. ... What we saw over these last two years in particular was a lot of days off canceled, a lot of overtime, a lot of shifting of officers, and I don’t think that lends to great morale,” NPI’s Jordan-McBride said.
Her group connects officers with community members to solve problems that lead to crime like closing up abandoned buildings where gangs can take over or working with gas station owners to help prevent carjackings.
Like cops, community members want consistency in beat assignments, too, she says — it helps build relationships and trust. “We have community members that were like, ‘Oh my God, I have such a great relationship with this officer, and then it was just gone. No warning, no nothing.’”
Driver is looking for a collaborator who “will work well with commission, with the administration, who can bring stakeholders together, work with different community groups and who understands this is no longer a top down system,” he said.
Experts say the next superintendent will have to balance relationships with a wide range of stakeholders, often with conflicting interests: commissioners and the public they represent, the mayor and members of the City Council (like the mayoral race, leadership of the public safety committee is also up for grabs), as well as parties to the consent decree.
Then there’s the recently reelected leader of the local police union, John Catanzara, who led a no-confidence vote on Brown, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, whose office prosecutes CPD’s cases. Brown and Foxx often clashed publicly about their respective agency’s responses to the recent surge in violence.
Several experts, including Deborah Witzburg, the city’s inspector general, who previously ran the watchdog agency’s public safety section, said prioritizing the consent decree should be among the next superintendent’s top priorities. Reformers, including the attorney general’s office, note that compliance has been slow: Through last June, the city had reached at least some level of compliance with 78% of provisions reviewed in the consent decree, but it fully complied with only about 5%.
As it stands, Witzburg said, “The city’s efforts to comply with the consent decree are at risk of stalling entirely. … I worry very much about this misimpression that police reform and public safety are mutually exclusive alternatives.”
She added: “If there is a single foundational truth here, it is that police reform is not an alternative to public safety, it’s a prerequisite to it. The only way we are going to keep people safer is by reforming the police department. That, from my perspective, is the kind of bedrock principle that lives beneath and beyond all of these changing and shifting circumstances.”