Chicago’s Reform-Minded New Mayor Has A Big Task: Picking A New Police Chief

Brandon Johnson ran on bringing a new approach to police and public safety in a city riven with homicides and police killings.
Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson participates in a public safety forum on March 14.
Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson participates in a public safety forum on March 14.
Teresa Crawford via Associated Press

Chicago has a new mayor who promised big changes to the city’s widely controversial police department ― and one of his first big tasks will be selecting a new police chief.

Mayor Brandon Johnson started his campaign with 2% in polls before surging to a stunning win. Johnson told Chicagoans his plan was to bring a new approach to public safety in Chicago, which above all would strengthen police accountability and work with the city’s Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability to “dismantle systemic racism, strongly enforce long-needed police accountability reforms, and evaluate department goals and performance.”

Johnson’s plan included enacting an ordinance to end no-knock warrants, erasing the city’s racist gang database, publishing arrest and traffic stop data, among other reforms. While Johnson did say he would not “defund the police,” as his runoff opponent Paul Vallas charged in an attack ad, Johnson did say he would redirect money in Chicago to establish a more holistic approach to city public safety.

Johnson has already appointed Fred Waller as the interim top cop in the city. The public safety commission has to submit three candidates to Johnson’s desk by July 14. He will have 30 days to make a choice or reject the list in entirety.

During a press conference, Johnson said he tapped Fred Waller to serve as interim chief due to his “experience and integrity.” It was a controversial choice after Waller was previously suspended from the department and then eventually retiring in 2020, after he compared aspects of police reform in the department to rape.

While homicides over the last four months in the city have been down by 10%, the totals are still at a record high since the mid-decade, with 695 killings in 2022 ― a significant jump in murders in the city compared to the year 2015 where 468 people were killed.

Johnson’s office did not respond for comment about the selection process.

In recent years, the city has been riven by shocking cases of police brutality. The city’s police department remains under a federal consent decree after Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke murdered Laquan McDonald, a Black 17-year-old, in 2014.

Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino, who was killed in 2021 by another Chicago cop, Eric Stillman. There were no criminal charges in the case, though it furthered an already strained relationship between the police and the residents they are supposed to protect.

A 2020 survey from the Chicago Tribune found that while 80% of white residents said police made them feel safer, less than half of Black people said the same. Only 33% Black men between the ages of 18 and 25 agreed.

The survey also noted that many Black residents felt that the relationships between local city police and the community was fractured, reporting that 34% of young Black men surveyed felt the relationship between police and the community was very bad. Their white counterparts were found at 69% to believe that community relations with police were very good.

A police vehicle dash cam video of the moments after Laquan McDonald was fatally shot is displayed for jurors, as Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke attends his first degree murder trial on Oct. 3, 2018, for the shooting death of McDonald.
A police vehicle dash cam video of the moments after Laquan McDonald was fatally shot is displayed for jurors, as Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke attends his first degree murder trial on Oct. 3, 2018, for the shooting death of McDonald.
John J. Kim via Associated Press

Aside from the high-profile police killings, the reasons for this distrust are well documented. Findings from the American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2019 that CPD’s stop and frisk policies were disproportionately targeting Black residents in neighborhoods, finding that roughly 70% of all pedestrian stops were Black people ― while Black people make up only 33% of the city’s population.

The ACLU found in 2014 that there were 250,000 such stops that never led to the arrest of an individual. Chicago residents were also stopped four times more than New York residents at the peak of New York’s stop and frisk practices.

In 2021, the ACLU sued the department for a social media monitoring program, which began monitoring people following the protests after the murder of George Floyd. The ACLU said the monitoring program was a red flag surrounding the city’s history with surveillance and concerns around citizens who garnered protests through social media engagement.

“This is a city where you had the tragedy of Laquan McDonald but the other tragedy of the mayor to cover it up. That is what happens when you have an all-powerful mayor who controls everything,” Anthony Driver, the president of CCPSA, told HuffPost.

Amidst it all, there has been long-running instability at the top of the department. Since 2016, there have been five different police superintendents, with all of them serving as the top cop for no longer than three years. Three of them, including Waller, have come to serve as acting police superintendent over the last three months.

Officers are leaving, too: As of 2022, there were a total of 11,710 sworn police officers in the department at the start of the year, but last August that number took a dip after over 1,000 police officers left the force.

Kenneth Corey, the director of outreach and engagement at the University of Chicago Policing Leadership Academy, said each transition creates chaos.

“The average life expectancy of a police chief in a big city today is about three years. So that also goes to the point of making it very difficult to make progress on reform, in Chicago for example, within the confines of the consent decree,” Corey told HuffPost.

This has become a reality in many major city departments. The average police chief tenure is around 7.3 years, but in larger agencies with 1,000 or more employees they tend to stay for no more than five years, policing researchers say.

“Anytime there is a change at the top of the police organization, it creates chaos in the [organization] and that chaos stifles any type of innovation or growth in the agency. Lower people never know where they are going to be sitting,” Corey said.

Johnson is doing things differently this time around ― it will be the first selection process where the community will have a closer hand as to selecting who will be the top cop.

Driver, who told HuffPost the accountability commission has operated for nearly eight months, has held seven town hall community open forums, talked with over 300 people, and has had at least 120 hours of engagement with the community surrounding the process of selecting a new police superintendent.

He sees community input as a step in the right direction.

Police search the downtown area in Highland Park after a shooting at a Fourth of July parade on July 4, 2022.
Police search the downtown area in Highland Park after a shooting at a Fourth of July parade on July 4, 2022.
Nam Y. Huh via Associated Press

“That has never happened in our city before. Because they never had an option, they never had a choice. It was up to Daley, Emmanuel or Lightfoot,” Driver told HuffPost.

If community policing is going to develop into a reality in Chicago, officers need more support and stability, said Meocole Jordan, who is spearheading Chicago’s community policing initiative as the advocacy director for the policing project at NYU School of Law.

“As we are thinking about a superintendent for Chicago, he or she must be willing to lead by example and understand the importance of this and understand how true policing and building trust is the benefit of everyone,” Jordan said. “He or she has to buy into that idea and make sure they are enforcing proper training, expectations and measurements as they are working the districts.”

Evelyn Bradshaw, a 35-year-old Black woman who has lived in Chicago her whole life, said much of the distrust between police and the community is due to the lack of respect officers display to citizens they are supposed to protect.

Bradshaw told HuffPost she remembers seeing her brothers being stopped and searched by police on a number of occasions with no arrest to happen afterwards. Bradshaw said she wants to educate her son on his rights.

“I hope it does not happen to my son, but I am going to make sure that he is properly educated,” she said.

Just a week and a half ago, officers were canvassing the front yard of Bradshaw’s home. She was caught off guard by their presence, but it was not the first time she walked out her door to police in her yard, and the officers at the location never initiated contact with her despite being on her property.

Each time she found a group of officers in her front yard, they would say there was a shooting, or that a gun was found in her yard, or that they were searching for shell casings. At first, Bradshaw did not think much about it. But as officers continued to arrive in her yard unannounced, her skepticism increased.

“They could be planting stuff, I don’t know. But my job is to protect my children so we feel safe,” she said.

The city’s police superintendent will have to instill a change in the department, and much of that effort goes towards finally establishing trust with Chicago citizens.

“There is no switch that you flip,” Corey said. “They have to have a clear vision and plan for how they are going to combat crime and build community trust in Chicago.”

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