The abrupt firing of Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson by Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday means former Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck is now at the helm of the Chicago Police Department.
Beck, who will serve as interim superintendent, appeared at a press conference Tuesday morning in which police announced 53 arrests as part of an undercover sting operation.
Beck also commented on Johnson’s departure.
“None of us are perfect, we have to live with our errors,” he said.
Beck also wrote a letter to police officers, saying that while he recognized Johnson’s firing may have caused unease, “the department is strong and headed in the right direction.”
The Chicago Police Board, meanwhile, is searching for Johnson’s permanent replacement.
So what can we expect from Beck and a police department already laboring under a consent decree monitored by a federal judge and facing fresh allegations of brutality after video emerged of an officer violently slamming a man to the ground last week?
John Escalante knows better than most what Beck can expect.
A veteran of the Chicago Police Department, Escalante served for four months as interim superintendent after the 2015 firing of then-Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
Escalante, who is now chief of police at Northeastern Illinois University, said that even though Beck is only likely to be around for a matter of months, he could still play an important role in preparing the department for reform.
“He is a well-respected police leader who obviously rose to the very top of the LAPD which is the third largest police department in the country,” Escalante said. He expects Beck to play an important role in evaluating the department and what it will need to do under the terms of the consent decree.
“Chief Beck will be able to give a very thorough and accurate assessment of where the Chicago Police Department currently is and where they need to go and how they need to get there,” he said. “He has that knowledge and experience of managing a police department while trying to keep up with the requirements of a consent decree.”
But beyond Beck’s expected short tenure at the top, what should the city be looking for in its next police chief?
“The key challenge that the department is facing right now is rebuilding trust, and so it’s got to be someone who the citizens of Chicago believe can come into the department and rebuild those relationships, rebuild that trust with the community,” said Sharon Fairley, who served as chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority – or IPRA – and was also charged with helping create and build COPA, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
“We know that Chicago’s problem with violent crime is challenging and so we also need a very good operational manager – an individual that has a lot of experience running a large department,” Fairley said. “And hopefully we can find someone with proven success at dealing with some of the really serious crime control problems that we see here in Chicago.”
And finally, said Fairley, it has to be someone that can earn the respect of the rank and file.
“They are the ones charged with executing the strategy that this person puts in place and so we need someone who can come in and gain that respect,” she said.
But should the next superintendent be from within the ranks of the Chicago Police Department or does reform require a fresh, outside take? Escalante said both internal and external candidates have pros and cons.
“With an internal candidate – and I do believe there are people within the Chicago Police Department that are very capable of doing the job as superintendent – there’s not the learning curve, so to speak,” Escalante said. “You already know the command staff and the issues that the rank and file have been trying to address … But an outsider does bring fresh perspectives; different looks at things that may have worked at departments they worked previously.”
Fairley believes that while an insider may have some advantages in terms of having trust within the department, an outsider may be better placed to push reform.
“It’s really hard to be a change agent when you’ve come up from within that system,” said Fairley. “So the other school of thought is that in order to really push for change – and there’s a lot of change on the horizon required based upon the consent decree – that someone from the outside may be in a better position in terms of being able to drive change.”
But for the average officer patrolling a beat, the candidate’s status as an insider or outsider is secondary, Escalante said.
“I don’t think it really matters to them whether it is an external or an internal candidate,” Escalante said. “They just want to know that it’s a superintendent that’s going to be fair and a superintendent that is going to hold everyone accountable from the top to all the way down.”