Panel Set to Unveil 3 Finalists This Week in Search for Chicago's Next Top Cop

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

The commission charged with picking Chicago’s next top cop will unveil the three applicants it has selected as finalists on Thursday, giving Mayor Brandon Johnson 30 days to make one of the most consequential decisions of his young administration.

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The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability is scheduled to announce the finalists at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Kennedy-King College, 6301 W. Halsted St., one day before the deadline imposed by city ordinance for it to act.

The commission, known as the CCPSA, began its search in early March after former Supt. David Brown quit after former Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid for reelection, and held six community forums to gather feedback on what Chicagoans wanted in their next top cop.

Brown was replaced by former interim Supt. Eric Carter, who stepped down May 15, the same day Johnson took office. Johnson tapped interim Supt. Fred Waller, who resigned from the department in August 2020 after serving as the department’s third-ranking official, to replace Carter. Waller, who earns $260,004 annually as police superintendent, did not apply for the permanent position.

Fifty-three people applied to lead the Chicago Police Department, which is under a federal court order to reform itself after a 2017 federal investigation found officers routinely violated the rights of Black and Latino Chicagoans.

The panel narrowed down the applicant pool to six semifinalists by the end of June, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times: Deputy Chief Larry Snelling; former Deputy Chief Ernest Cato III; Deputy Chief Migdalia Bulnes; Constitutional Policing and Reform Chief Angel Novalez; Commander Donna Rowling; and Shon Barnes, police chief in Madison, Wisconsin.

The failure of Chief of Patrol Brian McDermott to advance to the final round of the superintendent search prompted a furious reaction from 19 members of the Chicago City Council, none of whom endorsed Johnson for mayor and often cast votes they say are designed to support the Chicago Police Department.

President Anthony Driver called the letter “inappropriate.”

John Catanzara, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 7, which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers, told WTTW News he was also disappointed that McDermott had not advanced to the final round of the superintendent search, calling it an indication of the commission’s “absolute intent to not hire a White male.”

Snelling, Cato and Barnes are Black men, while Bulnes is Latina, Novalez is Latino and Rowling is a White woman. The Chicago Police Department has never had a female superintendent.

The people of Chicago are 31.4% White, 28.7% Black, 29.9% Latino and 6.9% Asian, according to the 2020 U.S. census. By comparison, Chicago Police Department employees are 41.8% White, 22% Black and 31.3% Latino, according to city data.

During the campaign, Johnson said he would prefer to name a new top cop from within CPD’s ranks, calling it crucial for the city’s next top cop to be deeply invested in Chicago, and familiar with how the department works.

Barnes, the only semifinalist from outside CPD, worked for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the agency charged with investigating police misconduct for about a year.

Johnson has promised to re-envision public safety in Chicago to address the root causes of crime and violence by increasing funding for youth employment programs and expanding mental health services across the city. Johnson has also promised to solve more crimes by adding 200 detectives to the Chicago Police Department.

The success of that effort will be determined in large part by who the mayor picks as superintendent. He or she will not only have to ramp up reform efforts but will also have to cope with a surge in crime triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic that has yet to fully recede.

The search for Chicago’s next top cop also posed a significant challenge to the CCPSA, which is made up of interim commissioners named by Lightfoot nearly a year ago, more than eight months behind schedule. A permanent commission will be selected in the coming months by the 66 members of 22 police district councils elected in February.

Those councils will nominate seven people who must be confirmed by the mayor and the City Council to oversee CPD.

The commission was created after a bruising political battle ended in July 2021 after the Chicago City Council approved its creation, fulfilling the final reform recommendation to emerge in the wake of the 2014 police murder of 16-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Supporters tout the CCPSA as the city’s best chance to build trust in officers and police brass and put an end to repeated allegations of misconduct, while critics say the commission will add another layer of bureaucracy to Chicago’s already complicated police oversight system.

Before the CCPSA’s creation, the Chicago Police Board was responsible for conducting the search to replace CPD’s superintendent and recommending three finalists to the mayor.

The last three people chosen by Chicago mayors to lead CPD turned into political albatrosses for their bosses.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel rejected all three finalists chosen by the police board in 2016 to replace former Supt. Garry McCarthy, who Emanuel fired amid the outrage over McDonald’s murder. 

Instead, Emanuel convinced the City Council to approve a one-time-only exemption to the rules for picking the department’s superintendent, allowing him to bypass the police board and appoint former Supt. Eddie Johnson.

In 2020, Lightfoot made it clear to members of the board that Brown, the former head of the Dallas Police Department, was her pick to lead CPD, and they included him in the list of three finalists they sent to the mayor. Lightfoot did not wait even 48 hours before naming Brown to lead the department.

Brown replaced Johnson, who was fired by Lightfoot in 2019 after she said he lied to her after apparently passing out in his running car at a stop sign in Bridgeport after a night of heavy drinking with another officer assigned to work as his driver.

All eight of the candidates who ran to deny Lightfoot a second term in office vowed to fire Brown, who was deeply unpopular with rank-and-file officers, City Council members and reform advocates.

Johnson’s pick to lead CPD will likely be the fourth person to lead the Chicago Police Department in less than six months, capping a period of intense turmoil for the department.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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