African-American aldermen on Thursday rallied behind Eugene Williams as their candidate for police superintendent and warned of another exodus of police talent if Mayor Rahm Emanuel dares to choose another outsider.
Williams is a deputy police superintendent who oversees the Bureau of Support Services that serves as the administrative backbone of the Chicago Police Department.
The Chicago Sun-Times first reported this week that Williams is the only insider among the three finalists chosen by the Police Board. The two outsiders are Cedric Alexander, public safety director of DeKalb County, Georgia and Anne Kirkpatrick, retired police chief of Spokane, Washington.
In a rare show of defiance last fall, 14 of Chicago’s 18 black aldermen demanded that Emanuel fire then-Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy after another bloody weekend on Chicago streets. They were motivated by McCarthy’s perceived arrogance, his unresponsiveness and his decision to replace retiring First Deputy Police Supt. Al Wysinger, who is black, with John Escalante, who is Hispanic.
Emanuel responded by reiterating his longstanding support for McCarthy, only to fire his only superintendent a month later, claiming he had become a “distraction” in the unrelenting furor over the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
Black aldermen view the low-key Williams as the anti-McCarthy. They know and trust him. So do their constituents. They have faith that he will return their phone calls and respond to their concerns.
Privately, Emanuel has told associates that the next superintendent must be an African-American to restore public trust shattered by the Laquan McDonald shooting video and the city’s decision to keep it under wraps for more than a year and release it, only after a judge ordered the city to do so.
Publicly, the mayor has been non-committal, as he was again Thursday after receiving the names.
“Where they come from is a factor. [But] it is not the only factor . . . I don’t dismiss it. It’s something you have to look at. But when Bill Bratton left New York and went to L.A. , he was an outsider. Okay? It doesn’t mean it’s an automatic given” that the rank-and-file won’t accept an outsider, Emanuel said.
“My principle is to find a superintendent who will help us reduce crime and gun violence, specifically in areas that are being effected on the South and West sides, improve relations between the community and the police department . . . so essential for public safety and rally the troops of the dept for that effort . . . We all know that, in the last couple months, events and the larger overall narrative has had an impact. That’s my goal, I’ll be eager to start the interviewing process to meet with all three individually.”
The mayor was asked how important he believes it is that Chicago’s next police superintendent be African-American.
“In the sense of building trust and cooperation, it’s something obviously you have to look at. But my north stars here are going to be what’s your understanding of community policing? How do you energize community policing so you both boost the morale of the police department and ensure that there’s cooperation between the community and the police,” he said.
Emanuel said he knows Williams well and interviewed him when Williams was a finalist during the 2011 search that culminated in the selection of McCarthy. He has never met the two outsiders. But that doesn’t mean Chicago will be waiting long for their next police superintendent.
Hinting strongly at a quick decision, the mayor said, “Patience is one of my strong suits. Not! The city of Chicago is eager to get going. The Police Department is eager to get going. The people of Chicago are eager to have a superintendent and their leadership team in place so we can move forward reducing gun violence and gang violence.”
As for Williams, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, said, “Gene would be the front-runner for our community. He has a history of being an honest person. His word means something. He knows the streets. He knows the Police Department backwards and forwards. He’s a wonderful choice to lead the department out of the Justice Department inquiry.”
“You have a morale problem and a community problem. Gene Williams will help with the morale problem. And by him knowing the community and the streets, he can help with the community problem. We need somebody who has relationships inside and outside the department.”
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) agreed with Beale that the next superintendent need not be an outsider to restore public trust shattered by the video played around the world of a white police officer pumping 16 rounds into the body of a black teenager.
“The last couple have been outsiders, and we still have that culture. It has not changed. I don’t necessarily believe it has to be an outsider to combat the culture of the blue wall,” Sawyer said, referring to the code of silence that Emanuel has acknowledged exists in the Chicago Police Department.
As for Williams, Sawyer said, “He’s a decent guy, but he has been there a long time and he was there during that culture. I’d like to talk to him about how he plans to break that cycle or if he can break that cycle.”
The last three superintendents have been white. The last two — Jody Weis and Garry McCarthy — have been from outside the Chicago Police Department.
Both made massive personnel changes that decimated the ranks of middle-management and left the police department almost like a Major League Baseball team with a weak farm system.
If Emanuel goes outside again, there will be, yet another exodus, said Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former Chicago Police officer.
“We brought Jody Weis in because of corruption under Phil Cline. Jody Weis came and went. Garry McCarthy came in, set up Compstat and used it to insult leadership in the police department. Belittling them. Putting requirements on them far beyond their capacity to deliver because they didn’t have the manpower and to do what they needed to do,” Cochran said.
“After two straight outsiders, the only change is the resentment from the troops because of outside leadership. If you choose another outsider who has to be spoon-fed Chicago, it will discourage people within the police department who have served the community and proven themselves to be leaders, only to find the door is closed.”
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), former chairman of the Black Caucus, just lost a bitter Democratic primary battle for Congress to incumbent Bobby Rush, who was supported by Emanuel and backed by the mayor’s campaign contributors.
Brookins agreed that Williams is the odds-on favorite of the Black Caucus because, “We know him.” But he argued that no matter who replaces McCarthy, it won’t make a difference unless Emanuel stops “micromanaging” the Chicago Police Department.
“The superintendent reports to the mayor almost daily regarding what’s going on with that department. Unless there is a true will for the mayor to reform that culture and allow the police superintendent wide latitude to do what’s necessary, nothing is going to change,” Brookins said.
“The question is not who the superintendent is, but will they allow that person to run it? Al Wysinger made certain recommendations to the superintendent. They never acted on those things. If his advice had been heeded, we could have staved off a lot of this mistrust between the public, the superintendent and the mayor. “
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago Police officer-turned-firefighter, was incredulous that Interim Superintendent John Escalante did not make the final cut.
“Who better than John Escalante, who has come up through the ranks and held some of the most important positions in the department. How could this guy not be your most qualified candidate? You have the candidate right in front of you, and he’s been overlooked. It’s a slap in the face. It’s destroying morale,” Napolitano said.
“It’s been proven and tried that bringing in an outsider is not going to work in Chicago. This isn’t like any other city. And when are we going to stop overlooking the five-gazillion ton elephant in the room? Our homicide rates and shootings are through the roof. We’re on track to hit 6,000 people shot. When is this going to be addressed?”
Sources close to the Police Board described Escalante as “reactive — not pro-active” during his on-the-job audition.
During an unimpressive interview, the interim superintendent failed to articulate a vision, either to reduce the spike in street violence that has Chicago on pace to top 600 homicides in 2016 or to rebuild public trust and plummeting police morale, the sources said.
In an email to officers on Thursday, Escalante wrote: “While I was not named as a finalist, I would like to take this opportunity to re-emphasize my commitment to leading this department throughout this transition.”
“Since last year, the department has felt effects of a challenging climate for law enforcement across the nation.
“We have faced this climate head-on and responded with numerous policy reforms that aim to increase the effectiveness of our crime reduction strategies while also protecting the rights of police officers and and the civil liberties of citizens we serve.”
He said he visited “countless roll calls” to hear officers’ ideas.
“I am confident the next superintendent will bring about new ideas that will allow us to do our job even better.”
He said he looks forward to working with the new superintendent to help guide the department through the Justice Department probe, provide additional training to officers and “usher in the next generation of leadership.”