Black Caucus threatens to withhold votes from next top cop

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Ald. Roderick Sawyer, at podium, and members of the City Council’s Black Caucus, want a local African-American to become police superintendent. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Members of the City Council’s Black Caucus threatened Thursday to withhold their votes to ratify Chicago’s next police superintendent if they’re not allowed to question all three finalists before Mayor Rahm Emanuel makes his pick.

Normally aldermen get to question and confirm the new superintendent only after the mayor makes his pick. But Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said these are not normal times.

The video played around the world of white police officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 rounds into the body of black teenager Laquan McDonald has “shattered public trust” in Chicago Police officers, Sawyer said.

So has what Sawyer called the “Blue Wall of Silence” that saw Van Dyke’s fellow officers tailor their stories to match his — by claiming that McDonald was aggressively moving toward Van Dyke with a knife in his hand when he was actually walking away or already on the ground.

At a City Hall news conference flanked by 10 of the Council’s 17 black aldermen, Sawyer contended that shattered public trust can only be restored by shining the light on all three nominees.

The unprecedented public forum would allow aldermen and the people they represent to judge for themselves which of the finalists would be most capable of restoring public trust and reducing the increase in gang violence that has Chicago on pace to top 600 homicides and 6,000 shootings in 2016.

“It’s beyond time. We should have been doing it a long time ago. I’m glad we’re [demanding] it now. We should question them. The public demands us to question and challenge the individuals coming before us,” Sawyer said.

“We want somebody that can restore trust in the police department. We want somebody that has the trust of the rank-and-file. Someone that knows Chicago and knows how the police department works here. We need to ask questions to be sure that, whoever that choice is, could subscribe to these things that we’re asking. Right now, we’re almost as much in the dark as you are.”

Sawyer said the Black Caucus firmly believes that fired Supt. Garry McCarthy should be replaced with an African-American insider who “knows the police department and knows our city inside and out, top to bottom.”

But he stopped far short of offering a full-throated endorsement of the only one of the three finalists who fits that description: Deputy Police Supt. Eugene Williams, who oversees the Bureau of Support Services that serves as the administrative backbone of the Chicago Police Department.

The other two finalists are Cedric Alexander, the African-American public safety director of DeKalb County, Georgia, outside Atlanta; and Anne Kirkpatrick, retired police chief of Spokane, Washington.

On Thursday, Sawyer cracked the door open to backing Alexander, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and spent six years as security director for the Transportation Security Administration at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

“If and when we get an opportunity to speak with them and we can ask him specific questions about his policing strategy, his policing style and how he’s going to approach this, we would love to have that conversation and, maybe he would be considered,” Sawyer said.

“He’s had that conversation with the mayor. And the mayor obviously gets to make that choice. But I believe the people should also be able to hear what these individuals have to say about their future for their city’s police department. All we’re asking is for them to do that.”

Asked what leverage he has to force the mayor to hold such an unprecedented hearing, Sawyer said, “Our votes.”

Does that mean black aldermen will withhold their votes from Emanuel’s choice if they don’t get that hearing?

“Yes,” Sawyer said as the news conference ended.

Emanuel’s communications director Kelley Quinn issued a diplomatically worded statement that all but shot down the demand for a public hearing.

“The mayor is looking for the best-qualified candidate to provide the level of safety all residents deserve, rebuild the trust that’s essential for community policing, continue the work that’s been done to reform the police department, and earn the trust of Chicago’s police officers to lead them. This is a step-by-step process that includes a public hearing and vote in City Council,” Quinn wrote, apparently referring to the City Council confirmation hearing that will follow the mayor’s appointment of a new superintendent.

After receiving the three names from the Police Board last week, Emanuel signaled his intention to make a quick decision on Chicago’s next police superintendent. He argued that the city is “eager to get going” and that 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.”

But the mayor has since postponed until next week his decision on whether to choose one of the three finalists or ask the Police Board to start over.

That has opened the door for the Black and Hispanic Caucuses to turn up the heat and put Emanuel in a political box.

Last week, the Hispanic Caucus urged the mayor to reject all three finalists and order the Police Board to conduct a second search that produces a list that includes a Hispanic, preferably interim Supt. John Escalante.

The Hispanic Caucus is furious that Escalante, who has been holding down the fort since Emanuel fired McCarthy on Dec. 1, did not make the final cut.

They see it as part of an insulting pattern that was repeated at the Chicago Public Schools when Jesse Ruiz temporarily stepped in for Barbara Byrd-Bennett after the contracting scandal, only to lose his job as school board president. Ruiz was named park board president as a consolation.

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