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Editorial: Butt out, aldermen. Picking top cop is mayor’s job

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), at podium, and other members of the City Council's Black Caucus want to question all three finalists for the job of Chicago Police Superintendent. Sun-Times photo by Rich Hein.

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A lot of aldermen secretly want to be mayor, but Chicago would be a lot better off if they would just do their own jobs better.

Case in point: Ten of the City Council’s 17 African-American aldermen are demanding that they be allowed to interview all three finalists to be Chicago’s next police superintendent, even before Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made his pick. And as of late Saturday night, it appears they may only be down to one candidate. The Sun-Times reported that Emanuel reversed course and asked Eddie Johnson, the department’s well-liked chief of patrol, to be the next superintendent.

A Council interview is a lousy idea in so many ways.

EDITORIAL

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In Chicago, the police chief answers directly to the mayor. It is written in the city’s charter. The police chief, like all department heads, serves at the mayor’s pleasure and can be fired by the mayor at any time. It only makes sense that the mayor should also make the hire, with only the usual proper advice and consent from the Council.

To change the rules now, with the aldermen making a move on a politically weakened mayor, would set a “terrible precedent,” said Don Haider, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. It would undermine the ability for Emanuel — or any future mayor — to make major appointments.

Public interviews of all three candidates would, of course, become a circus. Imagine the political posturing. Imagine the angry questions from lined-up members of the public — yes, they’d be allowed to ask questions, too.

The best candidates — and Chicago needs the best — wouldn’t even bother.

“If I were a candidate, I wouldn’t even want the job if I had to ask, ‘Who’s my boss,” said Haider, who was Mayor Jane Byrne’s budget director. “I’m answering to multiple constituencies right off the bat.”

Imagine, as well, the political quagmire if the aldermen decided they preferred one candidate while the mayor preferred another, even before there was a nominee.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) says it is important that the Council interview all three candidates because we do not live in “normal times.” The infamous video of a police officer shooting young Laquan McDonald 16 times, he said, “shattered public trust” in the Chicago Police.

This is true. But the video also “shattered trust” — such as there was — in the City Council, which had looked away from police misconduct for pretty much forever. Why did the Council ask almost no questions when voting to approve a multi-million-dollar settlement with McDonald’s family to make this scandal go away?

What’s really driving the aldermen is damage control. They were asleep on the job when it came to police misconduct, their constituents are furious, and they are trying to curry favor. That would include a little show of independence from a mayor who is hurting in the polls.

“We should question them,” Sawyer said. “The public demands us to question and challenge the individuals coming before us.”

No, alderman. The public demands only that you do your job, which would be to interview and vote on Emanuel’s eventual nominee.

Sawyer, who is chairman of the Council’s Black Caucus, says the next police chief should be an African American who knows Chicago “inside and out,” understands “how the police department works” and “has the trust of the rank-and-file.”

That description, which makes plenty of sense, fits just one of the three candidates, Deputy Police Supt. Eugene Williams. The other two finalists would be new to Chicago. They are Cedric Alexander, the African-American public safety director of DeKalb County, outside Atlanta; and Anne Kirkpatrick, retired police chief of Spokane, Washington.

But given an equally important agenda for the Chicago Police, which is to transform a culture that has tolerated police misconduct as a matter of course, there is a strong argument as well for bringing in a complete outsider.

All the more important, then, to give Emanuel and has administration plenty of time and room, with maximum Council support, to conduct the most thorough search possible. The deeper they dig, the more they question, the better for our city. New information will always come out.

Emanuel’s job is to put forth the name of a superb candidate to be Chicago’s next top cop. He should not be rushed, and let’s quit trying to big-foot him.

The City Council’s responsibility, when the time comes, is to advise and consent on that nominee.

That is the Council’s only job, but it is a big one.

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