Editorial: Turning over rocks to show how cops are promoted

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Chicago’s 22 police districts will have to wait until the end of this year to benefit fully from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s two-year police hiring surge, Police Supt. Eddie Johnson acknowledged on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. | Sun-Times file photo

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Merit promotions by the Chicago Police Department are easy to defend except when they are not.

Common sense says CPD is justified in going beyond written tests to pick the right people to be sergeants, detectives and lieutenants. Anybody who has worked in a big organization knows that good judgment and leadership skills cannot be fully measured by a test. There are other considerations, as well, such as race and ethnicity, that legitimately should factor into promotions in a police department committed to building better ties with all Chicagoans.

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But the downside of merit promotions is the danger — heck, the reality — of favoritism by the top brass. Traditionally, the fastest way to climb the ladder at CPD has been to demonstrate great bravery and superb policing skills by serving as a driver for a mayor, police superintendent or well-connected alderman.

The best check on such abuses is to put at least a small spotlight on every merit promotion, which is what Police Supt. Eddie Johnson announced this week he will do. We doubt that will end favoritism. This is Chicago. But it will make it that much harder, and at least people will know when to howl. The Fraternal Order of Police, the union which represents rank-and-file officers, is skeptical of merit promotions altogether, which you might expect, given that the decisions are left to management.

Johnson said all merit promotions — and the name of the person who recommended the promotion — will be posted on an internal website for all to see.

As Frank Main and Fran Spielman report in Tuesday’s Sun-Times, this actually is a reform that was imposed and then rescinded a few years ago. The criticism of full disclosure at the time was that officers promoted by merit selection were ostracized because of a feeling they had not earned the job. Maybe. Or maybe the practice was ended because it embarrassed CPD. The political clouting was sometimes blatant.

Johnson is bringing back the old reform in response to a recommendation by the U.S. Department of Justice that there be increased “transparency” around the merit promotion process. Many officers had complained to Justice Department investigators that merit promotions were nothing but a “reward for cronyism.”

That likely was true, and likely will remain true. But at least the rock is turned over.

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