When ‘merit promotions’ become clout decisions, CPD — and diversity — lose out

Interim Supt. Charlie Beck’s decision to end merit promotions should be part of a larger effort improve the system by which officers move up in rank.

SHARE When ‘merit promotions’ become clout decisions, CPD — and diversity — lose out
Interim Chicago Police Supt. Charlie Beck

Interim Chicago Police Supt. Charlie Beck has put an end to “merit promotions,” arguing there are better ways to promote racial and ethnic diversity in the police department’s upper ranks.

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Merit promotions at the Chicago Police Department will become a thing of the past — much like nightsticks and squad car M-plates — if Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her acting police superintendent have their way.

Interim Supt. Charlie Beck this week ended the almost 30-year-old practice by which some officers advanced not by passing promotion exams, but through a nomination and interview process followed by approval by department brass and the superintendent. Lightfoot on Thursday backed Beck, saying merit selection has become “illegitimate.”

The decision is the right move.

As made clear in a 2017 Department of Justice report, which was based on interviews with dozens of officers, merit promotions too often have been driven by clout, not merit. It’s been whom you know, not what you can do.

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We also agree, though, that greater diversity in the upper ranks of the police force is essential, which ostensibly was the biggest justification for merit promotions. A police force must look like the community it serves, yet CPD remains disproportionately white.

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Better prep for exams

Toward that end, Beck’s decision to end merit promotions should be part of a larger effort improve the system by which officers can move up in rank, with a particular eye toward how officers are prepared for exams.

Merit promotions were always a good idea, in theory. And experienced officers who score high enough on promotion exams still can climb the department ladder. But in practice merit promotions often have been a sham, even an embarrassment. Officers who flat out failed their exams have been promoted.

The practice was criticized by the Justice Department report as having “a lack of transparency.” The report also said Chicago police officers themselves told the Justice Department merit promotions were “a reward for cronyism.”

And while the needle may have moved a bit in adding black and Hispanic officers in the upper ranks, 40 percent of merit promotions were given to whites, according to a 2016 Sun-Times probe.

It does little to bolster public confidence in the police if you’re not sure if a detective or supervisor earned their position or just had the right connections. It does little to bolster morale within the police department, for that matter.

Merit promotions rare elsewhere

Beck’s next step should be to improve the police promotion exam set-up, and create a vastly improved system that better prepares officers — particularly black and Hispanic ones — for those exams.

The Los Angeles Police Department, the nation’s third largest police force, doesn’t use merit promotions. Most big city police departments don’t.

An LAPD spokesperson said she told us that she had never even heard of the practice. But 675 of Los Angeles’ 1,799 detectives and lieutenants — almost 40 percent — are black or Hispanic.

LAPD officers have to pass both a written test and an interview with a three-person panel composed of a captain, lieutenant and civilian in order to be promoted to ranks above detective.

Look to Los Angeles

A number of Chicago aldermen, Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times reports, have expressed alarm that Beck has ended merit promotions.

We might agree with them if there were convincing evidence that merit promotions have led to significantly greater diversity in CPD’s upper ranks.

Finding a better way to achieve that diversity at CPD might begin with looking at what’s going on at the LAPD, which Beck helped transform when he was its top cop.

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