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He’s only here for a few months, but Charlie Beck has plans for the CPD

Beck discussed a range of topics with the Sun-Times, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Fraternal Order of Police and why he halted the department’s controversial merit promotions system.

Anyone planning a trip to Chicago would be wise to avoid coming to town from December through March — undoubtedly the four most unpleasant months of the year, weather-wise.

But that’s the timeline interim Chicago Police Supt. Charlie Beck will operate under as he works to grease the skids for whoever becomes the department’s next full-time leader.

Beck retired as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in 2018 after nine years at the helm. All told, he spent more than 40 years with the LAPD. Earlier this month, he was thrust to the top of the Chicago Police Department sooner than planned after Mayor Lori Lightfoot fired Supt. Eddie Johnson amid an investigation by the city’s Office of the Inspector General.

Beck has said he wouldn’t take the permanent job, even if offered, giving him the freedom to make unpopular decisions without worrying about political blowback.

“I think that there’s a number of things that will benefit Chicago and the Chicago Police Department that can get done by an interim that would be a heavier lift for a full-time” superintendent, he said. “I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think that this would succeed. I have no interest in anything else. If I didn’t think that we could set things up for a better Chicago Police Department I wouldn’t be here.”

In a wide-ranging interview with the Sun-Times, Beck, 66, discussed some of his plans for the department during his brief tenure, his policing philosophies, his views on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Fraternal Order of Police, ongoing federal court oversight, how the department is preparing for statewide marijuana legalization and why he halted the department’s controversial merit promotions system. (He even fielded a question about the unsolved 1997 murder in L.A. of legendary rapper The Notorious B.I.G.)

Merit promotions

One of Beck’s first moves was to discontinue the department’s merit promotions system. Beck said his decision — made in concert with Lightfoot and Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham — was one he’ll recommend his successor keep in place. He also encouraged the next superintendent to offer promotional tests every two years.

The CPD began using the merit system in the 1990s with the goal, ostensibly, of increasing racial diversity among department leadership. After its yearlong investigation of the CPD, the U.S. Department of Justice said: “Many of the officers we spoke with, minority and non-minority alike, told us they feel merit promotions are not truly based on merit, but rather the clout you hold in the department or who you know.”

Beck said the decision to halt the merit system was rooted in fostering trust.

“You need a system where they (officers) have faith in their leadership, and the people of Chicago need to have faith in their leadership,” Beck said. “They can’t think that somebody moved around the system to get promoted. It’s just not fair. And it’s not fair to all the other candidates that got promoted through the — I was going to say ‘legitimate’ — more legitimate process because they are tainted by the same list.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

As it stands now, Chicago cops work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in limited ways — specifically, if a criminal suspect is in the city’s controversial gang database; has pending felony prosecutions or prior felony convictions; or is the subject of an outstanding criminal warrant.

When leading the LAPD, Beck says, “we made sure we kept ICE at an appropriate distance.” That philosophy will not change while he leads the CPD, he says.

“Your residency is not a criminal law [matter], it is an administrative law violation,” he said. “It’s not our job. And if we do that, we will alienate the people we are here to protect. Another part of my philosophy is, if you’re in Chicago, if you’re driving through, if you live here, if you work here, [then] you’re my responsibility. I don’t care where you were born. I don’t care what language your parents speak. I don’t care about any of that.”

Beck did note, though, that he has “some sympathy” for ICE agents because “I don’t know that they totally believe ... in what they’re being told to do.”

Interim Chicago Police Supt. Charlie Beck
The legalization of recreational marijuana is among the challenge Chicago police officers will deal with in 2020, interim Supt. Charlie Beck said.
Sun-Times file photo

Legalized marijuana

Voters in California OK’d legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults in 2016, while recreational marijuana use for adults becomes legal in Illinois on Jan. 1.

Given his experience, Beck says he has told CPD officers: “You just have to come to grips with a new way of thinking about the use of cannabis. It’s not meant to disrespect you [police officers]; it’s just the new law, and that’s the way it is.”

Beck said it was “not really” difficult to get officers on board with that way of thinking, though he cautioned: “Will there be some bumps in the road? Oh, of course there will be. Will we have to continue training? Yes, we will. But we’ll do that and this will find its right level.”

He’s also warned officers to be especially mindful of robberies at marijuana dispensaries. Since marijuana is still federally prohibited, marijuana dispensaries are cash-only businesses, making them natural robbery targets.

In Los Angeles, the excitement over legalization faded within a few days of the law taking effect. The change in the law, he said, didn’t appear to drive anyone to try marijuana for the first time, either.

“I don’t think any more people smoke marijuana in Los Angeles now that it’s legal than did before it was legal,” Beck said. “I think we just took away a block that made people operate outside the law for doing something that’s relatively normal.”

Federal consent decree

The federal court consent decree governing a host of departmental reforms — spurred by the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video — is front of mind for Beck.

Since he took over earlier this month, he’s ordered 35 previously vacant positions that are “specific to monitoring and training consent decree issues” be filled. According to a department spokesman, those 35 positions are primarily in the Office of Reform Management and Crisis Intervention Unit. Officers in the Crisis Intervention Unit are dispatched to incidents in which a subject is undergoing a mental health crisis or has specific mental health needs.

“Consent decree compliance is a huge trust issue for Chicago at large because, you know, what they see when they read that the department is not in compliance is that the department doesn’t take the consent decree seriously,” Beck said. “And we do — I do — take it seriously, and the department takes it seriously. So mandating the filling of consent decree-related positions and keeping them filled [is] really important.”

Beck said he’s tweaked the CPD’s weekly CompStat meetings — in which department leaders discuss and analyze crime trends and develop strategies to combat them — to also include checkups on consent decree compliance.

“You’re likely to get quizzed on your consent decree compliance just as much as your crime numbers,” Beck said.

The Fraternal Order of Police

The union representing the department’s rank-and-file officers has resisted many reforms rolled out by the department in recent years and has repeatedly voiced its displeasure with the consent decree.

Partly in an effort to get off on the right foot, Beck called Graham, the union president, to ask for his input — “a pretty significant olive branch” — before Beck axed the merit promotions system.

Beck said finding common ground between the department and the union is key to maintaining a healthy working relationship.

“You can’t just come in and dictate to them and expect to get anything,” Beck said. “But you can come in and look at what is they want and see what’s possible to give them, and then, if the relationship is right, then they’ll come back to you with the same thing. And I think a lot of it is the core belief that we’re looking for the same thing, which is a better police department.”

Chicago Police Department interim Supt. Charlie Beck
Chicago Police Department interim Supt. Charlie Beck was interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times last week at CPD headquarters.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times