What does Chicago need in a new police superintendent? First, a leader with vision.

I have seen police departments rise from the ashes of defeat due to great leaders with the courage and vision to drive change, writes former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. Chicago deserves no less.

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New police officers are sworn in at a Chicago Police Department promotion and graduation ceremony on October 20, 2021.

New police officers are sworn in at a Chicago Police Department promotion and graduation ceremony on October 20, 2021.

Scott Olson/Getty

Chicago’s Community Commission for Public Safety has a vitally important and challenging task in finding the next police superintendent. With 53 applicants, including 32 with a current or former connection to the Chicago Police Department, the commission has a broad field from which to choose.

While there is no strict formula for what makes a great police chief, there are a few key qualities that matter.

Foremost, CPD needs a visionary leader who recognizes both the flaws and the potential of the organization he or she leads. CPD can be so much better than it is in its current state, where morale is low, attrition is high, and effectiveness has suffered.

In addition to leadership experience, the next superintendent must be willing to bring outside ideas into CPD. This does not necessarily require someone from outside the organization, but whoever is chosen must look outside Chicago for best practices.

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The next superintendent must also be an inspirational leader. Chicago police officers have been demoralized by poor leadership, increased crime and the frustration that comes with failure. Through words and actions, he or she must convince stressed police officers that it’s a new day in CPD and they must bring their best efforts to the job.

He or she also must strike the right balance between advocacy and accountability. A police leader must stand up for the men and women in uniform and give them the tools, training, resources and support they need to do their jobs.

That includes intelligent staffing and deployment as well as clearly defined objectives that focus on outcomes, such as reduced violence, rather than inputs, such as increased arrests. Once these conditions have been met, a police leader can set high standards for behavior and effectiveness and hold the commanders and the rank and file accountable.

Communication skills and the credibility that comes with clear, consistent directives are also essential. The next police leader must be fluent with multiple audiences: the diverse communities of Chicago, the media, the political body, command staff, and the rank and file. The job demands a strong public speaker who conveys competency, compassion and calm, both in times of crisis and on a day-to-day basis.

Crucial steps to driving change

Lastly, the next superintendent must be tenacious in driving change. No police department can afford to stand still, and that’s especially true in Chicago, which has lagged behind other big cities in adopting modern, effective policing practices.

That includes the following:

  • Decentralize detectives, gang units and narcotic squads and reassign them to districts, accountable to district commanders. Commanders should be held accountable through COMPSTAT review sessions, with the superintendent in attendance to signal the importance of accountability and performance.
  • Fully embrace the federal reform consent decree as the roadmap to best practices in policing. Elevate the status of those responsible for implementing it, by having them report directly to the superintendent and by fully staffing their positions.
  • Eliminate the patronage-based promotional system and create a system that is truly based on merit. Hold tests for all ranks on a regular schedule, so everyone can compete on an equal basis.
  • Complete the long-promised and eagerly awaited deployment study so districts are staffed based on clearly articulated needs — taking into account population, geography, call load, violent crime, property crime, call response times and special events. Chicago must deploy officers where and when they are most needed.
  • Expand the Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative citywide so that every district has “Coordination Officers” dealing with root causes of crime. In practice, this means beat officers can be more accountable because they will have the resources to address non-criminal issues that can undermine safety, like substance abuse or mental health.
  • Become a true partner to community violence intervention groups. Chicago has some of the best in the country, and the city will never reduce shootings, increase public trust and improve clearance rates without them. They are the key to success.
  • Learn from other big cities, especially New York and Los Angeles. Form strong professional relationships with them, both at the leadership level and throughout the ranks. One of CPD’s weaknesses is its culture of isolation that prevents growth into 21st century policing.

As someone who has been in police leadership for decades, I have seen police departments mired in cycles of failure due to weak leaders. I have also seen police departments rise from the ashes of defeat due to great leaders with the courage and vision needed to drive change. Chicago deserves no less.

Charlie Beck is the former police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. He served as Interim Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department from December 2019 — April 2020.

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