Mayor scores a win with Snelling, a bad misstep with Arwady

Mayor Brandon Johnson selected 29-year veteran Larry Snelling to be the city’s next police superintendent, days after the misstep of abruptly firing Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson looks on as Chief of Counterterrorism Larry Snelling speaks at a news conference at City Hall to announce Snelling as the next superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.

Mayor Brandon Johnson looks on as Chief of Counterterrorism Larry Snelling speaks at a news conference at City Hall to announce Snelling as the next superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s pick of Larry Snelling to be Chicago’s next police superintendent will, we hope, turn out to be a win for better public safety.

Snelling, currently the Chicago Police Department’s chief of counterterrorism, vowed on Monday to focus on improving morale among officers. We also urge Snelling to step on the gas, hard, when it comes to policing reform. Chicago has been dragging its feet on this front, and leadership from a respected veteran will go a long way toward making reform a priority along with curbing crime.

Johnson chose Snelling from the list of three finalists selected by the Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability, and the selection was no surprise given Snelling’s popularity and experience. But the mayor’s smart move came in stark contrast to his eyebrow-raising blunder last Friday, when he fired respected Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

Let’s get this point out of the way: Johnson had said months ago he planned to fire Arwady, and he is entitled to his own selections to lead city departments.

Editorial

Editorial

But Johnson also said he was open to keeping Arwady on board and would meet with her to discuss the matter — then never did.

So let’s make this point clear too: How a boss treats employees matters. When that boss is the mayor, the public is watching, as are other professionals who might be candidates for a top city job. The smart move, absent wrongdoing or incompetence, is to let a top leader make a graceful exit. Instead, Johnson apparently sent his chief of staff to fire Arwady, who guided our city through three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, around 5 p.m. last Friday, without letting her tell her staff goodbye or even send an email.

As one veteran City Hall observer told us, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” and they didn’t mean that in a good way.

What’s worse, in this case, is the appearance of petty payback on behalf of the Chicago Teachers Union, which clashed with Arwady over a return to in-person schooling amid the pandemic. Johnson, who owes his mayoral win largely to the CTU, was asked about the “payback” issue on Monday — and deflected it with a quote from Tupac Shakur rather than addressing the matter head-on.

A new strain of COVID-19 is making a resurgence. The Department of Public Health is facing a huge loss of funding when federal pandemic relief money runs out. For the good of the department and the city, the Johnson administration has got to find an experienced, respected public health leader to replace Arwady.

The same goes for other key leaders. Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox, a strong voice for bringing new investment to neglected neighborhoods on the South and West sides, resigned on Friday. Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara resigned July 28. Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi also resigned last month.

Turnover is to be expected with a new administration. It’s now up to the Johnson administration to show it can handle change, without more unforced errors.

Building bridges with communities

With the choice of Snelling, Johnson seems to have accomplished that with arguably his most important hire. Curbing crime is a must in order for Chicago to thrive, and law enforcement is part of the equation.

At his introductory press conference, Snelling spoke about boosting morale by providing improved wellness and training opportunities for officers, which we strongly support as essential steps in reforming CPD.

No city can expect to get the best from its police department when officers are demoralized, overworked and stressed out. The many good officers who want to do their jobs the right way deserve support with mental health and state-of-the-art training.

Snelling also spoke about building bridges between officers and the community, a huge task that has become even more important in recent years. A community survey by the independent monitoring team overseeing the policing reform consent decree found that public approval of CPD has declined since the decree went into effect in 2019.

“Our community members have to have a stake. We have to bring them to the table. We have to talk to our community leaders,” Snelling, a native of Englewood, said Monday.

Johnson struck out on his handling of Arwady. With Snelling, it looks like he may well have hit a home run.

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