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Odd man out in search for Chicago’s top cop opens up

Sean Malinowski talks candidly to the Sun-Times about the Chicago Police Board’s stunning decision to leave him off a list of finalists for the Chicago Police Superintendent.

LAPD Commander Sean W. Malinowski, Ph.D speaks during an interview about the use of predictive policing zone maps at the Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters on Monday, October 24, 2016
Sean W. Malinowski, shown during a 2016 interview in his office at Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters, had been considered by some a leading candidate to take over the top job in Chicago.
Washington Post

He looked like a shoo-in to make the final cut because of the breadth of his big-city experience and his intimate knowledge of the Chicago Police Department.

Instead, he’s the odd man out in a list that includes three finalists for Chicago Police Superintendent whose credentials and experience don’t hold a candle to his.

On Wednesday, Sean Malinowski talked candidly to the Chicago Sun-Times about the Chicago Police Board’s stunning decision to leave him off a top cop list that includes retired Dallas Police Chief David Brown, Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman and the CPD’s Deputy Chief Ernest Cato.

He was classy — not bitter — even though he couldn’t hide his disappointment.

He wished Mayor Lori Lightfoot well in making a decision that could make or break her mayoralty and said he was here to help the new superintendent, whomever she chooses.

“I gave it my best shot. They’re gonna go in another direction. I’m excited to see who they do end up picking and getting a relationship going with that person just like I had with Eddie [Johnson] and I had with Charlie [Beck],” Malinowski said.

“This could very easily devolve into something negative. I just don’t think we have time for that. Let’s say it was me and I was coming in. I would want to get right to the work. At this point, I want to make it easier for that person.”

Malinowski is a Ph.D. who served as chief of detectives and chief of staff to now-retired Los Angeles Police Superintendent Charlie Beck at a time when that department lived through a consent decree and got out from under federal court oversight.

He knows CPD intimately, having served as a consultant to the department in the furor that followed the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video. Malinowski helped create Strategic Decision Support Centers in districts across the city that allow police and civilian analysts to monitor shootings and crime trends in real time.

Here’s an edited transcript of his interview:

Q. Some claim you campaigned for the job in a way that offended City Hall. What did you do?

A. I don’t know where that came from. I know a lot of people in town. I’m sure people were trying to help and talk on my behalf. I hadn’t solicited that. But I don’t think that’s what it was. I don’t. This is a very difficult decision to make. The consequences are big. The city is trying to play it straight. So, let `em do it. I don’t feel bad about it. I’m OK.

Q. You’ve done everything at every level. And you look at these other three and you wonder, “I didn’t make that list?” It’s got to be insulting.

A. I’m not insulted. … There’s a lot to be done here. I don’t think we should get bogged down in that. We should look to help the new person — whoever that is.

Q. But you know how little experience [at least two] of these people have, compared to your experience. Would the mayor be taking a chance with someone who’s running [the police department in] Aurora, which is the size of one district in Chicago, for example?

A. I’m gonna leave that to you guys. ... I have a good relationship with folks in the mayor’s office. They’ve got a tough decision to make. ... It’s really a defining decision for them. We shouldn’t be second-guessing them.

Q. What do you know about the three finalists?

A. David Brown’s been a chief before for a long time in a big city. There are attributes when we start looking at these people. They’re all very capable people [who] can certainly handle this job. I don’t know Kristen Ziman. But you hear a lot of things about her work at IACP [International Association of Chiefs of Police] and how she handled that [mass shooting] incident in a crisis. I can see the attributes of these people. I know I get accused a lot of times of being too much of an optimist. But you’ve got to be. In a crisis that we’re facing, people have to be optimistic or we’re not gonna be able to get on top of it.

Q. What about Cato? Is Cato ready? We saw Eddie Johnson lifted out of obscurity. That ended badly.

A. I consider him to be a friend. I’ve gotten pretty close with Ernie over the last few years. He’s a stand-out for sure. This is a guy who knows crime-fighting and also knows the community policing aspect of it. That’s difficult to find in someone. It’s usually one or the other. There’s a lot of promise with Ernie.

Q. But is he ready?

A. I don’t think anybody’s ready. … If you talk to Charlie Beck or other people, they’d say nobody’s ready on day one for this challenge. That’s why we all have to pull together. The mayor makes her decision and everybody’s got to rally behind the superintendent because it’s bigger than who gets picked. We have people being killed on the street and we have a big public health crisis right now.

Q. You clashed with Maurice Classen, the mayor’s chief of staff, during your days together at CPD. Did that have anything to do with you not making the top three?

A. I’ve heard that. Both Maurice and I are passionate about what we’re doing. When he was at the police department, we didn’t agree on everything. [But] that’s a long time ago. I’ve talked to Maurice [since]. I consider him a friend and he considers me a friend. That may have gotten blown out of proportion by a third-party or somebody who heard an argument one time. Maurice and I are good.

Q. Is Beck upset? I assume that he might be.

A. Even for me, he’s hard do read. He has a long history with me. He’d be upset if I was upset. But, I’m really not. I’m trying to stay above that.

Q. Is the Chicago Police Department ready for a woman as superintendent? That would be one heckuva culture shock.

A. Yeah, well. I don’t know. I don’t think you know until it happens.

Q. Do you think that will factor into Lightfoot’s decision?

A. I don’t think so. No. She’s gonna pick the person that is the most confident to do this very difficult job.

Q. What’s the most important quality she should be looking for?

A. This is an all-absorbing job. She’s got to get somebody who’s totally committed. Committed to collaboration. Committed to the officers. She’ll get that.

Q. What would your advice be to the mayor on this make-or-break decision?

A. That’s a hard one because it’s such a big decision for her. It’s got to be a lonely place for her to be making this decision because peoples’ lives are on the line. Secondarily, people’s careers are on the line. But I have faith in the mayor. I wouldn’t presume to give her advice on something like this unless she asked me directly. … The mayor got elected by a large majority. ... She’s a prosecutor. She gets all the facts. She’s gonna make a good decision. I have every confidence in that.

Q. If you were her, whom would you pick?

A. That’s dangerous to say. That’s a hard one. I don’t know the people well enough to make that call.