Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson names Fred Waller as interim police superintendent

Waller, who retired from the Chicago Police Department in 2020 after 34 years on the force, will take over when Johnson is sworn in on May 15.

SHARE Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson names Fred Waller as interim police superintendent
Fred Waller was introduced Wednesday as Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s choice to lead the Chicago Police Department as interim superintendent.

Fred Waller (left) was introduced Wednesday as Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s choice to lead the Chicago Police Department as interim superintendent.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Fred Waller spent 34 years in the Chicago Police Department, rising through the ranks to chief of patrol, chief of operations and third in command.

Now, the man who considers himself a “beat cop at heart” will lead the department he loves.

It could be seen as a summer audition — though Waller said Wednesday he doesn’t “plan on applying for the permanent position.”

La Voz Sidebar

Lea este artículo en español en La Voz Chicago, la sección bilingüe del Sun-Times.
la-voz-cover-photo-2.png

As the Chicago Sun-Times was the first to disclose, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson has asked the 61-year-old Waller to return to lead the department — at least until he chooses a permanent replacement for former Chicago Police Supt. David Brown.

Johnson made the announcement at a downtown news conference Wednesday morning.

“He is deeply committed to accountability, collaboration and excellence, which will set the tone for the entire department during this crucial interim period,” Johnson said.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson introduces former CPD third-in-command Fred Waller as his choice to be interim police superintendent, effective May 15.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson introduces former CPD third-in-command Fred Waller as his choice to be interim police superintendent, effective May 15.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Waller will replace interim Supt. Eric Carter, whose resignation takes effect May 15, inauguration day for Johnson and the new City Council.

“This is a moment for our city,” Waller said after he was introduced. “If there’s one thing that could bring me out of retirement, it was this opportunity to lead and return to the place that I’ve given so much of my life to. ... We must rebuild trust and we must rebuild morale in the department. We can and we will do both.”

Waller described himself as “old-school with integrity, professionalism and respect.”

Asked what it will take to restore morale among the rank and file, Waller said, “The main thing is support. ... They didn’t feel support from previous administrations.”

“There were some things that happened during the civil unrest, during the pandemic in which the officers were the only people, along with the Fire Department, who had to still go out on the street. I watched during that time ... over a thousand officers become ill, but they could not stop,” Waller said.

“When the civil unrest came, you still have to support those officers and show them that, if you make a mistake, you’re not gonna be thrown out with the trash. They have to feel that support. With this administration, they will,” said Waller.

In 2020, Waller followed First Deputy Anthony Riccio into retirement and joined Riccio as a top executive at Monterrey Security.

Now, he will be tasked with minimizing the traditional summer surge of violent crime and preventing a repeat of the videotaped downtown mayhem that gave Chicago another black eye around the world last month.

“Chief Waller has dedicated his career to serving the people of the city of Chicago at virtually every level of the department,” Johnson said at Wednesday’s announcement, held at 325 N. La Salle St., in the same building as Johnson’s transition team offices.

“What stood out to me with Chief Waller was not only his consciousness around how do we make sure that the ranking members of our police department have what they need, but also his consciousness around smart policing and engaging the community, something that we can do a lot better,” said Johnson.

Later Wednesday, speaking at a forum on policing reform at Malcolm X College, Johnson said he was impressed that Waller was “someone who has been around for as long he had been around and still has room for growth.”

The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, a new civilian-led panel, is currently conducting a nationwide search for superintendent candidates. The commission is charged with presenting three options to Johnson by July 14, although the mayor-elect can reject those choices and request three more.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson on Wednesday introduced Fred Waller (right) as his choice to be interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson on Wednesday introduced Fred Waller (foreground) as his choice to be interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Johnson has made it clear he is determined to choose an insider as Brown’s permanent replacement to help restore morale among the rank and file and stop the exodus of officers that has left Chicago with 1,700 fewer officers than when Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office.

Asked whether Waller would be a candidate for the permanent job, the mayor-elect said, “Chief Waller has expressed that his main responsibility is to be part of the transition as we move into finding the permanent person.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), the former Chicago police officer now chairing the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, applauded the appointment for the message it sends to a demoralized rank and file.

“When police are fighting for a contract and that contract extended into several years without being settled, that’s always a time frame where police officers feel unappreciated. But also, our police department just came through a very difficult time where days off were canceled. They felt unappreciated. There were so many things happening within the police department itself. They didn’t have a lot of confidence in the superintendent. That caused demoralization of our police ranks,” Taliaferro said Wednesday.

“This sends a message to ’em that Mayor-elect Johnson is going to have their backs when it comes to looking out and looking at the needs of our rank and file. Mayor-elect Johnson is showing that he cares about their well-being. It’s inspiring and trying to motivate our police officers. Interim Supt. Waller brings great experience back to the police department. But, more important, he was really favored by the rank and file and had a great relationship with them. This will do well with morale,” said Taliaferro.

Although Waller insisted Wednesday he has no plans to apply, Taliaferro said Waller’s tenure will be “very much an audition for the permanent job” even though the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability has until July 14 to forward the names of three finalists to Johnson.

“He’s coming on at a very difficult time as we enter into our warmer days and summer months. What better position to be in than to implement some of the things that he may have done while on the department to help reduce violence?” Taliaferro said.

Anthony Driver, president of the Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability, said the civilian oversight panel is prepared to work closely with Waller during the summer months. But he flatly denied Waller has the inside track on the permanent job.

“We have to, by city ordinance, have three picks to the mayor by July 14th. So, that would be the shortest audition in the history of auditions for a job of this magnitude,” Driver told the Sun-Times.

“When we’re making our decision, we won’t even have a large body of work to go on. And that’s even assuming that he applies. We have no idea whether he is going to apply for the job. And if he is, that deadline closes in [four] days.”

At that Wednesday forum, Johnson did not appear to rule out Waller staying in the top spot.

“I don’t tell people what they can apply for,” Johnson said. “If you think you can fly, little bird, fly.”

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson shakes hands with former Chicago Police Department Chief of Operations Fred Waller after Johnson introduced Waller as his choice for interim superintendent on Wednesday.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson shakes hands with former Chicago Police Department Chief of Operations Fred Waller after Johnson introduced Waller as his choice for interim superintendent on Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The back-to-back departures of Waller and Riccio were an ill-timed blow to the Chicago Police Department.

The 2020 exodus came just as the police department was working to implement a structural reorganization amid surging gun violence on the South and West sides, civil unrest and attacks on police officers.

“I never want to be seen as someone who walks away from a challenge, so that’s the hard part for me in this environment that we’re in right now,” he said then.

Even after rising to the department’s command staff, Waller — whose son is also a Chicago police officer — said he still felt like a beat cop, and he’s worked to show rank and file that they have his support.

“I’ve always been on the front lines because at heart I’m a street cop,” Waller said then.

One of his proudest moments in his career came in December 2018.

Officers Conrad Gary and Eduardo Marmolejo were both struck and killed by a commuter train on the Far South Side while the two were chasing a man suspected of firing a gun nearby.

That night, Waller was tasked with notifying both officers’ families of the deaths. When he returned to the train tracks, Waller saw his fellow command staff members working to collect the two officers’ remains. He felt compelled to join them.

“There’s no way I’m not going to be part of recovering their remains,” Waller said at the time of his retirement. “[It was] just one of the saddest and proudest days, just to see everyone in those white uniforms recovering their remains proudly. I had just spoken to their families so I knew this is something I had to be part of. It was just amazing. It was really amazing. And it was something that always will stand out with me throughout the years.”

One week after Waller announced his retirement, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Waller had been suspended for 28 days for using the word “rape” during a meeting at police headquarters to express his feelings about officers being moved out of police districts to other units.

“Grope me, don’t rape me,” Waller said at the meeting, police records show.

At the time, Waller was in charge of officers in Chicago’s 22 police districts. It was rare for someone in the highest reaches of the department to be suspended.

Former Chicago Police Department Chief of Operations Fred Waller speaks during a news conference Wednesday in River West after Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson introduced him as interim superintendent.

Former Chicago Police Department Chief of Operations Fred Waller speaks during a news conference Wednesday after Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson introduced him as interim superintendent.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On Wednesday, Waller acknowledged yet again his remark was the “wrong choice of words” and that it was “taken out of context”.

But, he said he paid a heavy price for it. He served his suspension by giving up his vacation — and never took a day off — because he was dedicated to helping the department “come under 500 murders” that year.

“That was two years I didn’t have a vacation,” he said.

Waller was asked what he intends to do as interim superintendent to prevent a repeat of the mayhem last month that saw groups of young people, summoned by social media, wreak havoc, climbing on top of cars and buses and robbing and beating a South Carolina couple.

“We’ve done some collaborative things in the past with some street intervention teams. And I see that some of the pastors and dads are getting involved. It has to be a collaborative effort,” Waller said.

“We have to use some innovative ways to look at it. I’ve had a chance to sit back on the sidelines and look at maybe some of the mistakes that we might have made in the past. We also have to include CPS because many of these teens attend CPS schools.”

Contributing: Andy Grimm

The Latest
Northwestern says Derrick Gragg was reassigned, by why is its statement not taken at face value?
Three 16-year-old boys were shot, one of them fatally, while they were getting into a car about 7 p.m. Friday in the 5600 block of North Rockwell Street.
Multiple people from a car fired shots, prompting a guest of a repass service at the Salvation Army to return shots. One person has been arrested, but police are searching for other suspects.
“When we put out one fire, another will spark up,” said Charles McKenzie of Englewood First Responders. “But my motto is we keep hitting it until we get the fires out.”