Former CPD Chief Charlie Beck offers suggestions for Chicago’s next top cop

Charlie Beck, who retired after running LAPD, served five months as CPD boss, implementing some key changes — most of which were rolled back by successor David Brown.

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Charlie Beck was presented a ceremonial baton in April 2020, when he ended a five-month stint as interim superintendent. Beck recommends the next CPD chief end merit promotions and move officers from city-wide units to districts.

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times (file)

Chicago’s police superintendent has some big changes to make, according to former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. And Beck would know: while serving a 20-week stint as Interim chief here, Beck actually made the changes himself, only to see them unwound in the three years since he returned to retirement.

Speaking at a Joyce Foundation forum on police reform Wednesday at Malcolm X College, Beck gave a frank assessment of CPD and the challenges facing interim Superintendent Fred Waller and whoever takes the permanent role.

During his brief time as Chicago’s top cop, Beck canceled the merit promotion system— where officers moved up in rank based on recommendations from superiors, rather than based on their scores on tests — and moved officers from city-wide units to work in police districts.

Beck’s successor, David Brown, brought back merit promotions roughly two years later. The city-wide units returned within months. Beck called for restoring the changes.

Canceling merit promotions was an “easy win” and one that stamped out a pernicious practice that created a web of alliances that eroded morale among the rank and file, suppressed calls for reform and hurt the ability for the department to function effectively.

“It’s a patronage system ... it’s a good-old-boys system,” Beck said. “Everybody is beholden to somebody for their promotion, so because of that debt they will not stand up and say what needs to be said.”

Beck advocated for moving officers from specialized, city-wide teams to staff districts.

“Those district commanders are absolutely accountable to people in the neighborhood and need to have optimized resources, more resources, to meet those needs,” he said.

Beck said he was shocked at the arbitrary way that CPD assigned roughly the same number of officers to each district, regardless of the levels of crime in the district, noting that LAPD used an elaborate formula to deploy officers.

“In cities that don’t have the luxury of 13,000 police officers, you can’t have equal staffing. You have to staff based on need,” Beck said. “A staffing study needs to be completed, then he needs to look at and make hard decisions. Because some districts are going to lose cops, some districts are going to get more cops.”

But effective crime-fighting will require sweeping changes, all focused on connecting officers to the communities they police and solving problems.

“The true fix is a structure that reflects the need to have a strong relationship with every community in every district. That’s the goal, that’s the holy grail of police deployment.”

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