New top cop in waiting vows to have officers’ backs

Among other things, Larry Snelling vowed to be more sensitive to officers, saying they are not “robots ... made on a conveyor belt. They’re human beings” with families they want to spend time with.

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Larry Snelling, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s pick to lead the Chicago Police Department, has expressed support for mental health workers to help respond to some 911 calls.

Larry Snelling made his debut on Monday as Mayor Brandon Johnson’s choice to lead the Chicago Police Department.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times (file)

Larry Snelling made his debut Monday as the man chosen to lead the Chicago Police Department, promising to improve officer wellness and training, overhaul promotions and rebuild shattered trust between citizens and police.

Snelling proved immediately why Johnson concluded he is the best hope for improving police morale and reversing an exodus of officers from the department, with nearly 1,700 fewer officers than four years ago.

“We need to make sure that we have the best-trained and the most well officers and well-taken-care-of officers when we put them out in the community because, when these officers feel good about themselves, they feel good about the department. ... In order for our officers to love someone else, we have to love them,” Snelling said.

Loving officers and paying attention to their mental health means not saddling them with excessive amounts of overtime and canceled days off, Snelling said.

They’re not “robots ... made on a conveyor belt. … They’re human beings” with wives, husbands, children and elderly parents and grandparents.

“I talk to them and I hear it all the time. Sometimes, they just want to spend time with their family members. … We have to evaluate and reevaluate our officers’ mental health. We have to be cognizant of what we’re doing to these officers when we’re canceling days off. We have to give them notice when that happens,” Snelling said.

“The things that are said to these officers now, the disrespect — that’s huge for our officers. How do they get over that? We have to make sure that we’re providing them with everything that we can provide them with so that they’re well, and they can get over the hump of not being respected most times or seeing death. Our officers are resilient, but we have to give them more to continue to be resilient.”

Snelling said the training of Chicago Police officers should not simply be an exercise in checking boxes to “meet compliance” with the consent decree outlining the terms of federal court oversight of the department.

“Officers want good training. And when they get it, they want more of it. However, if we’re just looking to get officers through 40 hours of training, then what we’re doing is we’re putting officers through training but we’re not training officers,” Snelling said.

“My focus is to make sure that these officers get the best possible training that they can have so that they can police constitutionally. They’ll be tested. They’ll be pushed to their limits. We can’t just simply believe that the consent decree — without true enforcement of it— is going to change the department. In order to change this department and produce the best possible officers that we can put out there, our training has to be robust, and it has to work for our officers.”

Former Los Angeles Police chief Charlie Beck served as interim Chicago Police superintendent after Mayor Lori Lightfoot fired Eddie Johnson.

Even before Snelling was chosen, Beck advised the new superintendent to “work on morale” by getting rid of the merit promotions he abolished but that his successor, David Brown, restored.

“Nobody trusts that promotional system, nor should they,” Beck told the Sun-Times in March. “You have this undefinable, indescribable, unsupportable promotion system, and then you wonder why morale is bad. ... It’s got to be fixed. ... If you’re fair to your cops, that’s how they treat the public.”

Snelling, who benefited from merit promotions, apparently disagrees.

“Merit promotions will stay. There’ll be a more stringent process. To be totally honest, I would like to see the entire promotional process changed to take merit into account for promotion and not just a test. This will give everybody a great opportunity of being promoted,” he said.

“We have to make sure that, when we make promotions, we have the right people in the right places. Of course, we’re looking for diversity. But to insist that a merit promotion is just about diversity is problematic because the word ‘merit’ means something completely different than diversity. The diversity will come in picking the most diverse and well-trained police officers, sergeants, lieutenants possible in order to legitimize the process.”

Brown’s tenure proved how important it is for a mayor to choose the right police superintendent — and the political consequences of the wrong one.

Johnson seemed firmly convinced that he got it right.

The mayor proudly introduced Snelling as a “son of Englewood” whose ability to build trust between officers and the public “puts him in a class by himself.”

Snelling’s story “captures the essence of where we’re going as a city. His collaborative nature is a testament to not just his maturation, but the community that raised him,” Johnson said.

“Whether you’re being raised in Englewood or Austin or Roseland or Lincoln Park, Morgan Park — wherever you are in the city of Chicago — Chief Snelling has a story that reflects the hopes and aspirations of the people of Chicago. He’s just a rare individual.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson on Aug. 14, 2023, introducing his choice of Larry Snelling to lead the Chicago Police Department.

Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks at Monday’s news conference introducing his choice of Larry Snelling to lead the Chicago Police Department.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Snelling returned the favor, praising Johnson for his willingness to “listen to different points of view.”

“Law enforcement is difficult. To have someone willing to listen and understand how officers are risking their lives — it’s extremely important to have a mayor understand that. I cannot stress that enough. Thank you for that,” he told Johnson.

Johnson’s willingness to listen and change his mind will be put to the test when it comes to his campaign promise to eliminate the ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology.

Johnson campaigned on a promise to stop using ShotSpotter, but signed an $11 million extension after taking office. Snelling defended the technology in a November 2021 City Council committee hearing.

The inspector general’s office had complained the tech rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes and can change the way officers interact with residents. But Snelling defended it to committee members at that 2021 meeting.

On Monday, Snelling would only promise to make greater use of crime-fighting and crime-prevention technology. He never mentioned ShotSpotter.

“We have great technology within the Chicago Police Department that we’re still building on. We did a presentation for the mayor, and he found it very impressive,” Snelling said.

When the subject of renewing the ShotSpotter contract came up, Johnson intercepted the question, then danced around it.

“We’re committed to collaborating and listening to one another,” the mayor said. “There is a level of expertise that Chief Snelling brings to the forefront, and his expertise is valued. And there are some dynamics within community safety that we have to be thoughtful about.”

Throughout his maiden media voyage as superintendent-in-waiting, Snelling’s forthrightness and humility was on display.

Asked to characterize the relationship he hopes to have with reporters, whom many police officers view as the enemy, Snelling said: “I will tell you the truth. Sometimes, people won’t be comfortable. But I can guarantee you it’ll be the truth. … That’s the most important thing. The other thing is education. We need to educate — not only the media, but the public about what our jobs are as police officers.”

A “better understanding of what our police officers are doing on a daily basis,” Snelling added, will “help to build and bridge that gap between the community and police officers.”

Instead of having a specific community-policing section, Snelling said every cop would be considered a community-policing officer. And he promised a renewed emphasis on the victims of violent crime.

“What I believe that we’ve forgotten everywhere are the victims of crime. The trauma that those victims deal with. We cannot forget about the victims. We have to have a focus on that,” he said.

“And then our community. Our community members have to have a stake. We have to bring them to the table. We have to talk to our community leaders. And we have to bring in those people that we don’t normally talk to. Those people who live on the side streets of every community.”

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