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City war on coronavirus puts selection of Chicago’s new top cop on hold

Before the pandemic, Mayor Lori Lightfoot hoped to have a new CPD superintendent in plenty of time to draft a plan to combat the traditional summer surge of violence. But the mayor’s timetable has been shelved by the coronavirus.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. Eddie Johnson in summer 2019.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and now-fired Police Supt. Eddie Johnson in summer 2019.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

So much for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to have a new Chicago police superintendent appointed and confirmed in plenty of time to draft a plan to combat the traditional summer surge of violence.

Like almost everything else in Chicago during these extraordinary times, the appointment of a permanent replacement for fired Supt. Eddie Johnson is on hold as City Hall marshals all of its resources on the war against the coronavirus.

Until the pandemic, the Chicago Police Board had vowed to complete its nationwide search no later than the end of February and announce the names of three finalists from which Mayor Lori Lightfoot has promised to choose.

By most accounts, the search is over.

Sources say the three finalists have already been chosen from these four: former Dallas Police Chief David Brown; Sean Malinowski, a former chief of detectives for the Los Angeles Police Department; Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman; and Chicago Police Department Deputy Chief Ernest Cato.

But the Police Board did not announce the names of the three finalists, and won’t any time soon.

That means Interim Supt. Charlie Beck will hold down the fort — and lead the law enforcement response to the pandemic — when he had hoped to return to his family in Los Angeles by now.

“Because of this unprecedented crisis that we’re dealing with, the Police Board has decided to hold off on formally submitting anything as it relates to the superintendent search so we can put all of our efforts across the city to focus on dealing with a crisis the likes of which none of us has ever seen,” Police Board President Ghian Foreman told the Sun-Times.

“The superintendent search pales in comparison to what we are facing right now.”

Foreman served with Lightfoot on the Police Board and replaced her as president when she declared her candidacy for mayor.

He reacted angrily when asked how the indefinite hold would impact Lightfoot’s plan to have a new superintendent in place in time to craft an all-important summer plan at a time when homicides are already up by more than 50 percent over last year’s total.

“I’ve got family members in New York right now with coronavirus and pneumonia. And you want to focus on when we’re choosing a superintendent? Is that what you really are doing? Come on,” he said.

“After 9/11, would you have called us and said what are we doing with the superintendent search? Come on. You’re better than that.”

A mayor’s office statement said Lightfoot hopes to choose a new superintendent “in the very near future” and there would be no further comment “to ensure the integrity of this process. ... While the search continues, Superintendent Beck will remain in his steadfast leadership” of CPD.

The terms of Beck’s contract with the city were not known. Also not clear: if there is an end date, as well as a balloon payment if his stay is extended.

Although Beck’s home state of California also is dealing with the coronavirus emergency, Police Department spokesman Tom Ahern said Beck is “committed” to remaining in Chicago for “however long the mayor requests him to stay.”

Ahern described Beck as “very hands-on and engaged.”

Beck is the retired L.A. police chief whose arrival in Chicago was hastened by Lightfoot’s decision to fire Johnson a month early. She accused Johnson of lying about the circumstances surrounding an embarrassing drinking-and-driving incident in mid-October.

Beck’s family has remained in California during his Chicago tenure. He was visiting police districts and checking on officers over the weekend. He also is presiding over two meetings a day with his top aides, chiefs and deputy chiefs, Ahern said.

They meet in a cavernous room on the first floor of police headquarters with each person sitting about 10 feet part from the next to honor the social distancing mandate. Microphones are available to the officials in the room. Beck sits at the front of the room with his chief of staff and first deputy nearby.

Whenever the mayor makes her choice, the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety will need to hold confirmation hearings.

When Lightfoot abruptly cancelled the March 18 council meeting, it was recessed until April 15. But nobody knows if that meeting will be held, either.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Chris Taliaferro (29th) said a confirmation hearing for the new superintendent “has to happen by statute.” But, he said, “The mayor probably will look into the possibility of video conferencing” to allow aldermen to question the mayor’s choice.

A teleconference hearing would not allow members of the general public to weigh in — unless everyday Chicagoans eager to testify were somehow told to appear at designated Chicago public libraries, for example, or to submit written comments to be read into the record.

Taliaferro acknowledged Beck “didn’t expect to be here so long,” but that he “understands what’s going on across the country and how that has possibly slowed down the process of putting a new superintendent in place.”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), one of the mayor’s closest City Council allies, said the last time he and the mayor discussed the subject, “She wanted to have somebody in place certainly by April.”

“Now, more than ever, we need to make sure we have continuity in the police department,” said O’Shea, whose Southwest Side ward is home to scores of Chicago Police officers.

“Hopefully, the bad guys out there are practicing social distancing.”

Early on, the frontrunners to replace Johnson appeared to be Brown and Malinowski. But more recently, there have been signals that Malinowski may have fallen out of favor because he has been viewed as having campaigned for the job in a way some at City Hall see as heavy-handed.

If Malinowski does not make the top three — despite his slick video and intimate knowledge of CPD as a consultant who helped create Strategic Decision Support Centers across the city — that could open the door for Lightfoot to choose a dark horse in Ziman.