Retiring Chicago FBI boss says people doing ‘the right thing’ disrupts mass shootings

Emmerson Buie Jr. is set to retire this month as the leader of the FBI in Chicago after three years of COVID-19, social unrest and waves of public corruption prosecutions.

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Emmerson Buie Jr., Chicago’s outgoing FBI special-agent-in-charge, speaks to the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday about his tenure.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Emmerson Buie Jr. led the FBI in Chicago through the COVID-19 pandemic, when riots broke out in the heart of the city, as grand juries handed down some of the most significant public corruption indictments in years and when a mass shooter opened fire in Highland Park.

Now, after leading the agency through three consequential years as its first African American special-agent-in-charge in his hometown, Buie plans to retire Aug. 22.

During a wide-ranging interview Tuesday with the Chicago Sun-Times, Buie discussed the unrest the city has seen since he took the helm in October 2019, corruption in Chicago and elsewhere, and the challenge of disrupting mass shooters’ plans before they happen.

He said “there are hundreds and thousands” of similar disrupted events that people never hear about.

“Because somebody did the right thing,” Buie said. “Some parent. Some sibling. Some friend. Some school teacher. Some clerk. Some normal person that recognized that an individual is behaving differently. … They saw something, and they said something.”

Buie recalled growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, as gang violence flared up here. He left the city in 1988, spent four years in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer and served in Desert Storm. He earned a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantry badge.

In 1992, he joined the FBI. He started in Colorado and moved up the ranks, through the Springfield division, and in 2017, he became special-agent-in-charge of the field office in El Paso, Texas.

That’s where he led the agency’s investigation into a deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart.

Then when Robert E. Crimo III allegedly opened fire on the Highland Park Fourth of July parade, killing seven and injuring several others, the FBI and other federal agencies played a supportive role in the investigation. It opened a Family Assistance Center to offer counseling and mental health services, spiritual care and financial assistance.

Officially, Buie said his role as the local FBI leader gave him a “piece of the puzzle” in the effort to stop such events and bring the shooter to justice. But he said he also has another piece “as a human being” and member of a community. He might coach or volunteer — and help identify problems before people get hurt.

That’s “the core of everything we’re talking about,” Buie told the Sun-Times. “Being an active participant in your community to make your community safe.”

Buie’s leadership in Chicago began not long after a series of aggressive public corruption investigations had become known. When he arrived, he told the Sun-Times fighting public corruption had already been a “cornerstone” of his career.

Since then, waves of criminal charges have been filed in related prosecutions. The defendants include former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is now under indictment for racketeering.

Buie declined to rank Chicago above other areas when it comes to public corruption, despite generations of indicted politicians here. But he named two key factors: “greed and ego.”

“People have an ego,” Buie said. “Power corrupts, you know. People enjoy, they thirst after, power. And greed. Money. It’s all about money.”

Fate put Buie in charge of Chicago’s field office when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020. In the early days, federal prosecutors acknowledged having trouble convening grand juries.

But Buie called the response by the local FBI office “one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in my FBI career.”

“One thing that this office does is shows up,” he said. “… It was a situation that no one had ever experienced before, but we all had to come together, come up with a solid plan and walk together, and it required all of us to trust each other and lean on each other.”

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