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Opinion: Next police chief will face big challenges

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The challenging task of finding a new Chicago police superintendent has begun. Whoever becomes the new police boss will more than earn whatever salary is negotiated. Running a big city police department is a challenge under the best of circumstances, and, given the volatile atmosphere in the city over the last few months, these are hardly the best of circumstances.


Chicago presents a number of challenges that will test whoever gets the top police post. First, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Police Department have been criticized for some time now over their perceived failure to control violent crime in the city. Murders were up in 2015 compared with the prior year, capping months of concern over violence in the city. National attention was brought to the issue by film director Spike Lee in his recently released movie “Chi-raq.”

The uproar caused by the fictional “Chi-raq” was soon overtaken by real life events when the city released a video showing Laquan McDonald being shot and killed by Officer Jason Van Dyke. The fallout from the death of McDonald included the forced resignation of Supt. Garry McCarthy, protests and demonstrations calling for the resignation of the mayor and the state’s attorney over their handling of the McDonald matter and an investigation by the Department of Justice into the policies and practices of the Chicago Police Department relating to the use of force.

The new superintendent will be under strong pressure to reduce violent crime and, at the same time, implement reforms in the department that will ease the friction between the police and minority communities. This will require a balancing act worthy of a tightrope walker.

The media will be watching every move by the new boss, as will politicians seeking to protect their own hides in future elections. The police rank and file will be watching just as vigilantly. Street cops invariably have a level of cynicism about the top brass and their perceived willingness to throw working officers under the bus when the heat is on. The heat is definitely on, and there no doubt will be significant changes in how the police do their work. If officers believe the changes are at the expense of their safety, there almost certainly will be push back.

So the real question may be why anyone of sound mind would want the job of police superintendent. Apparently there are some in law enforcement who welcome a huge challenge, as the Police Board has reported receiving just short of 40 applications. For those who pass the saliva test, there will be a vetting by the board, and three names will be given to the mayor for his review. The mayor need not nominate any of the three. He can request additional recommendations, as he did when Garry McCarthy was the ultimate choice.

Various groups and political leaders will no doubt argue that the new superintendent should be a minority, in light of our current issues. Others will call for the naming of the most qualified person, regardless of race or ethnicity. The media will be delighted to give play to all opinions and offer a few of their own in editorials and op-ed pieces.

Applicants from inside CPD can expect a close look at their records, especially any claims of misconduct against them or those they supervised. Such scrutiny may be harder for applicants outside the department, but those candidates have the unenviable task of tackling enormous problems while lacking experience with the various political forces in the city, both inside and outside the Police Department.

All this will take place in the context of a heated primary election for state’s attorney. The incumbent, Anita Alvarez, faces strong challenges from Kim Foxx, supported by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and a well-financed Donna More. A key issue in the race will be how the state’s attorney’s office has handled police shootings in the past and how it will do so going forward.

There will be no lack of strong opinions in both the contest for state’s attorney and in the search for a new police superintendent. One can only hope that from the heated debate there emerges leadership equal to the formidable challenges ahead.

Dick Devine was elected Cook County state’s attorney in 1996 and held the post for 12 years. He is currently of counsel in the Chicago office of the law firm of Cozen O’Connor, in the firm’s criminal defense and internal investigations practice.

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