Lightfoot ‘got my man’ in David Brown, but did she subvert process for choosing top cop?

Mayor named retired Dallas police chief a day after police board listed finalists, raising questions on whether she snubbed process as she accused Rahm Emanuel of doing.

SHARE Lightfoot ‘got my man’ in David Brown, but did she subvert process for choosing top cop?
David Brown with Mayor Lori Lightfoot as she announced Thursday that he’s her pick to be Chicago’s next police superintendent.

David Brown with Mayor Lori Lightfoot as she announced Thursday that he’s her pick to be Chicago’s next police superintendent.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Five months ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the process of choosing Chicago’s next police superintendent “only has legitimacy if you follow it.”

She promised to pick from among the Chicago Police Board’s three finalists without doing her own back-channel search.

Now, Lightfoot’s decision to choose retired Dallas police chief David Brown one day after the Chicago Police Board made public its list of three finalists for the superintendent’s job has raised questions over whether Lightfoot herself subverted the selection process.

It’s not quite the same as what happened four years ago. That’s when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel rejected three finalists chosen by the Police Board, which was then led by Lightfoot, and picked Eddie Johnson, who hadn’t even applied for the job.

Emanuel pulled it off after convincing the Chicago City Council to change the rules and dispatch with the charade of a second nationwide search required by law.

This time, Lightfoot had her eye on Brown since the moment she fired Johnson, maybe even before Dec. 1.

Analysis bug


Her former Police Board colleagues knew which candidate she wanted and made sure Brown was among the finalists. They also made sure that they chose two other finalists — Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman and Ernest Cato, Chicago’s deputy chief — with nothing close to Brown’s experience, so the choice would be obvious.

What’s incensed mayoral critics even more was the board’s failure to release the names of the three finalists before the mayor began her private interviews. That’s how the system is supposed to work.

“To hide the finalists — to not give the public an opportunity to look at those three and weigh in in a transparent and inclusive way — is undemocratic, and it is not good government,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), dean of the council’s Socialist Caucus.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks at a rally for striking Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 members in 2019. 

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“Even under Rahm Emanuel, people got a sense of who was on the short list and had an opportunity to do their own research, weighing in at a public forum in the public discourse. Then, the mayor made his selection. That was not the case here. That opportunity was robbed from the public.”

John Catanzara, who finished first in round one of the election for president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said Lightfoot was “one of the loudest voices that Rahm didn’t follow the procedure when he basically ignored her three suggestions,” instead choosing Johnson. “She’s absolutely being hypocritical in circumventing the system and how it’s supposed to work.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety, said he’s not at all bothered by the decision by Ghian Foreman, the Police Board president, to keep a lid on the three names.

“He did the right thing,” said Taliaferro, a former Chicago police officer who will preside over confirmation hearings on the mayor’s appointment. “There were more pressing issues at the onset of what we’re gonna do as a city in responding to the pandemic.

“Our priorities have to be reducing as many deaths as possible. Anybody who says differently is saying it wrong,” Taliaferro said. “He just felt it was not a good time to move forward with these names to the mayor. Let the mayor focus on what needs to be focused on at the moment.”

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), whose Northwest Side ward is home to scores of police officers, said Lightfoot “needed to move fast,” and he’s “not gonna be critical of anybody who’s doing anything nowadays under these times.”

“She’ll have to answer to the public three years from now,” Sposato said. “If they think she wasn’t open enough about this, they could say, ‘You did this wrong. We’re gonna hold you accountable for it.’ ”

Lightfoot has long argued that there are fewer than 10 people in the country who have the combination of law enforcement experience, crime-fighting expertise and leadership skills to be capable of handling the $260,044-a-year job.

On the day she announced Brown’s appointment, Lightfoot was asked whether Brown was “on her radar” since Dec. 1, the day she fired Johnson after accusing him of “lying” to her and the public about the circumstances surrounding a drinking-and-driving incident in mid-October.

“The practical reality is, when you think about the second-largest police department in the country in a consent decree — a lot of assets, but a lot of challenges — there’s a small handful of people in the country that really are qualified to be able to take the helm as the superintendent of police,” she said. “Certainly, David Brown’s name came to me as I started having conversations with people across the country. So, yes, his name was certainly on my radar screen.”

Even so, the mayor said, “I believe in the Police Board process. … I led it four years ago. It was very important for me that they do their job with independence so the process had integrity. I would check in from time-to-time about the cadence but not the substance because, by law, that’s up to them.”

The following day, Lightfoot was asked whether it was “normal protocol” for the mayor to conduct in-depth interviews with the leading candidates before the board announces the three finalists.

“I’ve never been mayor before,” she said. “So I can’t tell you what the normal protocol is. But obviously I wanted to make sure that we were ahead of the game. Look, summer is coming. But for the change in the city council’s schedule in March, I was hoping to make this announcement then. But, as we all know, fate had a different plan for us.

“I had a sense of who the finalists were, particularly from the media reports. I wanted to get ahead of that to make sure that we started to do our due diligence and had enough time to do it to our satisfaction. And we did that. I’m grateful David Brown has said yes, and we move on from here.”

Ultimately, the selection process will be forgotten. What matters most will be Brown’s performance and his ability to break the mold of outsiders — including Jody Weis and Garry McCarthy — who have been devoured by Chicago’s unique brand of politics.

At his first news conference after being chosen by Lightfoot, Brown appeared to strike all the right notes. He talked about his humble beginnings and rising above personal and professional tragedy that might have crushed a lesser man.

His brother was killed by drug dealers. His bipolar son was killed in a police shootout after killing an officer in the Dallas suburbs. His partner died in the line of duty.

Brown spoke of his desire to make violent neighborhoods safe and about what he believes makes him uniquely qualified to rebuild public trust between citizens and police in the African American community shattered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

“What travels well from community to community regardless of your socioeconomic [or] demographic background is ethical character, trust,” said Brown, 59. “What I mean by that is doing what’s right when no one’s looking without being ordered by a court.

“Those principles have mentored me. Have shaped who I am. And I think it travels from Dallas to Chicago.”

Brown retired as Dallas police chief in 2016 after a horrific year that saw five of his police officers gunned down in a downtown Dallas ambush.

“He’s the guy who stopped the assassination of his troops in Dallas when that crazy guy opened fire with a rifle in downtown Dallas executing Dallas coppers. He’s the one who made the call. Send in the robot and blow the guy up,” Catanzara said. “In this environment, that is a very solid call that 99 out of 100 bosses would have never made. But it was the right thing to do and he said do it. Most coppers would give him kudos for that all day long.”

Lightfoot said what she wants for every child in every Chicago neighborhood is for them to grow up “understanding what peace feels like.”

“We’re not there yet. We’ve got some steps to take on that journey. But the Chicago Police Department is a critical part of that vision that I hope to turn into a reality everywhere in our city.

“So picking the right leader and spending time with this decision was something that weighed heavily on me, really going back to December. I wanted to make sure I picked the right person. And I know I got my man.”

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