With the retirement announcement of Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson, reformist Mayor Lori Lightfoot has an opportunity to bring “light” and change to a department plagued by abusive, failed, costly policing and misconduct.
Mayor Lightfoot, however, should avoid the trap of recycling someone else into the Windy City’s top cop position, with its billion-dollar budget, and deep problems.
Over and over again, when a police chief steps down, a new hire comes in touted as a change agent and champion of community policing devoted to improving police-community relations. These declarations rarely, if ever, come true. Part of the problem is the fear of true reform, which means taking on police unions and their rabid defense of officers, whether cops are right or wrong. Then there is the thug mentality within the department and a threat to not do their jobs if it means being held accountable.
Next comes the White media’s defense of cops and repetition of the holiness of law officers narrative and their sacredness as a part of public life. This narrative must be challenged as bad cops abound in Chicago and cities across the country. Policing is a noble profession so long as the officers engage in preserving and protecting the public–which includes treating Black and Brown people with justice and respect.
But protecting bullies in blue and hiding the truth about police misconduct and police killings must not be allowed–that’s real change. Failure to change is costing the city of Chicago millions of dollars a year in settlements because police officers have done the wrong thing. Yet, these “bad apples” often remain in place and continue to abuse the people they took a vow to protect while taxpayers foot the bill.
Mayor Lightfoot has named retired Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck as interim police superintendent and he denied wanting to stay on permanently. He told the media Nov. 8 his plan was to serve for a few months and help find outgoing Supt. Johnson’s replacement.
Time will tell if things work out that way, but a vote of “no confidence” has already been cast from the West Coast.“Take it from us, you don’t want him. But if you get him–this is what you can expect,” said Los Angeles groups in an open letter to the people of Chicago issued Nov. 8. “Under Chief Beck, the Los Angeles Police Department became the most murderous police department in the nation with 45 officer-involved-shootings and in-custody deaths in 2017. A title they continue to proudly hold.
“Beyond the police killings of Black and Brown people, there was Chief Beck’s brazen ongoing disrespect for community members, especially Black community members, who demanded accountability. There are also the many well-documented cases of Beck’s favoritism and cronyism that resulted in the loss of millions of taxpayer dollars in Los Angeles to pay the cost for his bad decisions.
“Did you know that under Beck’s leadership, the LAPD targeted Black motorists at five times their population and searched them at a rate three times that of White drivers, even though they were found to be less likely to have contraband items? Chicago doesn’t need that.
“Beck also pushed for an expansion to policing that gobbled up 53% of our city’s general fund in order to pay officers to do jobs outside of their areas of traditional expertise like responding to mental health and homeless crises,” said the open letter from Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, White People for Black Lives, and the Los Angeles Community Action Network.
“Chief Beck embodies everything a White-supremacist would bring to Chicago to contain, control, criminalize, and cause grave harm to Black, Brown, and poor communities. All one needs to do is look beyond the scripted endorsements of former and current officers and politicians with aspirations of higher office to understand how truly dangerous Beck is,” the activists warned.Even if Mr. Beck departs, there are lessons to learn from the tenure of Supt. Johnson, who came up in the ranks of the Chicago Police Dept. He was handpicked by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2016. The mayor threw out a national selection process to put his man in place.
The chief, who has served some 30 years as a cop, famously said he never saw an incident of abuse in a department with a history, documented history, of cops literally torturing people.
Under his leadership, the city paid out more than $113 million on police misconduct lawsuits in 2018. This is in a city that is crying about budget woes and cutting city services.
“The $113 million does not include cases of property damage, minor car accidents, vehicle pursuits, or employment-discrimination lawsuits. The cost is more than five times what the city budgeted for police lawsuits last year, meaning the city likely borrowed money to pay the costs of police settlements, as it has done in all but one year since 2008, according to city records,” said the Chicago Reporter.
“The sum also does not include the cost of outside lawyers hired to represent the city in the negotiations over the consent decree. In 2017 and 2018, the city paid more than $4.2 million to outside lawyers for the consent decree and related lawsuits,” the investigative news site reported in March. “Last month, a federal judge formally entered the consent decree and appointed a monitor to oversee its implementation. The monitor is expected to cost $2.85 million per year,” it added.
Beyond the millions of dollars, a bigger cost is paid in Black and Latino neighborhoods, which suffer the brunt of city violence, where trust and confidence in police is low. The rates for solving murders in these communities are abysmally and embarrassingly low. As one community leader observed, law-abiding Chicagoans often find themselves victimized by gangs and cops.
Supt. Johnson is better known for his impassioned national media outburst against actor Jussie Smollet for an alleged fake hate crime than real crimes committed by his officers.
For change to come, the mayor needs to “bring in the light,” as she promised during her campaign. She needs to expose and uproot the racism, criminality and abuses that exist inside the police department.
Kowtowing to the unions won’t cut it and bringing in someone who has served elsewhere in law enforcement isn’t the answer by itself. Whoever comes in, like the mayor, must be held accountable and be courageous enough to attack the blue wall of silence and entitlement that perpetuates the costly failures this city has seen.
It’s your call Mayor Lightfoot and we pray you will make the right one.