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The need for continuity at the Chicago Police Department

The need for continuity at the Chicago Police Department

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Moments like this in Chicago can result in feelings of restlessness, calls for leadership change, impatience with failed strategies. Chicago police Superintendent David Brown, now one year on the job, must be hearing the whispers.

The city’s homicide numbers are abysmal. Shootings are unrelenting. Carjackings have soared. Interactions between police and minority communities are fraught. And tragedy seems to cloak the city in an unshakable heaviness.

Unrest, looting and protests have pushed Chicago to its brink. And they have occurred on Brown’s watch when the city has been heavily homebound and less interactive. There were no crowded concerts or Grant Park festivals or holiday gatherings or Bears games that drew thousands of people together, requiring more law enforcement activity and often, more arrests.

There were no big parties on the beaches, routine late-night bar brawls, big family reunions or weddings — at least, there weren’t supposed to be — that can escalate to police-involved encounters. What should have been a quieter first year for Brown was anything but. Even a city sleeping by many traditional metrics managed to surpass the previous year’s crime statistics in several alarming categories.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, acknowledging the one-year anniversary of Brown on the job, said she supports him “1,000-plus percent.” She bristled at rumors he would be cut loose.

“David Brown is the superintendent of this police department today, tomorrow, in the future,” she told reporters Wednesday.

With the unprecedented, unpredictable events of the last year dominated by a once-in-a-generation health pandemic, Brown and other leaders across the city, the state and the country cannot be evaluated outside of that context. Who’s to say, without a COVID-19 crisis that no one could foresee whether Brown might be snapping his suspenders today, proud of progress his department made curbing Chicago’s violence epidemic? It is not easy to evaluate the leadership of Brown — and of Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, for that matter — with such a wild card in the deck.

We do know strong institutions usually get that way with some form of continuity. The Chicago Police Department has rotated through at least eight superintendents and interim superintendents during the last 20 years, before Brown. The department, the rank-and-file officers and Brown himself need more time to implement the crime-fighting strategies and community engagement programs Brown has been rolling out. We all need a steady hand at the top.

The department also needs time under the federal consent decree to work on improvements in officer training, deployment and service. We have seen crime numbers rise and fall under various superintendents, and it wouldn’t be fair to heap all of the blame or praise for those trends on any one of them. The dynamics of Chicago’s violent crime epidemic are much more complicated than who’s the top cop.

On Thursday, Brown said he is doing the “hard work, putting the right people in the right places.” But he won’t do “politics.” He won’t fawn for the television cameras, he said, unlike some of his predecessors at CPD. He is committed to meeting the requirements of the federal consent decree.

“If we achieve compliance, (department) culture should be changed,” he said. “And that should be determined by the community, not checking a box.”

Superintendent Brown needs more time. As the COVID-19 pandemic becomes less of a daily centerpiece of government — of life — and as vaccinations roll out to protect civilians and officers who were hard hit with cases last year, Brown should be better able this year, his second year on the job, to lead us toward safer, stronger communities.

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