Major cities have forged their own methods for picking a police chief often while dealing with some of the same community and law enforcement concerns now surrounding Chicago’s selection of a new superintendent.

A review of municipal codes and charters by the BGA policy unit shows there’s a range of appointment processes from coast-to-coast but no clear preference on how to make such an important decision.

For example, New York empowers its mayor to directly appoint a police chief, while Seattle favors robust community input before their mayor names a law enforcement leader.

Chicago, which has had the same selection practice for over 40 years under multiple mayors, is now undergoing a total reassessment. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recent pick of veteran police officer Eddie Johnson as interim superintendent has upended that long-held method while also opening crucial legal and procedural questions over ways to make his appointment permanent.

Probably some legislative and mayoral alchemy will be used to make that happen. Meanwhile, everyone involved, including Chicago residents, may benefit by examining how other major municipalities go about the business of picking a police chief.

Pick and choose

Among the approaches the BGA policy team found:

  • New York City’s Mayor directly appoints the commissioner of police without requiring council input or confirmation.
  • Houston’s Police Chief is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.
  • In Philadelphia, the managing director, a cabinet-level position appointed by the mayor, appoints the police commissioner with the approval of the mayor.
  • The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners works in collaboration with the general manager of the city’s personnel department to provide a ranked list of candidates from which the city’s mayor may select one. Should the mayor refuse the initial three then additional candidates may be provided from the initial search pool. The mayor’s appointment must be confirmed by the L.A. city council.  

L.A.’s police chief appointment process appears to have been revised in light of the Christopher Commission’s 1991 findings and recommendations, which were issued in the wake of the beating of Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. (A video of the King beating aired on TV, igniting a firestorm of controversy and public outcry about police treatment of minorities.)

The commission recommended a revision of the role of the Board of Police Commissioners, including a balancing of the board’s appointment authority with the mayor and the city council. While the L.A. charter grants broad oversight to the Board, the Commission found that it had essentially become a “rubber stamp” for the police department and reforms were needed.

  • In a similar fashion to L.A., the Board of Police Commissioners in Detroit – seven of whose eleven members are elected by the public – conducts a search with an executive search firm and provides a list of candidates to the mayor. The mayor appoints a candidate from the provided list, and the Detroit City Council must confirm the appointment. If the council does not disapprove of the candidate within 30 days, the appointment is considered confirmed.
  • For its most recent police chief appointment, Seattle tapped residents at seven community meetings and connected online. A 32-member community advisory committee and a 12-member search committee were also engaged. The search committee provided finalists to the mayor, who appointed a candidate then confirmed by the city council.

This process followed a lengthy Department of Justice investigation into the Seattle Police Department’s use of force and a consent decree and negotiated plan to overhaul the department.

  •  A 2014 survey conducted by the Seattle City Auditor looked at 22 additional mid-sized U.S. cities. Of those, 19 stipulate that the chief of police be appointed by the mayor or city manager and only nine of those required confirmation by the city council.

The Chicago Way

For decades, Chicago has used the police board to interview candidates and then present a list of three to the mayor for his consideration. If none of the candidates accept an appointment, the board must submit new names until the position is filled.

However, the municipal ordinance does not address what happens if the mayor rejects the candidates.

In fact, sometimes a mayor doesn’t like the board’s choices.


Then-Gresham District Cmdr. Eddie Johnson, left, and then-Supt. Jody Weis outside A.R. Leak and Sons Funeral Home on July 22, 2010, at wake of slain Officer Michael Bailey. | Sun-Times file photo

In 2007, Mayor Richard M. Daley rejected the police board’s candidates and asked it to go back to the drawing board, according to the Police Board’s 2007 Annual Report. The board did and came back with three new candidates including former FBI special agent Jody Weis, who was interviewed by the board and then picked by Daley as superintendent and confirmed by the city council.

Mayor Emanuel has the legal right to name Johnson as interim superintendent but according to the ordinance must appoint as permanent superintendent someone who has been recommended by the Police Board.  Emanuel favorite Johnson has yet to be interviewed by the police board.

Will that happen?

Practically speaking, it’s difficult to see the current police board reconvening, inviting new candidates, which would likely include Johnson, and then producing another short list for the mayor’s approval.

Who would apply under such circumstances? Why would the police board open itself up to such a search process? And what would happen if the board did conduct another search and didn’t include Johnson among its list of three mayoral recommendations?

While some community leaders want more upfront public input into the Johnson appointment, the mayor and some aldermen are anxious to get the police superintendent question behind them. They argue that a knotty selection process shouldn’t be an impediment to naming Johnson the fulltime superintendent.

Indeed, the Johnson appointment is being cheered by disparate constituencies throughout the city that range from the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police union to South Side community activist Father Michael Pfleger.

Barring a police board re-do, what then?

The city council can pass a new law and make this a direct appointment by the mayor with no Police Board involvement.

Some aldermen are okay with the mayor naming his own police superintendent, like any cabinet post, provided the candidate also gets overwhelming city council support. They want to move the procedure along.

But there are legal questions: Can a new law be enforced to apply to the Johnson situation? Could it survive a court challenge? Our read: Maybe not.

Such a law may only be good going forward to address future mayoral police superintendent appointments.

What’s more, would a new, somewhat abrupt, change in governance have any impact on the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights probe of the police department in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald police-involved shooting and subsequent fallout? As we mentioned, a DOJ investigation appears to have influenced the way Seattle went about its selection process.

Right now, Mayor Emanuel is in a holding pattern.

Maybe he can convince the police board to give it one more try. But that’s a big ask, especially considering the way the group is perceived to have been publicly humbled. 

As noted, municipalities choose their police chiefs in disparate ways and it’s clear Mayor Emanuel wants to find a route to name Eddie Johnson permanent top cop.

It’s just that those pesky governance issues and questions keep getting in the way.