Paul Simon’s song about “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” came to mind recently as I was reviewing the myriad ways cities around the country choose their top cop.
There’s not a “best practice,” per se, as the Better Government Association’s policy team discovered by comparing Chicago’s statutory approach—a Police Board vetting candidates and submitting three to the mayor, who chooses one or asks the board to conduct a second search—with other cities around the country.
So while we’re waiting for the City Council to “rescue” Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who circumvented protocol and created a legal conundrum last month by rejecting the board’s recommendations and designating insider Eddie Johnson “superintendent-in-waiting” without the benefit of a second search, let’s take a look at how they do it other places:
- New York’s mayor appoints the police commissioner without City Council confirmation.
- Houston’s top cop is selected by the mayor and approved by the Council.
- Philadelphia’s managing director, a mayoral appointee, picks a police commissioner for the mayor to consider.
- The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners works with the city’s personnel department to provide candidates for the mayor.
- Detroit uses an executive search firm to propose finalists to the mayor, who submits one for the Council’s okay.
- Seattle asks a 12-member search committee to send finalists to the mayor, who appoints one for Council confirmation.
A survey of 22 additional mid-sized cities found that 19 allow the mayor or city manager to appoint a police chief, and only nine require confirmation by a city council.
As I said, it’s all over the board.
Related Article: Lots of Ways To Pick Top Cop
Chicago stumbled onto its approach in the 1960’s, after the notorious “Summerdale Scandal”— named after the old police district where a band of rogue cops ran a burglary ring.
The corruption was brazen enough to shock the first Mayor Daley—Richard J.—into appointing a squeaky-clean outsider, nationally-renowned law enforcement expert O.W. Wilson, to run the department.
That led to the creation of Chicago’s Police Board to conduct “independent” superintendent searches, but in reality the final list generally included a candidate who was quietly identified by City Hall and usually got the job.
Jody Weis, former superintendent of the Chicago Police Department
The process ran amok once before, in 2007, when it took a second search to “find” the candidate then-Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted, FBI special agent Jody Weis.
This year it really went off the rails.
Emanuel, who was wounded politically by the fallout from his inept handling of the Laquan McDonald killing, fired his top cop, Garry McCarthy, but didn’t have a permanent replacement in mind, and the chairman of the Police Board, straight-shooter Lori Lightfoot, didn’t handle the search the “Chicago Way.”
Her board actually conducted an independent, professional search, interviewing 39 applicants and recommending three to Emanuel—one insider and two outsiders— without a City Hall preference on the list.
All were well qualified, but things went awry during the interview process—there was bad chemistry between the mayor and his top choice, a law enforcement expert from suburban Atlanta—so Emanuel rejected the entire group.
Garry McCarthy former superintendent of the Chicago Police Department
Then, facing an alarming spike in homicides and shootings, and escalating political and community unrest, the mayor ignored the legally-mandated second Police Board search by naming Johnson interim superintendent and his choice for the permanent job, pending resolution of the legal issues raised by his end run.
Johnson is a personable, well-respected CPD veteran whose main task is to mend fences with the African American community, restore police morale and work well with the aldermen, while others on his command staff concentrate on law enforcement strategies and departmental reforms.
The mayor’s office apparently vetted Johnson quickly before the surprise announcement, brushing off rumors that his fiancé, a Chicago police lieutenant, got special help before taking a promotional exam.
So now what?
City Council has to decide whether to:
- Exempt the Police Board from its legally mandated second search, since it’s already a done deal.
- Allow the board to circumvent protocol and simply recommend Johnson to the mayor.
- Strip the board of its search responsibility so mayors can handle this cabinet appointment like every other one—internally.
Before going down any of those roads, the Council and the mayor’s office should review the selection process in the other cities we looked at and solicit input from the community.
Choosing a police superintendent is arguably a mayor’s most important personnel decision, and even though Emanuel’s recent maneuvers were, at best, heavy-handed, at least they present City Hall with an opportunity to agree on the best way to handle the choice going forward.
As the mayor is fond of saying, don’t let this crisis go to waste.