The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 4, 2015

What’s in store for Chicago’s next police superintendent?

December 4, 2015

It’s no secret: the challenges facing today’s police chiefs are extremely complex and exist with levels of scrutiny unmatched to most other professions. This is particularly evident in Chicago, where public protests over the delayed release of video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting ultimately led to the dismissal of Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel now has the difficult task of hiring the Second City’s next police superintendent. Perhaps one of the leading factors of this decision will be whether the Chicago Police Department (CPD) should appoint one of its own or conduct a nationwide search and hire an external candidate.

On the one hand, promoting from within the CPD may generate higher levels of support and trust from frontline officers and other internal staff. This is very important if the new superintendent hopes to improve officers’ perceptions of organizational justice and strengthen new department initiatives, such as ensuring fair disciplinary practices for all officers.

On the other hand, an internal promotion may further damage relationships with the community. Residents are tired of the same old Chicago politics, and bringing in a reputable outsider who promises change may help mend police-community relations. Yet, this did not work four years ago when McCarthy was recruited from Newark, NJ.

When discussing McCarthy’s dismissal, Emanuel stressed that “a police officer is only as effective as when he has the trust of those he serves”—a statement backed by research. This will clearly be the overarching goal of the new superintendent, but achieving it will be extraordinarily complex. In fact, it only scratches the surface of the challenges the CPD and its new superintendent will face.

A tough job under any circumstances

With over 13,000 employees serving 2.7 million residents, taking the reins of the CPD comes with all the issues associated with managing any large jurisdiction. Amid pressure to modernize policing practices and introduce novel technologies (such as body-worn cameras), the superintendent must keep an eye on the fundamental responsibilities of the position, such as addressing crime and violence with professionalism and accountability to communities.

This might be especially difficult in Chicago’s politically charged environment. Any changes to the CPD will not be sustainable without support from key organizations and local figureheads. With the community expecting widespread changes to department practices, the new CPD superintendent will be tasked with managing the competing expectations and goals of a variety of stakeholders.

Who pulls the strings?

A number of organizations will have something to say about where the new superintendent should focus his or her attention. Evidence on politics and police strength suggests that it is necessary to consider the role that both internal and external pressures play on police departments. The superintendent must carefully balance internal and external pressures as he or she determines who will serve in an advisory or a support capacity. It’s a delicate process, one in which the order and degree of relationship building is vital.

  • City and county organizations: The relationships between a police department and local stakeholders rely much on the department’s effectiveness and efficiency. City and county organizations closely monitor the CPD’s practices, and the new superintendent will have to navigate overlapping platforms and conflicting priorities. For example, in response to the year-long investigation into McDonald’s shooting, Cook County’s Board of Commissioners and the Illinois Attorney General, among other local county organizations, have requested two separate federal investigations: one to look into the effort to suppress video footage to benefit the mayor’s reelection campaign, and a second to assess whether the CPD has a pattern of practice of discriminatory policing. In contrast, the Chicago police union has come out in support of the officer charged with murder.
  • Internal groups: Police departments are changing, and the new superintendent must work to involve the entire force in all aspects of department functioning and change. The Chicago Police Board, for example, had a history of reversing McCarthy’s recommendations on firing accused officers. While there will need to be an upfront understanding that officers will be held accountable for transgressions, the superintendent cannot expect change without the support of patrol officers, who make up 63 percent of the force .
  • External community organizations: Community groups have the power to organize and protest, and their influence can’t be overlooked. The new superintendent will have to engage with community leaders to address community-police issues, like reductions in stop and frisk encounters, reductions in detain and arrest confrontations with police, more positive police-community interactions, reductions in crime, increased city services, gang interventions, and so on.

In reality, the new superintendent could quickly isolate himself or herself if he or she doesn’t respond to these many competing forces. From strengthening pro-organizational behavior to building perceptions of trust and justice in communities, the next Chicago police superintendent will have to balance strategies and politics within the city’s many competing expectations.

Former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, right, listens to prosecutor Mike Deno address Cook County Judge Timothy Joyce during the sentencing hearing for Toyious Taylor and Paris McGee at Leighton Criminal Court Building Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Chicago. On Dec. 1, 2015, McCarthy was dismissed following the release of a video depicting the shooting of Laquan McDonald. Photo by John Kim/AP/Chicago Tribune

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