Police chief pick clouded by race and politics

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By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader

John Escalante didn’t have a chance. Though a finalist, Anne Kirkpatrick was still viewed as a long shot.

In the end, the real race for the next police superintendent came down to two highly qualified Black candidates: Eugene Williams and Dr. Cedric Alexander. Their experience and skills made Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s three-month search for a leader of the second largest police department in the country a difficult one. With race relations still a hot issue in Chicago, the police search was made even tougher as Black leaders stepped up demands that took the search to a whole new level.

At times, the race became heated with tensions rising as Alexander emerged as a possible favorite because of his background in security in the wake of the terrorists attacks in Brussels. For Emanuel, the choice for the next police chief tinged on who was best qualified for the job despite the racial and political pressures that were involved in the process.

Those factors however, produced tough conflicts for Emanuel as he continues to rebound from heavy criticism from recent police brutality issues involving Blacks in Chicago. The most high-profile case of Laquan McDonald dramatically shaped Emanuel’s public image and the future of the Chicago Police department after the 17-year old was killed after being shot 16 times. The incident finally led to the termination of former superintendent Garry McCarthy, a polarizing figure who had drawn calls for his resignation in the Black community.

After firing his ally, Emanuel still remains in a hard place. He has been under pressure to please an angry Black community that propelled him to a second term in office while the Laquan case was kept under wraps. Since the incident, Black leaders have been making gains in their demands for the mayor to implement policies that would provide more economic opportunities and better policing of Black neighborhoods.

At public hearings for community input on the choice for police chief, Black political and faith leaders also called for inclusion in the selection process.

They presented a tough challenge for Emanuel as he struggled to decide whether to appoint Alexander or Williams as the next police chief.

Black aldermen, political leaders and the clergy threw their support behind Williams, the only insider in the race.

On Monday, March 21, Congressman Danny K. Davis held a press conference to announce his support for Williams. He became the latest political leader to back Williams.

Like many leaders, Davis had good reasons for his move. Williams is the Chief of Support Services for the Chicago Police Department, where he oversees the implementation of the Department’s $1.4 billion budget and has extensive knowledge of the CPD’s operations, resources and personnel. He has served the Chicago Police Department in various capacities for 36 years, with 15 years of command-level experience, including Chief of Patrol where he directed operations of all the police districts throughout the city. He has also held positions in narcotics, homicide, organized crime and community policing.

Alexander is a former chief of police in Rochester, New York. He has high-level experience with the federal Department of Homeland Security and was Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. He served on the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and is a 39-year law enforcement veteran with a doctorate in clinical psychology. He also served as Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Public Safety in DeKalb County, Georgia, overseeing the operations of the police department, fire department and other public safety units. He also previously served as the Chief of Police for DeKalb County. Alexander also serves as a consultant with the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (“COPS”) office.

When asked by one news reporter about Alexander’s qualifications, Alderman Carrie Austin (34th Ward) snapped and said, “I don’t know him… You’re saying that because he has a background in psychology, that’s going to trump street credit? No. Not for me. He ain’t got street credit in Chicago. Nope. He may have it somewhere else. Gene Williams has street credit in Chicago. . . . And I know he’s not a yes man.”

Another outsider, Kirkpatrick is a veteran Chief of Police, serving three Washington cities over 16 years, including Spokane, its second largest city. Throughout her career, she has implemented accountability management systems, civilian oversight programs, fatal incident protocols and robust community policing. Kirkpatrick is currently a national Instructor at the FBI’s Leadership Program called LEEDA (Law Enforcement Executive Development Association), where she trains high-level law enforcement executives. A 33-year law enforcement veteran, she began her career as a patrol officer in Memphis, Tennessee and received a Master’s degree in counseling and a law degree.

After the three finalists were chosen, Emanuel promised to make a quick decision on the new police chief. But with Black leaders’ demands and input, Emanuel’s promise may have been premature or unrealistic at best.

As pressure intensified to pick a police chief, Emanuel grew more tactful in his dealings with the media. On Tuesday, March 22, he ignored a reporters question on whether he was zeroing in on a selection. Black leaders however hope there was still a chance for Williams.

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