- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Chicago police Superintendent David Brown’s decision to revive a controversial promotional system within his department is the latest in a string of high-profile policies from his predecessor that he’s reversed since becoming top cop more than a year ago.
Brown has chosen to bring back the so-called merit promotion system after it was discontinued in late 2019 by then-interim police Superintendent Charlie Beck, Brown’s immediate predecessor, police officials acknowledged this week.
The system was put into place in the 1990s as an effort to diversify the supervisory ranks with more officers from minority groups. It was originally a plan by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to also elevate ambitious officers who do not test well on promotional exams.
At the time, the union that represents rank-and-file Chicago police officers feared the process would be used by politicians to promote their pals, and, according to many critics of the merit process, that fear persisted until Beck halted the practice.
Brown’s decision to bring back the merit system was first reported earlier this week by WGN TV-Ch. 9.
According to a document obtained by the Tribune, Brown has promoted at least nine officers meritoriously to the rank of lieutenant, and they were slated to begin their training on Monday. Of the nine, seven are Black, one is Latino and one is white.
Department officials would not disclose the racial breakdown of officers promoted to lieutenant based on their test scores. But Brown’s decision to bring back merit promotions was based on his desire to diversify the ranks with more officers of color, officials said, which could suggest that the number of minority officers who got promoted based on testing was too low.
In a statement to the Tribune on Wednesday, Brown stressed the need to diversify the ranks at a critical time for law enforcement to win trust in minority neighborhoods.
“Diversity is more important now in law enforcement than it has ever been. If we are going to build and grow the community’s trust, this Department needs to be reflective of the communities we serve and protect,” Brown said in the statement. “That means ensuring people of color and women are represented within every level of policing, from the rank-and-file to the command staff.
“From the day I started, I emphasized my strong view that diversity makes us better. We will not be running in place on this issue.”
Brown’s tenure in Chicago marked the beginning stages of a massive CPD reorganization that was put into place a few months earlier by Beck, requiring the movement of hundreds of cops from CPD’s specialized gang and drug units, along with detectives, to the patrol division, so police officials there could use them more efficiently to address neighborhood issues.
But with skyrocketing violence last summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest that resulted from the police murder of George Floyd, Brown moved many patrol officers to a new citywide unit — the community safety team — tasked with taking aggressive enforcement action in crime hot spots while also participating in community service projects.
James Calvino, president of the Chicago Police Sergeants’ Association, raised concern about Brown’s decision to bring back the merit process because it’s “not proper” and some believe it hasn’t been defined well. He lamented how too many underqualified high-ranking police officials over the years rose through the ranks with merit promotions.
“Merit does have a place. I’m not going to say it doesn’t,” Calvino said. ”The current way it’s done, it should have never been resurrected after it was put to death by interim Superintendent Beck.”
In a 2017 report about the city’s policing practices, the U.S. Department of Justice criticized the Chicago Police Department’s merit system, saying officials had not been transparent in their decisions about promotions. The report, which found sweeping problems in the department, led to a federal consent decree to implement a host of reforms.
When Brown was first hired as Beck’s successor by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in April 2020, he signaled to the City Council that he would continue to do away with the merit promotion process, while also trying to figure out a way to diversity the supervisory ranks.
At the time, he expected that the consent decree would call for the formation of a so-called formalized professional development program that would promote diversity within the Police Department, though he didn’t speculate on any specifics.
Brown got some pushback at the time from 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro, head of the council’s Public Safety Committee, who argued that a merit system was still necessary. During Brown’s confirmation hearing before the committee, Taliaferro challenged Brown on the issue, noting that some good cops just aren’t proficient at taking tests.
“We have officers that … work tirelessly, work hard and do an excellent job in policing,” said Taliaferro, also a former Chicago cop. “But they may not just be good test-takers. And so, that officer will never see promotional rank despite his race.”
Brown agreed test-taking isn’t always the best way to find good candidates for higher ranks.
“I agree with you that there are some people who in police departments who do really good at multiple choice tests that are not the best leaders,” Brown answered. “So, there are gold standard testing programs across the country that other departments have used for years. For whatever reason, Chicago hadn’t adopted best practices. … We want to find the gold standard testing mechanism that fits our needs, and I will be, through the consent decree, aggressively pursuing a replacement for merit.”
Beck discontinued merit promotions in December 2019 when he heard from officers who were discouraged by the process. He argued that the merit system did nothing to improve diversity within the supervisor ranks, and he told the entire department in a letter at the time that he would recommend that his successor hold future promotional exams every two years.
Reached by telephone on Wednesday, Beck reiterated a criticism from many that CPD’s merit system led to cronyism. But he said he’d have to talk to Brown more comprehensively to get a feel for why he’s brought it back to Chicago.
“In the past, it has not worked to diversify those ranks, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t,” Beck told the Tribune on Wednesday. “If he’s going to do it a different way, I have to see.”
In another policy reversal in late 2020, a year that ended with more than 760 people slain throughout Chicago and thousands of people shot, Brown’s administration announced it would be adding 80 to 100 cops to the department’s citywide narcotics unit to focus on lengthy investigation of “midlevel” and “upper-level” drug dealers.
This was a reversal from Beck’s five-month stint in Chicago, when he moved many officers from narcotics to patrol district functions. With Beck in charge, Lightfoot questioned the effectiveness of CPD’s management of specialized police units, including narcotics.
“I think that there are too many people in a bunch of units that look to me like they may be doing redundant functions,” Lightfoot told the Tribune in a December 2019 interview. “What are they doing? And how are they supporting the front-line work that the districts are doing?”