From runaway violence to COVID-19 to the Adam Toledo shooting, Chicago police Superintendent David Brown’s first year saw unending challenges

From runaway violence to COVID-19 to the Adam Toledo shooting, Chicago police Superintendent David Brown’s first year saw unending challenges
·14 min read

David Brown’s first year as Chicago police superintendent started in a time of unprecedented difficulty for his new city, and it was only a trying, uphill path from there.

Brown immediately had to navigate the Police Department through the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, with some 2,000 officers eventually being stricken with the virus and four losing their lives. He has had to constantly retool as the city continues to deal with violence levels rarely seen since the 1990s.

He has faced criticism from the city’s government watchdog for his department’s poor response to unrest following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. He has had to convince longtime critics of Chicago police that he’s serious about reforming the embattled department by adhering to a federally mandated consent decree to professionalize a force of more than 12,000.

And once again, all eyes are on the Chicago Police Department as it grapples with another fatal shooting of a teen by one of its officers. The March 29 shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, whose final moments were captured on graphic video footage, sparked protests, vigils and exacerbated the divide between his department and Chicago’s minority neighborhoods.

Brown was confirmed by the Chicago City Council a year ago Thursday, though to many — perhaps including him — it might seem like much longer ago. Now, with warm months looming, Brown faces a crucial stretch of proving himself to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the rest of the city.

“He survived the first year,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, the pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on the West Side. “Going into a challenging summer, it’s really time for him to put his imprint on this department.”

A violent first year

Several major cities across the U.S. saw large increases in violence in 2020 as they dealt with the pandemic and the fallout from Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. But Chicago’s rise in violence during Brown’s first year stood out.

The city finished 2020 with 769 people slain, more than 270 homicides higher than the year before. In all, more than 4,000 people were shot last year in Chicago, a tally not seen in the city since 2016.

And the first three months of 2021 have continued to be trying for the city. Through March, there had been 131 homicides, a jump from 98 during the first quarter of 2020, right as the pandemic hit. Chicago has also had to deal with a big rise in carjackings.

This week, Lightfoot stood by Brown and the department. She said he is doing an adequate job combating gun violence, and she blamed the ease at which criminals obtain guns illegally.

Brown is her superintendent, Lightfoot said Thursday.

“He is focused first and foremost on making sure that we keep pushing forward on reform, making sure that we have the right deployments and operations to make sure the city is safe, and he’s doing his job,” Lightfoot said, later adding that she appreciates Brown’s steadiness. “Leadership is ... the quiet things you do sometimes to build real authentic relationships, to be there for people who are in need, to be present when presence is called for, and that is the way that David Brown leads, and I support him 1,000-plus percent.”

Brown, who declined to be interviewed for this story, took over as CPD’s acting superintendent on April 15, 2020, before being confirmed by the City Council as Lightfoot’s permanent top cop a week later. The start of his tenure marked the beginning stages of a massive CPD reorganization that was put into place a few months earlier by then-interim police Superintendent Charlie Beck.

It was modeled after the operational structure of the Los Angeles Police Department, which Beck once led for nearly a decade.

The reorganization called for 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.

Beck did not include room for a citywide unit, tasked with responding to crime hot spots. But it was one of Brown’s first moves.

Brown has said he was mindful of controversies of past citywide units including teams that went rogue and committed crimes themselves. But instead of only sending teams of cops to crime hot spots to perform street stops, Brown had a new vision for a citywide unit: one that takes enforcement action, while also participating in community service projects to show residents they’re not just about jumping out of cars and doing stop-and-frisks.

Then on Aug. 9, an officer from the new Community Safety Team shot 20-year-old Latrell Allen in the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood. Allen was charged with attempted murder after, authorities say, he opened fire first on police. But the team — including the officer who shot him — was not equipped with body cameras.

Critics of the department, as well as Lightfoot, wondered why such a roving unit more likely than most to adopt an aggressive style wouldn’t have them.

And forming the unit came at another price for Brown. In moving officers around, he shifted many out of neighborhoods they knew best.

This meant there were often fewer cops available to respond to 911 calls in their individual districts, and fewer cops there getting to know their beats at a time when the department has made it its mission to build trust with neighborhoods that have been at odds with the police for decades.

Then there was more movement when Brown took patrol cops from every district, including the high-crime areas on the South and West sides, to work in the downtown area because of disturbances and looting in August, including the Gold Coast and Magnificent Mile.

Police sources who spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized by CPD to speak to the media said the staffing decisions by Brown left many district beats understaffed or unmanned, creating safety issues for beat cops who respond to rapidly unfolding dangerous situations.

Use of police quotas?

In January, a police supervisor who worked on the Community Safety Team that Brown had started filed a lawsuit against the city alleging he was removed from the unit because he wouldn’t be pressured to have officers working under him make illegal stops and arrests.

The lawsuit, filed by Lt. Franklin Paz under the state’s Whistleblower Act, accused Brown’s hand-picked head of the unit of forcing cops under his command to generate “activity,” cop-speak for ordering officers to make plentiful arrests and stops, and take other police actions.

Sources within the department said Brown has at times pushed for activity during his weekly meetings of CompStat, data-driven sessions that use crime statistics in real time to hold commanders accountable for upticks in the areas of the city they oversee. This activity comes in the form of traditional metrics such as traffic stops, pedestrian street stops and arrests, as well as a newer category of so-called positive community interactions.

In a question-and-answer session with reporters in February, Brown talked about the department’s use of traffic stops and other enforcement action while trying to foster trust with the neighborhoods. He has resisted attempts to describe the efforts as instituting quotas.

“We want to measure what we’re doing,” Brown said. “And to the untrained eye you might look at our asking about traffic stops and think, ‘Oh, they’re trying to do a quota,’ when what we’re actually trying to do is ... (have a) balancing act of enforcement versus community engagement.”

But Brown has been known to warn his commanders about getting demoted if their performance suffers. In a CompStat meeting, Brown once made a sports analogy to explain, according to one source familiar with the meetings.

“I don’t fire players. I fire coaches,” the source recalled Brown saying.

Police accountability experts have said such a demand for activity puts the department at risk of committing racial profiling and other civil rights infractions. In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which has been critical of Chicago police strategies and how they adversely impact communities of color, noted that traffic stops have jumped in recent years.

A style of his own

Some Police Department officials not authorized to speak publicly were critical of Brown’s work style and leadership.

There have been questions about whether he was equipped to do the job coming from a smaller city like Dallas, where crime levels are much lower than Chicago’s. This was reflected early on in his tenure when he set a goal for Chicago to finish a year with under 300 homicides, a statement that many within the department felt was naive and unrealistic.

Some department officials have questioned whether Brown truly has a comprehensive plan to tackle violence, and say he’s had big ideas without taking to account some of their shortcomings.

Aside from group meetings, Brown has been described as someone who is largely cordoned off from his own command staff and has a close inner circle, which includes his second-in-command, First Deputy Superintendent Eric Carter, and a couple of other aides. This is different from Brown’s last permanent predecessor, Eddie Johnson, who was easily accessible to his commanders.

Again, Brown has been known to use a sports analogy to explain his brusque style. The performance of his commanders has again been likened to a football game, police sources said. Brown has described each month as being like a gridiron contest, and each week within those months as quarters.

“If by halftime, you’re not winning, you better be making adjustments,” one source said, paraphrasing Brown’s words.

Response to unrest

Brown faced heavy criticism earlier this year in a report from the office of city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson for overseeing poor planning for the looting, vandalism and violence in late May that arose from protests over Floyd’s death.

In February, Ferguson’s investigation found that Brown, as well as Lightfoot, led a response plagued by “confusion and lack of coordination” that risked the safety of both police and citizens. Officers weren’t clear at times about what they were supposed to do or who was in charge. Such scattered direction led to “strategic and tactical incoherence,” according to the report.

Ferguson’s deputy inspector general for public safety, Deborah Witzburg, told the Tribune in February the report reflected a “failure of leadership” in the Police Department.

“They endangered members of the public and hung the members of the department out to dry,” she said. “You had thousands of CPD members out on the street without adequate directions or supervision or policy guidance and equipment.”

In November, the head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which probes excessive force allegations against Chicago cops, disclosed that more than 500 complaints had been filed against the officers since late May, accused them of mistreating protesters. At least eight of those cops had been stripped of their police powers by November, moving them to paid desk duty without the authority to carry a badge or gun in the scope of their duties.

That same month, 60 plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit against numerous Chicago police officers, alleging they were beaten, unlawfully arrested and mistreated in other ways by cops during several of the Floyd protests throughout the year.

Chicago was spared more unrest this week after former police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in the Floyd case. But the earlier failure led police accountability advocates to question whether the department under Brown’s leadership was taking the consent decree seriously.

“It hasn’t been a very good year for the superintendent,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who is involved in the consent decree litigation. “CPD officers engaged in hundreds of incidents of violence and abuse, abuse reminiscent of (the) 1968 Democratic (National) Convention in Chicago.”

Slow on reforms

In recent reports, Maggie Hickey, the independent court-ordered monitor overseeing the consent decree, said the Police Department missed about 60% of its reform deadlines in the past year.

She did credit the city and the department for partially complying with a requirement under the decree for a written plan to better train officers. The city also partly complied with a requirement, for example, that CPD compel cops to tell their bosses if a co-worker uses force but fails to report it.

But Hickey also said the department has not met requirements under the decree that include making rules about officers searching people wearing garments for religious reasons, making sure hate crimes are properly investigated and making it easier for people to submit complaints against cops.

Though Brown was forced into it by controversies, the department under his leadership will be instituting some new policies.

In March, Brown proposed tweaks to the department’s search warrant guidelines in the wake of an errant raid at the home of social worker Anjanette Young in February 2019. It took place more than a year before Brown took over CPD, but became public during his tenure.

And he will be leading the implementation of a new foot-chase policy for officers following the death of Toledo, shot and killed by an officer who pursued the teen through a Little Village alley.

View from the community

In interviews with the Tribune, community leaders were divided on the state of the Chicago Police Department under Brown’s leadership

Katya Nuques, executive director of Enlace Chicago, a community organization based in Little Village, said her group has pushed for civilian oversight of the Police Department, a proposal that has been deliberated by the City Council.

Nuques said she was concerned about the “lack of progress” the department has made on reforms, but since Toledo’s killing, it has been brought to “a different level.”

She questioned the police narrative of the shooting, which has emphasized that the 13-year-old was seen on video holding a gun less than a second before he was fatally shot. Video released last week also showed Toledo appeared to have dropped the gun before turning toward the cop with empty hands raised as the fatal shot was fired.

“It just puts things into perspective, right, in terms of the urgency of the situation that we’re dealing with,” Nuques said. “It’s been really shocking for me to realize how the big systems that we deal with, to the extent that they would go to protect themselves and protect the system that is failing us.”

Hatch, the pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, said he’s interacted with Brown about half a dozen times in the past year, and felt it was a “tall order” to bring someone like him from outside the department to change its culture in meaningful ways.

“I think his heart is in the right place,” Hatch said. “But I don’t know that he has a firm enough control over the department to really determine the direction ... to do serious and effective community engagement.”

The Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church on the West Side, said Brown was dealt an unfortunate hand when he arrived in Chicago, including strained police-community relations.

“He’s being judged prematurely,” Acree said. “You cannot give him a grade accurately because he came in a fresh face right at the beginning of a pandemic.”

But he thinks Brown is still the type of police leader who is needed during the consent decree. Acree believes an outsider like Brown can be effective holding his own department accountable since he has no allegiance to anyone on the inside.

“He doesn’t have that history,” Acree said. “And I think that’s good.”

But the outsider label comes with disadvantages, too, said community activist William Calloway.

The superintendent job isn’t “something you can just step into because you’ve got X amount of years of police experience, even if you were the head of the police of another department,” Calloway said.

“This is Chicago,” he said, “it’s way different than anywhere else in the country.”

Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt contributed.

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