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Illinois Issues: Chicago Mayors Have History Of Axing Top Cops Instead Of Cleaning Up System

police line
flickr/ Sarah

After video of a white Chicago police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times was released to the public, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel became the focus of intense backlash. He responded by firing Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

In many ways this was history repeating in a city that has had twice as many police chiefs than it’s had mayors in the past six decades — and more than its share of police scandals.  

Essay — When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy last December, he joined a long list of the city’s mayors who personally hired their “ideal” top cops, only to dump them when the relationships turned sour.

In the more than 60 years since Mayor Richard J. Daley was elected, Chicago has had seven mayors and 14 police chiefs. Many of the mayors had significant police scandals on their watch, which often led to the sacking of the police chiefs. Most of the police superintendents were fired or resigned because they were about to be fired.

The police superintendents themselves didn’t commit crimes, take bribes, abuse citizens or shoot unarmed fleeing suspects. But too many rank and file officers did. They committed these offenses on the chief’s watch when he supposedly was in charge of his officers. The superintendents were usually slow to take corrective action and in most cases, the bad cops were never disciplined. That’s business as usual in Chicago, and it typically doesn’t seem to bother the mayor, until the news media and voting public became upset. Then the ax falls. 

Each time it’s the same movie with a slightly modified script. But the end is the same: the police superintendent resigns, is told to resign or is fired. The mayor survives and gets another chance to appoint his next “ideal” top cop.

Let’s look at the most recent remake of this familiar film.

In May 2011, two weeks before he was sworn in as mayor, Rahm Emanuel selected Garry McCarthy, Police Chief of Newark, New Jersey, to be the Chicago’s new Superintendent of Police. The head of the Police Board hailed the appointment, saying McCarthy “could hit the ground running. And because of his crime fighting strategy, we felt he would be well received by the rank and file.”

The appointment of McCarthy was also praised by two of his former bosses: former Newark Mayor Corey Booker, who is now a U.S. Senator,  and William Bratton, former New York City Police Commissioner, who was McCarthy’s boss in the 1990s and in the first half decade of the new century. “In Garry, Rahm got one of America’s best police chiefs,” Bratton said.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board said it was looking for three attributes in a new head of the Chicago Police Department and “Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel looks essentially to have nailed all three in his choice of Garry McCarthy.” 

Nevertheless, McCarthy had some difficulties during his first three and a half years in office. Overall crime rates were down, but shootings and murders continued at very high levels. Both the mayor and McCarthy resisted demands from the black community and others to hire more police officers. Instead, McCarthy moved some officers away from desk jobs and back to streets. With the mayor’s blessing, McCarthy ramped up the use of overtime, which added to the city’s budget woes. There were also several incidents of police using excessive force but the criticism wasn’t too loud and in each case, the criticism didn’t last long.

A memorial for teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer

Even though the high numbers of shootings and murders primarily affected African-America areas on the south and west sides of Chicago, black elected officials offered only mild criticism of McCarthy and continued to support the mayor, who everyone knows is really the guy in charge of the police department. Emanuel won both the primary in March and the run-off election in April, 2015, with strong voter support from the African-American wards.

In the first week of October 2015, a number of black aldermen held a news conference to call on the mayor to fire Superintendent McCarthy. They said McCarthy was not responsive to their concerns about safety in their communities and that he failed to place African-Americans in positions of leadership throughout the department. At an awards ceremony later that morning, the mayor said he was “standing behind the Superintendent. I understand your frustration,” the mayor told the aldermen, “but my focus is on gangs and guns, not on Garry.”

Then, two days before Thanksgiving, the political climate changed dramatically. Following a judge’s order, a video was released to the news media showing a white Chicago police officer firing 16 shots into the body of a 17-year-old African-American teen, most of them while he was lying in the street. Even though the shooting took place in October, 2014, an investigation dragged on while no action was taken against the police officer. The state’s attorney, who knew about the video for more than a year, finally charged the officer with murder the day the video was released.

Both of Chicago’s major daily newspapers played the story of the shooting on the front page for several days running. TV and Radio devoted large chunks of air time to the story and the video. Thousands of black, brown and white youth marched in the streets, attracting national news coverage. The crowds blocked downtown streets and discouraged tourists and shoppers on Michigan Avenue and State Street. The protestors shouting, “Sixteen Shots. Sixteen Shots,” demanded the firing of McCarthy and called for resignations of State’s Attorney Anita Alverez and Emanuel.

After a week of protests, they got their first wish. On Tuesday, December 1, Emanuel fired McCarthy. According to the Chicago Tribune, the mayor said McCarthy has a record to be proud of, “Now is the time for fresh eyes and new leadership to confront the challenges the department and our community and our city are facing as we go forward,” Emanuel said.

It’s clear that the public outcry following the release of the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting led directly to the sacking of McCarthy. The voting public turned against Anita Alvarez too. They chose her opponent in the primary election in February.

However, the mayor survived and appointed a committee to recommend police department reforms. He also asked the Police Board to conduct a national search and to prepare a list of three highly-qualified candidates. The mayor was required by law to choose one of the three candidates from the list. After first interviewing and making an overture to a high-profile public safety director from DeKalb County (Atlanta) Georgia, Emanuel ditched the process. Instead he chose Eddie Johnson to be interim police superintendent. Johnson is African American and a 27-year veteran of the police department. 

Credit Chicago Police Department
Chicago Police Department
Former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy

A few days later, after surmounting procedural hurdles, Emanuel removed the interim label and made Johnson the permanent police superintendent. “Eddie Johnson has the command, character and capability to lead the department at this critical juncture,” Emanuel said at a news conference. “I am confident that Eddie Johnson can confront the culture that has undermined trust in the community and has affected the morale of the rank-and-file.”

The sacking of a police superintendent and the appointment of a new chief, who has the right stuff to solve the city’s crime and police behavior problems, has been repeated time and again in Chicago’s modern political history.

Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was first elected in 1955, was only in office a little over three years when the notorious Summerdale police scandal erupted. About a dozen cops from the Summerdale Police District in Edgewater on the city’s north side were arrested for serving as lookouts and providing protection for a burglar who paid off the cops with merchandise stolen nightly from local stores and businesses. Four truckloads of stolen merchandise were recovered from the officers’ homes. Eight officers were convicted and sent to prison. Others were fined. Police Commissioner Tim O’Connor resigned after serving 31 years on the force.

Daley appointed a committee to find a new commissioner. The committee included O.W. Wilson, dean of criminology at the University of California. The committee recommended Wilson and in1961, Daley chose him to be Superintendent of Police. Wilson retired in 1967 and recommended that Daley name James B. Conlisk Jr. as his replacement.

That was not a hard choice for the mayor. Conlisk’s father, James B. Conlisk  Sr., had been administrative assistant to five police commissioners. His wife, Margaret had gone to school with Mayor Daley’s wife, Eleanor Guilfoyle. James Sr. also handled political matters in the department. He was on good paper with the Boss Daley.

Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton (pictured) were shot and killed by police in Chicago.

James Conlisk, Jr. was Superintendent of Police from 1967 until 1973. He was in charge during the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the “police riot” during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. In 1969, high ranking police officers were indicted for shaking down tavern owners in police districts on the north and west sides. Then came the raid on the Black Panther’s apartment carried out by Chicago police on loan to State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton were killed in a barrage of bullets. News investigations demonstrated that all but one of hundreds of bullet holes were made by bullets fired into the apartment’s bedroom from outside. This led most observers to conclude that Clark and Hampton were murdered while asleep in their beds. The head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice said they were “summarily executed.” 

In October, 1973, news reports said Conlisk resigned as superintendent for personal reasons and not because the department had to deal with numerous scandals during his tenure. However, his resignation came only five days after 19 Chicago policemen were convicted in federal court for extorting tavern owners.

After Conlisk resigned, Daley replaced him with the department’s deputy superintendent, James M. Rochford, who reportedly tried to rid the department of officers involved in organized crime or corruption. But Rochford was in charge when the Chicago Tribune reported on numerous cases of police brutality and when Daley resisted efforts by the U.S. Justice Department to force the Chicago police department to hire and promote more minorities. It was also on his watch when the first news broke about the Chicago Police “Red Squad” spying on religious leaders, community groups and the mayor’s political opposition.

A few days before Christmas, 1976, Daley died from of a stroke in his doctor’s office. Michael A. Bilandic, the alderman from Daley’s 11th Ward, was selected by the City Council to serve as acting mayor until a special election in the spring of 1977.

Bilandic won the special election. Seven months later Superintendent Rochford resigned.

Rochford and Bilandic both said the parting was amicable, but some of Rochford’s friends said he was frustrated in the job.

To replace Rochford, Bilandic chose chief of detectives James E. O’Grady. The mayor said Superintendent O’Grady, a Chicago policeman for 35 years, was the best candidate for the job. O’Grady promised that the city would be the “safest in the world.” 

Chicago mounted police officers
Credit flickr/ Mobilus In Mobili

A year later, voters chose Jane Bryne to be mayor of Chicago, in an upset election. During the campaign she vowed to get rid of O’Grady. He beat her to the draw. He resigned as superintendent but remained on the force.

O’Grady held the superintendent position for only a year and didn’t have much time to get into trouble. However, a few years later, O’Grady left the force, became a Republican and was elected Cook County sheriff. His hand-picked top deputy, James Dvorak, a former CPD homicide detective, pleaded guilty to tax charges stemming from a massive scheme he and others operated to rig hiring tests for unqualified applicants and placing more than 20 ghosts on the sheriff’s payroll. O’Grady was not indicted.

Shortly after being elected mayor in 1979, Bryne appointed Joseph DiLeonardi acting superintendent. He resigned less than a year later. DiLeonardi said two of Bryne’s aides told him to remove the head of his department’s organized crime unit. According to DiLeonardi, Bryne’s aides said the removal was requested by the mob-dominated First Ward.

In January 1980, Bryne responded by appointing Richard Brzeczek, who at the time was the assistant deputy superintendent, to be her superintendent of police.

With the 1983 mayoral primary election looming, Byrne’s two opponents, Richard M. Daley, and Harold Washington criticized Brzeczek’s management of the police department. They said he was manipulating the crime statistics. In an interview before the primary election, Brzeczek told two Chicago Tribune reporters, “I won’t work a day for Washington. He won’t have a chance to fire me; I’ll quit.”

After Washington won the primary, Brzeczek quit, which some in Washington’s camp suggested was an effort to assist Benard Epton, Washington’s Republican opponent in the general election, which was to be held only a week later.

Both Mayor Richard M. Daley (pictured) and his father faced police scandals during their times in office.

Much later, after Mayor Richard M. Daley was elected and after Daley’s inherited Police Superintendent LeRoy Martin reached the mandatory retirement age, the mayor selected Matt Rodriguez to be the new superintendent. Rodriguez had been in police department for 33 years and held positions investigating gambling vice and organized crime.

In 1997, Rodriguez came under fire when the Chicago Tribune revealed that he was a friend of Frank Milito, a restaurant owner and a convicted felon who had ties to organized crime. The department’s Rule 47 prohibits police officers from fraternizing with convicted felons. The next day Rodriguez announced his retirement. Although it wasn’t known until later, the relationship with Milito was deeper than friendly chats at the restaurant. Milito took Rodriguez on trips to Italy and Israel and arranged for Rodriguez to obtain discount travel fares. He also hired Rodriguez’s son-in-law to work at his restaurant.

While Daley was on vacation in March, 2007, there were numerous news reports about two separate incidents caught on video tape of police beating civilians. One of a 250-pound off-duty policeman, Anthony Abbate, who went behind the bar at a neighborhood tavern to repeatedly punch and kick a 115-pound female bartender for refusing to serve him any more drinks. The other video showed officers beating four businessmen in a downtown bar in an argument over use of a pool table. Both incidents involved attempts by the police to cover-up the outrageous behavior of fellow officers.

When Daley returned from his vacation, Police Superintendent Phil Cline resigned. At a news conference, Daley said the superintendent accepted responsibility for “incidents that tarnished the entire department.”

Superintendent Garry McCarthy might have been shocked last December about how abruptly he was fired, and he has since indicated that he believes he unfairly took the fall for the scandal. “Somebody had to take the hit,’” McCarthy said while speaking on a panel at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in March.

But McCarthy was stating the obvious. Anyone who looks back at recent Chicago history will see that when flagrant police abuse or corruption makes news, the police chief gets sacked.

Thomas J. Gradel is a freelance writer and co-author with Dick Simpson of Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism and Criminality, published in February, 2015 by the University of Illinois Press. Previously Gradel was a political media consultant for political candidates, labor unions and nonprofit organizations. He is a member of the National Writers Union.

 Illinois Issuesis in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issuesis produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.


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