For first time, top 3 lead­ers of de­part­ment are African Amer­i­can

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA mi­he­jirika@sun­times.com | @maud­lynei

They are solemn, re­flect­ing on the weight of his­tory and its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, com­ing at this mo­ment, when Amer­ica is roiled by ru­mi­na­tions on race.

At Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment head­quar­ters, Po­lice Supt. David Brown, his 1st deputy su­per­in­ten­dent, Eric Carter, and his deputy su­per­in­ten­dent, Bar­bara West, are chat­ting about the race and gen­der his­tory their de­part­ment qui­etly made this year.

“With race the prom­i­nent dis­cus­sion na­tion­wide, as African Amer­i­can lead­ers, we have this clear un­der­stand­ing of the is­sues,” said Brown, 59, the former Dal­las po­lice chief just shy of four months at CPD’s helm.

“We all have pushed through likely racial bar­ri­ers in our com­ing up through the ranks. We all likely have been looked at dif­fer­ently be­cause of the color of our skin, so we have more than just this read­ing of the is­sues that we face. We have an in­nate un­der­stand­ing.”

It was 185 years ago, on Jan. 31, 1835, that the state of Illi­nois au­tho­rized a po­lice force for the “Town of Chicago.” Seven months later, the Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment was born.

In 1871, it would ac­cept its first African Amer­i­can po­lice of­fi­cer, James L Shel­ton.

In 1913 came its first fe­male of­fi­cers; and in 1918, its first African Amer­i­can fe­male of­fi­cer.

It took the 1983 elec­tion of the city’s first African Amer­i­can mayor to ap­point the first African Amer­i­can su­per­in­ten­dent, Fred Rice; 1992 brought the first Latino su­per­in­ten­dent, Matt Ro­driguez.

Last month’s pro­mo­tion of Carter — a 28-year vet­eran who pre­vi­ously served as chief of the Bu­reau of Counter-Ter­ror­ism and Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions — to CPD’s sec­ond­high­est po­si­tion meant the de­part­ment’s top three brass are now all African Amer­i­cans.

It is a Black His­tory mo­ment no­table in a city that has long strug­gled with eq­ui­table rep­re­sen­ta­tion of its com­mu­ni­ties in city govern­ment.

It also comes atop an­other mile­stone reached by the de­part­ment in Jan­uary.

Women’s His­tory was made when 20-year vet­eran Bar­bara West, pre­vi­ously chief of the Bu­reau of Or­ga­ni­za­tional De­vel­op­ment, was pro­moted to the third-high­est po­si­tion, be­com­ing the high­est-rank­ing AfricanAme­r­i­can fe­male of­fi­cer ever in CPD his­tory.

“I think back to when I came on the job. There weren’t a lot of fe­males on this job,” said West, re­flect­ing on her dual chal­lenges faced in ris­ing up through the ranks.

“It’s a pre­dom­i­nantly male oc­cu­pa­tion, so it’s tough be­ing fe­male. This was said to me by my mentor, a fe­male chief in an­other de­part­ment: ‘It’s hard be­ing a uni­corn.’ Be­cause you’re dif­fer­ent, but yet the same. I’m very ex­cited to be an ex­am­ple for what we want to see in the fu­ture,” said West, 53, of Chatham.

It’s hard to pause to note his­tory when such im­mense chal­lenges loom.

In Jan­uary, the na­tion was on the precipice of a COVID-19 pan­demic that had seen 162,751 U.S. deaths as of Sun­day, and 5 mil­lion peo­ple in­fected. Chicago po­lice have been counted among the city’s 63,109 cases and 2,805 deaths to date.

And al­ready reel­ing from racial dis­par­i­ties in coro­n­avirus deaths that un­veiled Amer­ica’s long-stand­ing eco­nomic and health in­equities, the na­tion was plunged into col­lec­tive trauma on Memo­rial Day with the heinous killing of the un­armed Ge­orge Floyd un­der the knee of a white po­lice of­fi­cer in Min­neapo­lis.

The atroc­ity raised aware­ness of po­lice bru­tal­ity as a pub­lic health cri­sis, and the na­tion erupted into weeks of protests that trig­gered loot­ing and de­struc­tion in Chicago and many cities, fol­lowed by soul-search­ing over the struc­tural racism that grips Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

“I hate to liken it to the civil rights move­ment, but we’re on the precipice. The ques­tion is whether or not we con­tinue the mo­men­tum, and fo­cus on what’s re­ally im­por­tant, not only civil rights, but eco­nomic rights,” said Carter, 54, who lives in the Bev­erly neigh­bor­hood.

“That’s what was lost in the civil rights move­ment,” he said. “We never got the eco­nomic part of it. We made some gains, but it’s the same thing hap­pen­ing now. Are we go­ing to be able to make eco­nomic gains along with the civil rights gains? Will we be able to push through and re­ally achieve equal­ity, or get on that road again with­out

eco­nomic equal­ity?”

The tur­bu­lent yet piv­otal af­ter­math of the Floyd killing has also brought rad­i­cal de­mands to de­fund the po­lice — rooted not un­justly in the racism that has too of­ten seeped into polic­ing and led to too many un­armed per­sons of color killed by po­lice un­der glare of cell­phone video — has put ad­di­tional pres­sure for re­form on CPD and de­part­ments na­tion­wide.

“The chal­lenges of race in this coun­try, the di­vi­sive­ness we see, is un­prece­dented. Un­prece­dented civil un­rest. Un­prece­dented eco­nomic collapse. Un­prece­dented so­cial in­jus­tice. This whole nar­ra­tive of change in polic­ing be­came the fore­front of this dis­cus­sion,” said Brown, who lives in the South Loop with his wife and 14-year-old daugh­ter.

“But again, the chal­lenges are re­ally right here in front of us to meet, with­out any ex­cuses. It’s re­ally crys­tal clear to the three of us, as we all grew up in neigh­bor­hoods much like the chal­leng­ing neigh­bor­hoods we po­lice in,” he said.

“And the rem­nants of much of what we have pushed through is hav­ing to be twice as good. I still have those rem­nants, be­liev­ing that I’ve got to do the job bet­ter than my coun­ter­parts, that I can’t be de­fi­cient in any area. I’ve got to, you know, achieve be­yond any chal­lenges.”

Much of the chal­lenge of the past 2½ months has been dis­cern­ing the post-Floyd im­pact on a de­part­ment branded with a his­tory of racism and civil rights vi­o­la­tions by the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice.

DOJ’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the wake of the bru­tal 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDon­ald — shot 16 times by Chicago Po­lice Of­fi­cer Ja­son Van Dyke — led to the his­toric Jan­uary 2019 con­sent de­cree now gov­ern­ing the de­part­ment’s re­forms.

West, as deputy su­per­in­ten­dent of con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing and re­form, is charged with man­ag­ing those re­forms, over­see­ing the con­sent de­cree, com­mu­nity polic­ing, train­ing, use of force, man­power and su­per­vi­sion, and CPD trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity ef­forts.

CPD has been ac­cused of drag­ging its feet. West, mar­ried, with one son, dis­agrees.

“We started work­ing on re­forms prob­a­bly back in 2016. At the same time, we were go­ing through the ne­go­ti­a­tions on the con­sent de­cree. If you’ve seen other cities go through [it], it’s taken a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time. We are just 17 months in,” she ar­gued.

“The pieces of our con­sent de­cree are more com­pre­hen­sive and com­plex than most other agen­cies have ever had to ex­pe­ri­ence. We have had our use of force pol­icy, in par­tic­u­lar, re­viewed at least twice, and we’ve ac­tu­ally elim­i­nated the choke­hold from our poli­cies, so we’re ahead of the game of some other agen­cies in terms of that,” West said.

“We just want to make sure when we do re­form, that it’s sus­tain­able. We also want to make sure we have ac­count­abil­ity mea­sures on the back end, be­cause down the street, that’s go­ing to be truly the test of whether or not re­form is tak­ing ef­fect.”

But that’s been only half the chal­lenge this sum­mer — the other be­ing the an­nual blood­bath from gang vi­o­lence. It’s been par­tic­u­larly heinous this year, with more than two dozen chil­dren un­der age 10 shot, five killed. July was the city’s most vi­o­lent month in 28 years.

“It strikes at the heart, as a fa­ther, a hus­band, a fam­ily man, but also as a po­lice of­fi­cer, to see this vi­o­lence rip­ping apart fam­i­lies,” said Carter, a mar­ried fa­ther of three chil­dren, who over­sees pa­trol op­er­a­tions, de­ploy­ment and crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

“It’s the to­tal dis­re­gard for life in our face right now. These young peo­ple have been just ar­bi­trar­ily killed or shot at, to get to al­legedly one in­di­vid­ual or two. [The shoot­ers] have no fear that there’s go­ing to be any reper­cus­sions, and that’s what we’re deal­ing with out here.”

He sticks by CPD’s ar­gu­ment that more needs to be done to keep gun of­fend­ers be­hind bars — a long-run­ning dis­pute with the of­fice of the Cook County state’s at­tor­ney that pre-dates this ad­min­is­tra­tion. CPD has al­ways main­tained prose­cu­tors are too le­nient on gun ar­restees. Kim Foxx, the first African Amer­i­can woman to lead that of­fice, re­jects the no­tion.

Carter also ham­mers on the de­part­ment’s long-stand­ing plea for more com­mu­nity help.

“That’s what the per­pe­tra­tors are bank­ing on, that the com­mu­nity’s too afraid to speak up and speak out, to hold them ac­count­able. We’ve got to show the com­mu­nity we’re stronger to­gether than apart,” Carter said.

“It’s gotta catch root. Peo­ple have to be­lieve it. Work­ing to­gether is the only way we’re go­ing to change what’s go­ing on in Chicago right now.”

The three iden­tify with youth ac­tivists who have am­pli­fied the post-Floyd mo­ment into a move­ment. They iden­tify, too, with the youth who have lost their way amid so­cial and eco­nomic chal­lenges in many long dis­in­vested South and West side neigh­bor­hoods.

“I’m at­tracted to those com­mu­ni­ties. I feel at home there,” said Brown, who grew up poor, raised by his sin­gle mother and grand­mother. “I al­ways try to make the case that those might be rea­sons you have a more dif­fi­cult time dig­ging your­self out of a tough en­vi­ron­ment. But I would just as strongly make the case that it’s not an ex­cuse. I hope to be that ex­am­ple, that, ‘Look, I’m just like you, and you can achieve, just like I have.”

It’s be­cause they iden­tify with those neigh­bor­hoods that he and Brown are fo­cused on holis­tic so­lu­tions to the vi­o­lence, said Carter, a Mis­souri na­tive who moved here with his mother when his par­ents sep­a­rated and later di­vorced.

“We’ve got a good plan in place that will holis­ti­cally help us ad­dress the cur­rent crime that we’re see­ing, and we’re re­ally work­ing hard on the West and South sides, be­cause those are com­mu­ni­ties that need us most right now,” said Carter, who joined CPD at age 24, af­ter serv­ing in the U.S. Marines.

“We have busi­ness part­ners on board sup­port­ing some of the ini­tia­tives. We’re try­ing to de­velop jobs for the at-risk age group, 16 to 32, that we are tar­get­ing. We’re try­ing to do re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and de­vel­op­ment of blocks. We’re try­ing to get po­lice of­fi­cers to do men­tor­ing. We’re do­ing our best in those com­mu­ni­ties, to show them that we care.”

Born on the West Side, West’s fa­ther died when she was 2, and her mother raised four daugh­ters on her own. She doesn’t take her trailblaze­r sta­tus lightly.

Af­ter all, her fore­run­ners among the de­part­ment’s first 10 women in­cluded Alice Cle­ment, who be­came a famed de­tec­tive. And in 1918, Grace Wil­son cer­tainly car­ried the weight of his­tory, as some his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences peg her as not just Chicago’s first African Amer­i­can fe­male of­fi­cer, but the first na­tion­wide.

“I work with a lot of girls in the com­mu­nity. And when I go into the sta­tions, some of the of­fi­cers will cor­ner me and want to know what it’s like be­ing fe­male in lead­er­ship. What did I do? How did I get there? I’m able to share in that way in the com­mu­nity as well as within the de­part­ment. It’s a great place to be,” said West.

But pride in break­ing bar­ri­ers is al­ways most mean­ing­ful be­hind real re­sults, notes Brown.

“The chal­lenges are quite com­plex. A global pan­demic, lay­ered atop all the other racial and civil un­rest and strife we are fac­ing. But I am con­fi­dent in this team to lead this de­part­ment through these chal­leng­ing times,” said the su­per­in­ten­dent.

“And the eas­i­est thing for me is to lead in a cri­sis, when there’s bar­ri­ers, likely push­back, or a cli­mate where peo­ple be­lieve you can’t do it. That’s just right for me, be­cause that’s what I’ve had to over­come my en­tire ca­reer while mov­ing up the ranks.”


The Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment’s First Deputy Supt. Eric Carter (from left), Supt. David Brown and Deputy Supt. Bar­bara West.

Po­lice Supt. David Brown says he iden­ti­fies with strug­gling neigh­bor­hoods. “I al­ways try to make the case that those might be rea­sons you have a more dif­fi­cult time dig­ging your­self out of a tough en­vi­ron­ment. But I would just as strongly make the case that it’s not an ex­cuse.”

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