Absence of Effective Leadership Sabotaging Chicago Police Department

March 4, 2022

It's time to clean the stables at CPD

When Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed O.W. Wilson to lead the Chicago Police Department (CPD) in 1960, it was not solely a change in command. Wilson being named head of CPD signaled a remarkable transformation, at the time the most significant in department history.

Named superintendent in the wake of the Summerdale scandal, Wilson was given sweeping power to overhaul CPD. As superintendent, Wilson cut the number of police districts, introduced technology, increased the number of patrol cars, hired civilians for clerical jobs, computerized records, introduced the two-way radio for officers, and established a police board that handled discipline. To combat corruption, Wilson argued for and received pay raises for officers. During Wilson’s tenure, CPD raised hiring standards and the number of minority officers jumped. Also under Wilson, Chicago adopted several policing strategies that would later become known as the “Broken Windows Theory.”

While many of the changes Wilson applied generally improved the department, a key component of his reform agenda — the merit promotion system — has had devastating, long-term consequences for Chicago. Today, history may be repeating itself as CPD is again facing calls for more oversight, stricter discipline, more minority applicants, and civilian control. But the merit system that has caused countless problems over the decades has been left in place.

The merit system, originally meant to promote the most diligent officers, has become a system that serves the interests of the politically connected at CPD. In order to achieve a career advance in CPD today, it isn’t what you know or how you have tested, but who you know. According to officers serving Chicago, career advancement in CPD is a charade and promotions are owed to internal connections to a relative, friend or former partner, regardless of poor performance on the street. Today, working police seldom receive a promotion unless they test well while the underserving, well-connected cops are promoted through the merit system. More concerning is that those same merit promotees — often inept or undistinguished officers — continue to climb up the career ladder to this day. Presently, many merit promotees hold key leadership positions.

To achieve the rank of detective, sergeant or a lieutenant, one must successfully pass a promotional examination. However, under merit promotion policy, elevation in rank can occur under another circumstance, merit nomination by an exempt staff member. An exempt member is an officer holding the rank of captain or above. This includes the rank of commander, chief, and deputy chief. To become an “exempt,” an officer is appointed by the superintendent.

In theory, this system should work by ensuring the most competent officers consistently rise in rank to leadership positions in the department. This would mean lasting stability and able leaders in key positions. In practice, however, the system has seen incompetence prevail and exempt officials hand pick family, friends or other connected officers.

In the aftermath of former Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s ousting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot sought to continue her mission of reforming the Chicago Police Department. Seeking a replacement for Johnson, Lightfoot’s final three candidates consisted of Ernest Cato, who at the time was serving as Deputy Chief of Area North; Kristen Ziman, Chief of Police for the City of Aurora; and former Dallas Police Chief David Brown. Lightfoot eventually selected Brown, who was confirmed by the City Council and officially took the position April 15, 2020.

Brown took over the department in a time of tumult as CPD worked to comply with the Consent Decree, and as CPD was transitioning from interim Superintendent Charlie Beck. Weeks after taking to job, Brown faced a significant challenge as Chicago struggled through the most destructive riots the city had seen since the assassination of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

His first substantial test since becoming superintendent of the second-largest police department in the country, as the city burned and businesses were ravaged by looters, Brown was nowhere to be found. In Brown’s absence, officers were overwhelmed and assaulted, mainly in the Loop and in some poorer neighborhoods.

An Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report concluded CPD’s response to the riots was lacking, and that officers were “outflanked, under-equipped, and unprepared.” The report also rebuked Brown and CPD leaders, saying they “critically disserved both its own front-line members and members of the public.”

Hardly a shining endorsement of his leadership, though some defended Brown as a newcomer to Chicago deserving time to adjust, since then the superintendent has shown little desire to adapt and to be unfit for the job. Upon accepting the role as leader of CPD, Brown’s vision for Chicago was less than 300 homicides. Since Brown arrived in the Windy City, little progress has been achieved: Crime has spiraled out of control, the homicide rate has soared, and “anti-crime” efforts have been either indecision or mass confusion. Under Brown, units have been created, only to be ultimately downsized or disbanded.

Besides a lack of vision and a failure to create sound strategy, a feature of Brown’s tenure as superintendent is his habit of promoting politically connected incompetents while demoting or punishing talented, experienced leaders. This has officers deeply demoralized and has triggered a mass exodus of seasoned officers for suburban police departments and accomplished men and women in mid-level leadership positions to seek employment outside of Chicago and Illinois.

One of the earliest examples of Brown’s failure to responsibly manage subordinates was the superintendent’s foolish decision to demote the then-commander of the 1st District, Jacob Alderden. A highly decorated veteran with two decades of experience fighting crime, Alderden was widely regarded as one of the more effective officers on command staff. Serving in numerous positions since joining the department, Alderden began as a patrolman in the 9th District and eventually rose to detective, sergeant, and lieutenant.

Alderden amassed numerous honors, special commendations, problem solving awards on his way to his promotion as commander. In one distressing incident in 2003, Alderden nearly gave his life for Chicago after he was confronted by an armed man in Gage Park. Alderden was forced to use lethal force and was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

Alderden continued to rise within CPD and eventually became commander of the 1st District. While Brown was absent during the George Floyd riots, Alderden distinguished himself for masterfully organizing a response to the looting and destruction in his district. Alderden’s planning and organization of his manpower throughout the crisis helped prevent much of the destruction in Downtown Chicago from devastating his district.

That notwithstanding, Alderden ran afoul of Brown later when Alderden, whose district was suffering from a massive staff shortage as officers dealt with COVID-19 and CPD was unexpectedly confronted with a wave of retirements and resignations, refused to post a patrol car outside a downtown restaurant frequented by the superintendent. Retaliation for declining an irrational order, Brown demoted Alderden to captain in the Alternate Response Section, a unit that takes 311, non-emergency calls. Many officers saw the demotion of Alderden as terrible insult to working police. Brown, a man with no ties to either Chicago or CPD, failed to recognize Alderden’s skills and experience and replaced Alderden with a known merit bungler.

The demotion of Alderden was not the first time Brown made a decision based on personal grudges or politics. Shortly after his tenure began, Brown and Mayor Lightfoot developed the unwise strategy of reducing manpower in the Narcotics Unit from roughly 900 officers to 187. The commander of the unit at the time, Ronald Kimble, objected. A respected officer with three decades of service, when Kimble attempted to justify the work his unit was doing and appealed for manpower levels to remain in a phone conversation with Brown, the superintendent is alleged to have told Kimble to “shut up.” Brown and Lightfoot took Kimble’s unit away from him, demoted him, and banished him to the 24th District on the city’s Far North Side. That demotion forced Kimble to drive over 20 miles from his South Side home to his new district in Rogers Park.

For Superintendent Brown and, occasionally, Mayor Lightfoot to mistreat senior police officials with such scorn is problematic in itself, but aside from how Brown handles demoting officers, it is important to explore how he handles promotions within the ranks of CPD. Many who have had the fortune to receive a promotion from Brown have revealed themselves to be without the requisite experience or talent to cope with demands of administrative duties in law enforcement.

CPD’s merit promotion system has long been criticized by beat-level officers as simply being a way to promote the connected and other unworthy officers. To be fair, some competent officers have advanced by way of merit promotion, but far more inexperienced or unqualified officers have moved up in rank as a result of who they know as opposed to what they have learned, experienced or know.

A reviled method of professional advancement, the merit promotion system was once labeled by Lightfoot as "illegitimate" and described in a Department of Justice report as "a reward for cronyism, rather than a recognition of excellence." After the dismissal of Eddie Johnson as superintendent, his successor, Charlie Beck, suspended all merit promotions during his brief term in Chicago and recommended the merit system be abolished. Many officers had hoped Beck’s recommendation would be permanent. Wishful thinking, it didn’t last long before it was quietly restored by Brown.

Although all officers can be responsible for using poor judgment or can commit error, merit officers tend to be at fault for bringing shame on the department more often than non-merit officers. In one example of a merit promotee committing a terrible error in 2017, Khalil Muhammad shot Ricardo “Ricky” Hayes in the Morgan Park neighborhood. Hayes is autistic and was unarmed. It was later determined Muhammad fired at Hayes with no probable cause. That wasn’t the end of the story. A scandal developed when Officers Isaac Lambert and Rodney Blissett filed lawsuits against the city in 2019 and 2020, respectively, alleging that they were targeted and demoted for refusing to change the facts of the case for merit Sergeant Muhammad. At the time of the incident, the chief of Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA), Eddie Welch, was the same man who meritoriously promoted Sergeant Khalil Muhammad in 2012.

A troubling shooting incident, Muhammad not only avoided criminal charges but barely faced punishment for an unjustified, potentially lethal use of force. Muhammad eventually served a 180-day suspension. The leniency granted to Muhammad led many officers to believe he was able to remain immune from consequences because of his links to superiors with “clout.” It’s a belief among officers that is reinforced after police witness other officers who are routinely stripped of their police powers, suspended or dismissed for less severe infractions. The difference in this case, according to police, is that Muhammad, a merit promotee, was favored and protected by officials with rank.

Keeping in mind the Muhammed affair and the protection he is suspected to have received from BIA officials, it is important to briefly review the division of CPD tasked with monitoring police behavior and maintaining high employee standards. The office has been the source of trouble over the years, with many unfit or undistinguished officers in command positions tied to the failure of BIA. One of the most notable disappointments at BIA was the office refusing to thoroughly investigate and penalize officers for a massive merit promotional cheating scandal.

Shortly after being chosen to lead CPD in 2011, Garry McCarthy appointed Alfonza Wysinger as First Deputy Superintendent. In this position, Wysinger exercised extraordinary influence over promotions. Mr. Wysinger merit promoted current BIA chief, Yolanda Talley, to sergeant years ago.

That aside, in 2014, a former ranking officer, Eugene Williams, is believed to have acquired a copy of the lieutenant’s exam before the test was held. In secret meetings Williams is believed to have provided answers to the exam to at least three CPD personnel that were sergeants at the time. Among the recipients of the test’s answers were Maryet Hall, the wife of Mr. Wysinger; Nakia Fenner, who is the wife of former superintendent Eddie Johnson; and a third officer, Davina Ward.

After word broke of the invite-only study sessions, an uproar followed and the matter was forwarded to BIA. It took numerous attempts over several years before BIA finally investigated the matter. As BIA looked into the scandal, the OIG conducted another fact-finding mission. Amazingly, neither investigative body found enough evidence to punish either Williams for providing answers or the three now lieutenants. All three, Ward, Fenner, and Hall continue to serve with CPD.

At the time of the cheating scandal, the head of BIA, Juan Rivera was roundly criticized for his inaction. Rivera’s successor, Eddie Welch, was also condemned by officers for allegedly slow-walking an investigation to protect the connected few. That cheating disgrace was not the final embarrassing episode for BIA.

In early February, officers attached to a gang unit patrolling in Humboldt Park pulled over a car for failing to properly signal a left turn. In the car were two people, including Kenneth Miles. Police soon discovered the car, a Lexus, was driven by the niece of chief of BIA, Yolanda Talley. Talley was not in the car.

Talley’s record is unimpressive to say the least. A merit promotee thanks to Al Wysinger, Talley is a minimally decorated officer who has largely held administrative positions. From human resources to leading recruitment and retention for CPD, Talley’s record suggests little time fighting crime on the streets and too much time seated at a desk. Talley was promoted to BIA chief in December 2021 by David Brown.

The passenger, Kenneth Miles, is believed by police to have picked up a bag and later tossed the sack from the car as police attempted to stop the car. The bag contained $6,000 worth of heroin. This is troubling in itself, even though Talley wasn’t in the car and there is no evidence to suggest Talley knew a person with criminal history would be a passenger. Miles is known for his role in providing police with information that led to a search warrant executed on the home of Anjanette Young.

However, police procedure in drug arrests requires the car to be impounded. The matter was made worse as it was later discovered that officers were instructed not to impound the car, presumably because it belonged to Chief Talley. Weeks after the incident, Mayor Lightfoot and Superintendent Brown both publicly supported Talley. Officers involved with the arrest were removed from the street and Talley, whose car was involved in a drug arrest, remains at BIA.

Why Talley remains is the question. The Bureau of Internal Affairs is an office that is meant to preserve the integrity of the entire department. For the CPD to maintain an image of ethical conduct among employees, it is critical the leader of Internal Affairs have an impeccable service record and be a model human being. Because ethics play a significant role in leading BIA, it is not enough for its head executive to be above impropriety. The leader of BIA must be above the appearance of impropriety in both their personal and professional life. Yolanda Talley’s niece being nabbed by CPD tells us much about how deep Chief Talley’s ethics go. We’ve stepped in deeper puddles. Many have questioned Talley’s competence. Talley’s ethics should now fall under suspicion.  

The level of incompetence at the top of CPD is a direct result of decades of merit promotions. When O.W. Wilson reorganized the CPD, his vision was for a professional, disciplined law-enforcement agency to protect the law abiding.

Today, however, despite Wilson’s desire to build an efficient crime-fighting agency, CPD’s single greatest flaw is a component of his reform: merit promotions. Wilson saw merit promotion as an alternative method of promotion to allow an officer who had distinguished themselves in the line of duty. Unfortunately, Wilson’s merit promotion system has been terribly misused and abused to advance and protect a select number of officers.

The Chicago Police Department has in its ranks countless officers who are well educated and demonstrate effective leadership every day. It is not unusual to find officers with advanced degrees, principally law degrees or MBAs serving in CPD. It is also very common for officers of any rank to enroll in certificate programs through federal law enforcement agencies for the purpose of professional development. The CPD is also filled with former members of the military, where they acquired vast training and experience in the art of leadership. Despite that wealth of training and experience, many capable officers do not advance because they do not count among the select few that qualify by kinship with the clouted for promotion.

Now in its sixth decade, merit promotions have severely crippled CPD. After years of promoting officers through a destructive system, many police say the level of incompetence in command positions is so extensive and profound it is bringing ruin on the whole of the department. Officers have little faith in high-ranking leaders, morale has sunk, and officers are either retiring or resigning to take positions elsewhere.

In two instances in the past two years, CPD suffered separate blows with the departure of two well-regarded leaders. In April 2021, Chris Kennedy, a former deputy chief with three decades of police experience, resigned to accept the position of chief in Northbrook, Illinois. A respected officer, Kennedy held numerous command and supervisory positions in his career. Less than one year later, Eric Winstrom resigned as commander of Area 5 Detectives for the position of chief of police in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A sound strategist and lawyer with extensive experience on the street and in legal affairs, Winstrom, too, was held in high esteem by those that he served with. According to officers familiar with the two men, both should be leading CPD today, but both sought positions elsewhere.

Merit promotions have suffocated CPD. The common thread of the merit system is incompetence in leadership and the unwise promotion of incompetence over the qualified. The merit system must end now as it is causing policing in Chicago to deteriorate.

The next mayor, whoever he or she should be, will find themselves at a crossroads. CPD rank and file are a well-trained, capable crime-fighting force. Officers are crying out for competent, bold, and principled leadership. Instead of ignoring the ineptness among leaders at 35th and Michigan Avenue and in districts, the next mayor should clean house at the top of CPD's leadership pyramid.

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