The Woes of Chicago's Top Cop

  • Share
  • Read Later
M. Spencer Green / AP

The new Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis, center, accompanied by his deputy superintendents, attends a press conference after a swearing-in ceremony.

At a news conference not yet 100 days into Jody Weis' new job, the questions were enough to catch even a veteran police chief flat-footed. On the afternoon of April 20, Weis, the city's new police superintendent, stood before a bank of television cameras in a conference room at his department's headquarters. With a stellar 22-year FBI career behind him, the head of America's second-largest and very troubled police force faced a key test. In the previous 72 hours, nearly 40 people had been shot, five fatally. Weis wanted to clarify the record — and soothe a city on edge.

It had been one of the warmest weekends so far this year and so, Weis argued, there was simply "more outdoor activity, more opportunity for crimes to occur" — a common explanation for such crime outbursts, but not an especially persuasive one. The superintendent also noted that 15 of that weekend's 38 shootings were gang-related — as if that should make Chicagoans more comfortable with a homicide rate that has jumped 8.9% in the first four months of 2008 over 2007. Nor has Weis begun to truly address how this city of 3 million intends to thwart a gang population estimated to be as large as 70,000.

So Chicagoans are still on edge. Their mayor, Richard M. Daley, has led a dazzling economic and cultural renaissance during his nearly 20-year rule. Yet, for all Daley's success, his police department remains a blemish on his legacy. Weis was named to the job in November, following the resignation of the last superintendent, Philip Cline, in April 2007, amid a series of department scandals. They included an apparently drunken off-duty officer who was videotaped beating a female bartender. In September, federal authorities charged a member of the department's elite special operations unit with planning a colleague's murder. Then, in November, a team of University of Chicago Law School researchers issued a report concluding the police department rarely investigates civilian complaints of police brutality. The handful of rogue officers were tarnishing their department's image, and becoming a financial liability as taxpayers paid millions to settle lawsuits. So it wasn't surprising that Daley looked beyond the department for its next leader.

Weis, 50, is a tough-talking, square-jawed body builder married to a personal trainer. He studied as a chemist and became an Army bomb expert. At the FBI he handled drug, terrorism and white-collar crime cases before being named head of the agency's Philadelphia office in May 2006. Weis is the first outsider in four decades to run Chicago's 13,500-officer police department — and the move won Daley praise from some of his usual critics. However, police officers are skeptical of Weis, mainly because it is the FBI that frequently investigates alleged police misconduct.

Stepping into Chicago's provincial politics, Weis first alienated some black leaders who demanded that he name an African-American deputy, telling them he would hire the most qualified candidate, regardless of race or ethnicity. He then hired two deputies — an African-American man and a Hispanic woman, both with two decades on the force. Next, he offered 21 of the department's 25 district commanders the option to accept new assignments or retire, antagonizing many department veterans. "Those changes were a little premature," says Mark Donahue, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police. "It's hard to believe he'd have gotten to know those folks on a personal basis in such a short period of time." New managers often surround themselves with loyalists, but Weis' swift move appears to have deepened his officers' disillusionment.

In another episode, Weis tapped a former FBI agent — and one of his best friends — to be his chief of staff. But within weeks, Daley installed one of his own staffers into the job. "Translation: Mayor Daley wants his own eyes and ears at the police department," quipped a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. In a recent TIME interview, Weis said of Daley, "He's never dictated who I should hire, and who I should promote." But Weis still knows that, in the end, Daley is the boss. Meanwhile, the new police superintendent has proposed that his officers submit to annual physical fitness tests and adhere to maximum body fat standards. The proposal hasn't gone over well, particularly with older officers. Weis further irritated officers by wearing a police uniform, even though he isn't a sworn officer. He has since promised to wear the uniform only for police academy graduations, funerals and other ceremonies.

More substantively, Weis has suggested the city equip his officers with M4 carbines so they can be on equal footing with the criminals they confront. But so far, Weis' major crime-fighting initiative has been to saturate crime-tossed neighborhoods, like South Austin on Chicago's West Side, with police officers. That's where several people, including a 16-year-old, were shot at a party on the evening of April 19. Now, police officers are assigned to patrol South Austin's tree-lined streets during the day — on foot and bike. By night, those patrols are to be reinforced with SWAT units and helicopters equipped with motion sensors. The saturation strategy, Weis argues, makes it easier to predict crime, and respond when they occur. "We're trying to have a visible presence," he says, adding, "Sometimes, that kind of deterrence is effective."

Not everyone is sold, of course. "That paramilitary-style policing has proven not just ineffective, but also has led to greater instances of brutality," contends Craig B. Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who co-wrote the analysis of the CPD's handling of misconduct allegations. With the CPD's largely white officers saturating black and Latino neighborhoods, Futterman warns, "it's going to be like an outsider-occupied territory."

Earlier this year, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Weis confessed, "I'm sure there's going to be some days when I may, you know, sit back in my chair and go, 'Man, I wonder if I made the right decision?'" With his current troubles, those days may be coming more often than he anticipated.