‘Not a popularity contest': Search for Chicago’s top cop complicated by lobbying campaigns

As a newly formed commission launches a nationwide search for the Chicago’s next top cop, campaigns endorsing current and former Chicago police officials for the job are already impacting the process and raising some alarms.

The first-of-its-kind search by the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability has so far centered on three public meetings that have elicited seemingly coordinated efforts to raise the profile of certain police supervisors, including at least two who are also being pushed in online campaigns.

Anthony Driver Jr., the commission’s interim president, said those efforts are complicating the search, which relies on getting independent input from residents.

"This is not a political campaign, so it’s not a popularity contest," Driver told the Sun-Times.

"We’re looking for the person to do the job, so community members’ voices are very important and their voice will be at the forefront," he added. "But if somebody has 5,000 supporters and another person has 20 [and] the person with 20 seems way more qualified, then that’ll create an issue."

An online petition endorsing Ernest Cato III — the Chicago Police Department’s former chief of counterterrorism and a finalist in the last superintendent search — has already drawn more than 700 signatures.

The drive was launched by Alees Edwards, who was recently elected to the new Police District Council for the Harrison District, which is charged with helping nominate members to the commission.

During the commission’s first community meeting in Austin earlier this month, over a dozen community members spoke out in support of Cato. He was scheduled to join supporters for an online meet-and-greet on May 11 but Edwards announced Wednesday that it had been postponed.

Edwards didn’t respond to a request for comment. Cato acknowledged that he knows her from his time working on the West Side, but he sidestepped questions about the lobbying campaign for him.

"People appear to be just very enthusiastic," he said. "I appreciate that but also respect the process that must be followed."

Grand Crossing District Cmdr. Roderick Watson has been the subject of a similar campaign. Several community members endorsed him during an online meeting held by the commission on Tuesday, and a campaign-style video was released the following day framing Watson as a community-oriented leader.

The Annie B. Jones Civic Arts Center in the Douglas neighborhood apparently produced the video. A representative didn’t respond to an inquiry. Neither did Watson.

An online campaign for Deputy Chief Rahman "Rock" Muhammad has also received significant support, with at least one backer noting she personally nominated him for the superintendent job.

The Facebook user drumming up support didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Muhammad declined comment.

‘There shouldn’t be this outside influence’

Joe Ferguson, the city’s former inspector general, said the lobbying raises "some unseemly appearances which, given that this is Chicago, should be of concern."

Ferguson recommended the search be conducted "in an almost antiseptic fashion," insisting that ground rules be laid making clear the commission isn’t soliciting suggestions for specific candidates.

"Otherwise, you create … problematic appearances that discourage good people from applying, create an impression that no matter what decision is made, it was wrought of a process in which there was sort of undue influences — kind of a version of clout, if you will — and then after the fact, this creation of an appearance of sort of owning somebody," he added.

Former Supt. Phil Cline was taken aback by the appearance of concerted campaigns to influence Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, who will ultimately pick the next top cop from candidates selected by the commission. Cline wondered whether either or all of the three contenders "initiated" the efforts.

Cline said a political-style campaign for any of the contenders is potentially undermining to the fledgling commission, which was created alongside the district councils to give community members more say in policing matters.

If Cato, Watson, Muhammad or their supporters are determined to let politics infiltrate the selection of a new superintendent, Cline said, "They should go to Springfield and get [the law] changed to an elected superintendent.

"The way it’s set up, it’s a selection by the mayor," he said. "There shouldn’t be this outside influence."

What comes next

With the May 7 deadline to apply for superintendent fast approaching, the commission has hired a firm to conduct a nationwide search and has already received nine applications.

Driver and his colleagues have until mid-July to forward the names of three finalists to Johnson, who can choose one or reject all three and request a new batch of candidates.

Johnson has signaled that he’d like to hire someone from within the CPD, but Driver said the commission is "evaluating everybody fairly" — and isn’t weighing candidates based on public support.

"It should not be a thing where people think, if we just get more votes than the other person, we’ll win," he said. "It’s not a race like that."