They are solemn, reflecting on the weight of history and its responsibilities, coming as America is roiled by ruminations on race.
Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, his 1st deputy superintendent, Eric Carter, and his deputy superintendent, Barbara West, sat to chat at headquarters, about the race and gender history their department quietly made this year.
“As African American leaders, we have this clear understanding of the issues, with race the prominent discussion nationwide,” said Brown, 59, the former Dallas police chief at CPD’s helm since April.
“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.
It would accept its first African American police officer, James L Shelton, in 1871.
Its first female officers came in 1913.
It took the 1983 election of the city’s first African-American mayor to get the first African-American superintendent, Fred Rice.
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 second-highest 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 African-American female officer in CPD history.
“When I came on the job, there weren’t a lot of females on this job. It’s a predominantly male occupation, so it’s tough being female,” said West, reflecting on dual challenges faced rising up through the ranks.
“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 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 infected.
Then, already reeling from racial disparities in coronavirus deaths that unveiled America’s longstanding economic and health inequities, the nation was plunged into collective trauma on Memorial Day with the heinous killing of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
The nation erupted into weeks of protests triggering looting and destruction in Chicago and many cities, followed by soul-searching over America’s structural racism.
“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, of Beverly.
“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?”
The turbulent yet pivotal aftermath of the Floyd killing also brought radical demands to defund the police — rooted not unjustly in the racism that has too often seeped into policing, with many unarmed persons of color killed under glare of cell phone video.
“The challenges of race in this country, the divisiveness we see, is unprecedented. This whole narrative of change in policing became the forefront of this discussion,” Brown said.
“But again, the challenges are really right here in front of us to meet, without any excuses. The three of us all grew up in neighborhoods much like the challenging neighborhoods we police in,” said Brown, who lives in the South Loop with his wife and 14-year-old daughter.
“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 2 1⁄2 months has been discerning the post-Floyd impact on a department branded with a history of racism and civil rights violations.
A U.S. Department of Justice 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 reforms.
CPD has been accused of dragging its feet. West, charged with managing reforms, 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,” argued West, married, with one son.
“The pieces of our consent decree are more comprehensive and complex than most other agencies have ever had to experience,” West said.
“We just want to make sure that when we do reform, it’s sustainable. We also want to make sure we have accountability measures on the back end, because that’s going to be truly the test of whether or not reform is taking effect down the street.”
But that’s been only half the challenge — the other being the annual summer bloodbath from gang violence. More than two dozen children under age 10 have been 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, a police officer, to see this violence ripping apart families,” said Carter, a married father of three.
“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 there’s going to be any repercussions. That’s what we’re dealing with out here.”
Carter sticks by CPD’s argument that more needs to be done to keep gun offenders behind bars, and hammers the department’s plea for more community help.
“That’s what the perpetrators are banking on, that the community’s too afraid to speak up, to hold them accountable. We’ve got to show the community we’re stronger together than apart. Working together is the only way we’re going to change what’s going on in Chicago right now,” Carter said.
The three identify with youth activists amplifying this moment into a movement, and too, with youth who have lost their way amid social and economic challenges in disinvested South and West side 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 they’re not excuses,” said Brown, who grew up poor, raised by his single mother and grandmother. “I hope to be that example, that, ‘Look, I’m just like you, and you can achieve just like I have.”
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.
“We’ve got a good plan in place that will holistically help us address the crime we’re seeing. 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 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 that we are targeting. 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, her mother left raising four daughters on her own. West doesn’t take her trailblazer status lightly.
“I work with a lot of girls in the community,” said West. “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.”
But breaking barriers is most meaningful behind results, Brown notes.
“The challenges are quite complex. But I am confident in this team to lead this department through these challenging times,” the superintendent said. “And the easiest thing for me is to lead in a crisis, when there’s … a climate where people believe you can’t do it. That’s what I’ve had to overcome my entire career while moving up the ranks.”
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