Are police chiefs being held to a higher standard?

Increasingly, city police chiefs find themselves out of a job as videos of police misconduct fuel protesters' calls for change. But law enforcement experts divided about whether resignations help systematic reform, or just provide satisfying scapegoats.

Jim Young/Reuters/File
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy attends a recruitment graduation ceremony in Chicago, Ill., April 21, 2014. Supt. McCarthy became the latest chief to fall this month after angry protests over a video showing a police officer gunning down black teenager Laquan McDonald last year.

On December 1, former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy resigned at the request of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, after the mayor said outrage at the Department's handling of footage of an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, age 17, had "shaken and eroded" the public's trust in police leadership.

"[Supt. McCarthy] has become an issue, rather than dealing with the issue, and a distraction," Mr. Emanuel said of the chief he had previously supported, with McCarthy himself adamantly telling morning news programs just hours before that he would not resign.

That's an increasingly likely problem for police chiefs around the country, whose cities from Baltimore to Phoenix often decide the solution to a problem, whether rampant misconduct or a single fatal incident, is to put new leadership in place. In the United States' 30 largest cities, nine chiefs have departed this year alone, compared to the previous decade's average of four per year. Four retired, while three were fired, and another two resigned after the Department of Justice investigated their departments.

"I talk to enough chiefs who recognize they're one incident away from their whole department being put under a huge microscope," Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), told Reuters. "Mayors are reacting quickly. They're holding police chiefs to a standard we really haven't seen ever, especially around issues of use of force and community trust."

As homicide rates increase in many cities, chiefs face an unwelcome host of other complications: shrinking budgets; increased accountability, in part due to publicized video footage; popular distrust of police amid a wave of public attention to use of force, particularly shootings of young black men; and even social media: the former police chief in Surf City, N.C., was asked to resign after describing Black Lives Matter as "an American-born terrorist group" in a Facebook post.

In Chicago, "McCarthy was a scapegoat, but no more than any chief ever is," Jim Pasco, executive director of the nation's largest police union, told Reuters. Few big-city chiefs last more than four years in the role, according to the Police Executive Research Forum; McCarthy had served for four years, as well.

"McCarthy’s resignation is an essential first step for a city that must pursue new strategies to curtail gun violence and reform an unhealthy police culture of weak accountability," the editors of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in a December 1 editorial.

According to the Sun-Times, the superintendent put out a statement soon after Laquan's shooting in October 2014 which stated Laquan was approaching police when they decided to shoot him. In dashcam video released in November 2015, Laquan, who was holding a knife, is seen walking away before Officer Jason Van Dyke shoots him 16 times, including after Laquan had fallen to the ground.

Mr. Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder and released on $1.5 million bail.

But critics argue that the Chicago police, under McCarthy's leadership, ignored 18 civilian complaints about Van Dyke, and delayed or did not impose disciplinary action against other officers accused of misconduct: disciplinary action was taken in just 3 percent of 56,000 complaints the department received in twelve years.

Others said resignation, or resignation alone, was not the answer. In an opinion piece for Time magazine, former NYCPD Commissioner Howard Safir argues that the answer is no, writing "When we overreact as Mayor Emanuel has in dismissing a talented and effective police leader, we endanger both the police and the public."

Mr. Safir is also skeptical of investigations and commissions into the department, doubtful that they can have real impact. But some law enforcement experts think that, under the right conditions, task forces can create a path forward for more sustained, systematic reform. 

Chicago's 2007 creation of an Independent Police Review Authority did little to stem its culture of hiding police misconduct, but Emanuel has again called for a new six-person task force, advised by former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, to do a "top-to-bottom' review" of the department. 

"Just like we looked at patterns when we address crime, it's indefensible not to look at patterns of misconduct when we're investigating abuse," Craig Futterman, a law professor at University of Chicago, told ABC's Eyewitness News. 

This report contains material from Reuters.

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