Chicago’s Latino leaders back mayor’s choice of new interim police chief, cautiously

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (right), introducing the city's new interim Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson (center), while the outgoing John Escalante (left) looks on. (Photo: Manny Gonzales/Fox News Latino)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (right), introducing the city's new interim Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson (center), while the outgoing John Escalante (left) looks on. (Photo: Manny Gonzales/Fox News Latino)

Latino city leaders were recently insulted when no Latinos – not even interim Police Superintendent John Escalante – were among the finalists for the top job in the Chicago Police Department.

Nevertheless on Monday a number of them supported Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to promote the African-American deputy chief of patrol, Eddie Johnson, to replace Escalante as interim superintendent.

Chicago City Council’s Latino Caucus leaders caution, however, that the mayor and the CPD need to address an alarming lack of Latinos in upper levels of leadership in the department.  

“We need to be working on building up that bench of leadership, because there are no Latinos in the chief section and only two Latinos who serve as deputy chiefs,” said Alderman George Cardenas, chairman of the Latino Caucus.

At a press conference at police headquarters, Emanuel thanked Escalante for his service since Dec. 1 in keeping the department running for the last few months.

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The CPD was hit hard by a spike in violent crime, low department morale and intensified scrutiny of police shootings – in particular the death of Laquan McDonald, a black teen shot 16 times by a white officer. Former Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired days after police video of McDonald's death was released in November.

“We’d like to thank John Escalante for his service to our city … He served with distinction, dignity and dedication, and handled his role with grace,” Emanuel said.

Escalante, a 29-year veteran of the force, applied for the position, but, after realizing that he would not be a finalist during the national search for a permanent superintendent, began stating publicly that he wanted to go back to his previous role as the CPD’s second-in-command.

“I respect the process and accepted that I wouldn’t be one of the finalists,” Escalante said. “I haven’t made a decision yet about applying for the position again.”

Latino leaders called for Emanuel to abandon the finalists that had been recommended by the Chicago Police board, and start the search over.

“We thought the whole process was flawed,” Cardenas said “How can you do a nationwide search and not find a single Hispanic qualified for the position?”

The mayor chose to follow their recommendation, but selected Johnson as an interim, despite that Johnson had not formally applied for the position. Johnson is expected to formally apply for the permanent job.

“Chief Escalante did a magnificent job getting us through a critical time in the department,” Johnson said.

The three finalists were Cedric Alexander, the African-American public safety director of Atlanta-area DeKalb County; Anne Kirkpatrick, a retired police chief for Spokane, Washington; and Eugene Williams, a deputy police superintendent in the CPD.

The Chicago City Council's black caucus said last week that they would prefer a local African-American for the job. But they stopped short of endorsing Williams.

Ald. Millie Santiago had voiced her frustration previously, saying she was tired of Latinos being “used for interims” when they’re deserving of being permanent positions.

She pointed to Jesse Ruiz, the former Chicago Board of Education vice president who became interim CEO of Chicago Public Schools after the previous one resigned.

Cardenas was careful to say that their unhappiness over the process did not reflect on Johnson. The caucus said in a joint statement that it would support the mayor’s decision.

"Our support stems from the desire to see significant reforms to CPD culture and in the improvement of morale in the rank-and-file. We believe Johnson has proven his ability and will be ready to tackle the violence afflicting minority communities throughout Chicago.”

Cardenas added that while Latino leaders are encouraged by the choice of an insider, the caucus will remain focused on the imbalance of current leadership in which Latinos are largely absent.

Recent figures showed that in the CPD, there are five police chiefs, three African-American and two white. Among the 17 deputy chiefs, only two are Latinos, and one is retiring.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Manny Gonzales is a Chicago-based writer.

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