CHICAGO – Several hundred officers rallied outside Chicago police headquarters on Wednesday and called for the city's top police official to step down, saying initiatives he pushed through after joining the force three years ago have put their lives in danger and the community at risk.
The police unions and many among the force's rank-and-file have been suspicious of Superintendent Jody Weis since he was asked by Mayor Richard Daley in 2007 to leave the FBI to lead the police force in the nation's third largest city.
In a show of force Wednesday, more than 300 officers marched in the city's South Side neighborhood, with many carrying signs with slogans such as "More Police, No Weis," and, simply, "Resign." Several on-duty officers drove by waving and holding up their fists in support.
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, had called the protest "extraordinarily unusual," and many of those who marched Wednesday said they'd never heard of such an event. A similar rally was held in 2004 in New York, when hundreds of delegates of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association gave Commissioner Raymond Kelly a vote of no confidence after he announced that an officer-involved shooting appeared unjustified only hours after it happened.
The protest against Weis comes as the city and its leaders try to make sense of Daley's announcement last week that he would not seek re-election in February after more than 21 years in office. Weis' three-year contract ends early next year and without Daley there to support him, some announced and presumed candidates have made the superintendent post a big part of their campaigns.
"Remember, cops vote," one of the marchers told Alderman Bob Fioretti, who is widely expected to officially announce he's running for mayor, as he stood nearby.
Fioretti and others obviously understand that, with Fioretti telling anyone with a notebook or microphone that the city has to find the money to replace the 1,000 officers the department is down, as well as say that whoever the next mayor is, himself included, will not extend Weis' contract.
"Morale is so low, it's time to begin the process to look for a new superintendent," he said.
Weis declined to comment on Wednesday's protest, but he said recently he's not stepping down.
"I've still got more work ... and I'm certainly not going to leave until I get that work done," he told reporters Tuesday.
Weis has taken his case to the city and the department by sending a letter to a local newspaper and posting another on the department's website in which he suggests, among other things, that he's not going to be swayed by marching officers outside his office.
"Leadership is not about being popular: it is about making difficult decisions and doing the right thing," he wrote in the web posting. Still, he added, "I have led this department in a manner which — on many issues — reflects what the (FOP) membership has asked for."
Weis has been a polarizing figure within the department since Daley hired him with a mandate to rebuild the trust in a department tarnished by scandals and embarrassing incidents — including the beating of a female bartender by an off-duty officer that was captured on video and shown around the world.
Shortly after he took over he showed up at ceremonial police functions wearing a uniform. Many officers were livid, saying he didn't deserve to do so because he had never been a Chicago officer.
He further angered officers with his handling of a case involving a police officer who had been convicted of misdemeanor battery after being videotaped beating a man handcuffed in a wheelchair. Weeks before William Cozzi was to return to work after a two-year suspension handed down before Weis arrived, the superintendent sent a video link of the incident to the FBI. Cozzi later pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation and was sentenced to federal prison.
Weis defended his handling of the Cozzi case, saying that Cozzi's actions "were criminal."
"The residents of our city deserve better," he wrote. "The men and women of the Department who honorably serve our city everyday deserve better."
But some officers do not see it that way, a handful of whom carried "Free Cozzi" signs Wednesday.
"Cozzi went to court, took his punishment, was suspended from the police department for two years and then he (Weis) sends the tape to the Justice Department," said Kevin Graham, a patrolman and board member in the Fraternal Order of Police. "Anywhere else that would be double jeopardy."
Officers said their biggest gripe with Weis is that they believe he's put their lives in danger by pulling officers out of patrol cars and off their beats and putting them in expanded units, such as the gang enforcement unit.
The number of assaults on police officers has climbed since Weis took over — from 2,677 in 2007, the year before he arrived, to 3,298 last year.
Department spokesman Roderick Drew said there is no evidence that anything Weis has or has not done is a factor in that rise. And Weis said that his redeployment of gang investigators, for example, has been effective and that the number of homicides in the city dropped after its redeployment.
(This version corrects the day of the protest in the third paragraph to Wednesday, not Friday.)