Search About Newsletters Donate
Support independent, nonprofit journalism.

Become a member of The Marshall Project during our summer membership drive. Our journalism has tremendous power to drive change, but we can’t do it without your support.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy held a press conference to announce the arrests of four men in a shooting at Chicago's Cornell Square Park in September, 2013.

Another Police ‘Reformer’ Takes a Fall

Chicago’s chief became a political liability.

By the time the national spotlight found Garry F. McCarthy, he had spent decades remaking himself from an old-fashioned, tough-talking, Irish-American New York street cop into a darling of the reform strategists of modern policing. As Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s police superintendent, McCarthy attracted an array of law enforcement scholars and made Chicago a proving ground for experiments in crime control.

The lessons learned in the neighborhoods of Chicago have been exported to urban police forces in New York, Seattle, and other metropolises. But Chicago itself proved a hard fix. Crime, especially gun crime, continued to rise. Tensions between the city’s police force and the city’s black neighborhoods were inflamed by the city’s slow, politically calculated response to the police shooting of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, whose death was recorded on a shocking video. Neither a $5 million settlement paid to McDonald’s family nor a first-degree murder charge against the officer who pumped 16 bullets into the teenager was enough to mollify an angry public. And Tuesday, when the mayor needed a sacrifice to the gods of Chicago politics, McCarthy was the obvious candidate.

“The public trust in the leadership of the department has been shaken and eroded” by the McDonald case, Emanuel told a bank of television cameras, announcing that it was time for his police superintendent to leave.

Whether McCarthy’s firing, which was one of the foremost demands of African-American community leaders, will be enough to calm the city’s discontent is uncertain.

Jonathan M. Smith, a former chief civil rights attorney for the Department of Justice who investigated McCarthy’s leadership at the Newark Police Department, said McCarthy should have been quicker to acknowledge the McDonald shooting, to provide the public with as much information as possible, and to set a timetable for release of the video. (It took 13 months and a lawsuit to make the video public.) “The failure to be candid with the community about this shooting was corrosive to community trust,” said Smith, who is now associate dean at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school.

James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union and bargaining agent for Chicago’s police, said the mayor had rid himself of a political liability but not necessarily solved the problem.

“I am not a fan of McCarthy, but, you can’t blame him for everything up to the Bubonic Plague,” Pasco said. “The ultimate responsibility for the safety of a city lies with its chief executive, not with its police chief.”

Also uncertain is the city’s continued role as a laboratory of policing strategy and tactics. Among the demonstration projects underway in Chicago are training aimed at making police more respectful and less cynical; a program that uses algorithms to identify young men and women who are most likely to be involved in shootings; instruction in how police should handle the mentally ill; and a program that offers social services to gang members.

“There were a lot of important and innovative strategies that were being implemented,” said Tracey Meares, a Yale law professor who developed a curriculum to help Chicago police cultivate more cooperative relations with communities they serve. “There is a question of what will happen to those.”

McCarthy’s fall comes a few months after the downfall of another prominent member of the progressive policing movement, Anthony Batts, who was fired as Baltimore’s commissioner in July amid protest over the death of a black man in police custody.

McCarthy’s firing is the latest mishap in a tumultuous career.

During the early 1980s, as a young New York City cop, McCarthy was disciplined for getting drunk off-duty and getting into an altercation in the Bronx. Two decades later, as a deputy commissioner in the NYPD, McCarthy was arrested in New Jersey for arguing with police officers over a traffic ticket.

McCarthy’s tenure as Newark’s top cop, from 2006 to 2011, is at the center of the Justice Department’s investigation into that police department. Federal officials found that Newark police had high rates of unconstitutional stops and had targeted black residents.

McCarthy was Emanuel’s second choice to run the Chicago department, after Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, a Chicago native and ardent reformer, turned down an offer to return home.

McCarthy inherited a force of about 12,000 officers in a city afflicted by gang violence, illegal guns and budget problems. Murders and shootings increased slightly on McCarthy’s watch.

This summer a local government watchdog organization cited the Chicago Police Department for having the highest five-year per capita rate of fatal police shootings among the nation’s largest cities.

The same day that Laquan McDonald, 17, was shot, the Chicago Tribune ran a story noting that the continued increase in violence on Emanuel’s watch was expected to cost the city an extra $23 million in police overtime. The overtime comes as Chicago and the state of Illinois are both grappling with severe budget problems.

Despite the financial strains, the city agreed in April to pay McDonald’s family in a $5 million settlement days after Emanuel won his second term in office. (The city has spent nearly$500 million in police related lawsuits since 2004.)

Last week the county’s top prosecutor announced that she was charging Officer Jason Van Dyke with murdering McDonald earlier this month. Her decision came 13 months after the shooting and hours before the release of a dash cam video of that shooting.

McCarthy enjoyed a moment in the national spotlight six weeks ago when he met President Obama as co-chairman of a new organization of law enforcement executives advocating criminal justice reforms. The Brennan Center for Justice, which helped organize the lobby group, said McCarthy would retain that position.

“I am sad, because there is a group of progressive police executives who are changing the narrative about policing across the country,” said Professor Meares. “It saddens me when those people are not able to, for whatever reason, to be leaders of the big urban areas. Those are the places that need them the most.”