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Three finalists named for consideration as Chicago Police Department superintendent

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 4/1/2020 By Jeremy Gorner and Megan Jones, Chicago Tribune
a group of people around each other: A total of 238 cadets were sworn in as Chicago police officers at the department's graduation and promotion ceremony held at Navy Pier's Grand Ballroom in Chicago in 2019. © Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS A total of 238 cadets were sworn in as Chicago police officers at the department's graduation and promotion ceremony held at Navy Pier's Grand Ballroom in Chicago in 2019.

The Chicago Police Board has chosen three finalists to potentially lead the city’s police force, sources familiar with the process said, setting up a pivotal choice for Mayor Lori Lightfoot as the department works to reduce gun violence while trying to implement reforms from within as part of a federally mandated consent decree.

The names on the board’s list given to Lightfoot for consideration are Ernest Cato, a CPD deputy chief; Kristen Ziman, chief of police in west suburban Aurora; and David Brown, an ex-Dallas police chief.

Lightfoot has said she expects to make her choice from Johnson’s replacement from among those on the board’s list.

The nine-member board compiled a five-page job application that listed more than a dozen requirements for the job, including ensuring the 13,000-strong Chicago Police Department is compliant in a timely manner with its federally mandated consent decree aimed at improving training, supervision and other policing practices and overseeing policies that address the mental health of officers.

Candidates were asked to submit answers to essay questions, but they were also required to talk about themselves in a video presentation, outlining their law enforcement experience and why they are best suited to be Chicago’s next top cop.

The finalists were chosen from a pool of 25 applicants. Eleven of them either currently work for CPD or “spent a significant amount of their career” in the department, the police board has said. The other 14 applicants were from outside of Chicago.

Chicago Police Board President Ghian Foreman has said that 21 of the applicants were men and four were women. He also said 13 applicants were white, 11 were African American and one was Latino.

The board opened the application process Nov. 21 after then-Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson announced plans to retire by the end of the year. Lightfoot announced his temporary successor would be former Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck.

But that all changed in early December when Lightfoot abruptly fired Johnson, saying he had intentionally misled her about his conduct after a late weeknight out in October when he was found asleep in his running vehicle near his South Side home. Beck started his job as interim superintendent on Dec 2.

In an interview with the Tribune a few weeks after she fired Johnson, Lightfoot said she was looking for an energetic and dynamic leader "who can rally the troops" and has experience with "a large, complex, urban" police department.

"Somebody who sees the consent decree as an opportunity and not an obstacle," Lightfoot said. "You've got to have impeccable management skills and the full range of being able to be a leader but also being willing to hold people accountable. And somebody who recognizes that ... the fight ... has to be done with partners, community partners, partners in other parts of city government."

Ziman, 46, was in the national spotlight last year as Aurora’s police chief when the west suburb was reeling following a mass shooting that claimed the lives of five employees of the Henry Pratt Co. warehouse, and left injured another employee and five Aurora police officers. The gunman was killed in an exchange of gunfire with police.

Kristen Ziman wearing a uniform: Aurora Chief of Police Kristin Ziman talks at a press conference at the Aurora police station about the police involved shooting in which one person was killed and two officers injured near Galena Blvd. and Lasalle St. in Aurora, March 23, 2018. © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Aurora Chief of Police Kristin Ziman talks at a press conference at the Aurora police station about the police involved shooting in which one person was killed and two officers injured near Galena Blvd. and Lasalle St. in Aurora, March 23, 2018.

Ziman grew up in the Aurora Police Department, joining the force as a cadet at 17 and working her way though the ranks to, in her mid-30s, become its first female commander.

Brown, 59, was a veteran of the Dallas Police Department for more than 30 years, retiring as its chief in 2016. That year, five police officers were killed, and several others wounded, in an ambush-style rifle attack in downtown Dallas. Brown also found himself in the national spotlight when officers under his direction killed the suspect by deploying near him a remote-controlled robot carrying an explosive and detonating it.

Cato, 54, is a Chicago police deputy chief in charge of three patrol districts -- Austin, Harrison and Ogden -- primarily on the West Side, which comprise some of the most violent parts of the city. He has been viewed as a rising star in the department, in part due to his willingness to work with community organizations that offer mediation on gang conflicts and help with social services and jobs.

a man wearing a military uniform: Deputy Chief of Patrol Ernest Cato stands outside the 18th District during a memorial for Police Commander Paul Bauer on Feb. 13, 2020, in Chicago. Bauer was fatally shot on Feb. 13, 2018, while trying to apprehend a man who was fleeing other officers. \n © John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Deputy Chief of Patrol Ernest Cato stands outside the 18th District during a memorial for Police Commander Paul Bauer on Feb. 13, 2020, in Chicago. Bauer was fatally shot on Feb. 13, 2018, while trying to apprehend a man who was fleeing other officers. \n

Here is a look at each finalist:

David Brown

When downtown Dallas fell under attack by an Army veteran hell-bent on shooting police officers as payback for the killing of African-American men by U.S. law enforcement, David Brown suddenly had a career-defining decision to make as a police chief.

He had implored one of his commanders to come up with a plan to stop Micah Johnson, who was holed up after killing five police officers and wounding several others in an ambush-style shooting on July 7, 2016. Johnson, 25, was cornered by police inside a building, but officers didn’t want to risk more casualties by maneuvering down a long hallway toward him.

“We could use an explosive,” the commander told Brown. “We could use our robot to deliver the explosive.”

Brown, now on a list of finalists vying to become Chicago’s next police superintendent, recounted his ultimate decision to use the tactic in his 2017 autobiography, “Called To Rise (co-written by journalist Michelle Burford).” If selected in Chicago, Brown, one of two African-Americans to make the final cut, would go from leading a Dallas department of about 3,800 officers to one with 13,000, the nation’s second largest.

The plan Brown approved to kill Johnson with the robot did work, but Brown in his book acknowledged some of the public criticism about his department’s handling of the incident. Some critics said the decision he made essentially meant executing a suspect before he could have a trial.

“I had no hesitation about detonating the explosive,” Brown said in the book. “(Johnson) had already wreaked enormous havoc and bloodshed on my officers and was threatening to snuff out the lives of others. He never once showed signs of surrender. If I were presented with the same circumstances today, I’d make the same choice – without question, I’d do it again.”

The tragedy undoubtedly helped boost Brown’s national profile. . After he retired, Brown became a contributor to ABC News to discuss race relations, social justice and law enforcement issues, and was hired by Dallas Mavericks’ billionaire owner Mark Cuban to find ways the NBA team could partner with the community.

Born and raised in Dallas, Brown, a devout Christian, became a city cop in 1983 after seeing the negative effect the crack epidemic had on his neighborhood of Oak Cliff. His climb to the department’s top post was marked by tragedy.

In 1988, a former partner he had known since his days in the police academy was shot and killed in the line of duty. Then Brown’s younger brother was slain by a drug dealer in 1991.

And in 2010, several weeks into his appointment as Dallas police chief, Brown’s son and namesake – whom he called “D.J.” -- fatally shot a cop in a suburb of Dallas and wounded another man. D.J. Brown eventually was killed by responding police.

“As much as I hurt after D.J.’s passing, in those initial weeks I grieved just as deeply for the loved ones of those my son had taken,” Brown wrote. “I felt as if my own brother or sister had died at the hands of my child.”

Brown’s son suffered from bipolar disorder and autopsy results showed he had marijuana and PCP in his system when he died.

“I will never know the full story of what my son experienced in the years and hours before that day, but my guess is that he, like many people who wrestle with mental illness, had rejected his diagnosis and any medication prescribed to manage it,” Brown wrote.

His son’s death didn’t put Brown in the good graces of the rank-and-file. Members of the department were outraged when several officers were used to escort D.J. Brown’s body during his funeral procession.

Brown did not make that decision, but some felt he should have stopped it from happening.

“That did not go over well at all,” said Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association. “It was a very bad message to the rank-and-file.”

But Mata, who is also a Dallas police sergeant, said Brown was able to patch up his relationship with the troops. They felt bad for his loss, but they also learned he was very personable.

“He is a very, very good talker. Very engaging. Very charismatic,” Mata said.

Brown oversaw the Dallas police force’s CompStat program as he rose through the ranks. He also emphasized community-policing efforts aimed at improving trust between law enforcement and the neighborhoods.

But the mass shooting in 2016 arguably remains his truest test as a police leader.

Brown’s commander, a colleague from their days together on Dallas police’s SWAT team in the 1990s, suggested equipping the remote-controlled robot with the right amount of C-4 to contain the explosion at the end of a hallway and not injure officers nearby.

Though the plan was risky, Brown, who had just completed a press conference about the shooting, told the commander to “take care of business.”

“Just don’t blow up the whole building,” Brown told the commander.

In a memorial service for the five slain officers, attended by then-President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, Brown wanted to dedicate his remarks to the officers’ families, he said in his book. Unconditional love was the theme of those remarks and with that, he recited lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 song, “As.”

“I recited the lyrics that had always touched me,” Brown wrote, "including the one line that summed up exactly how I felt and what our city most needed to hear: ‘Just as hate knows love’s the cure...I’ll be loving you always.’”

Ernest Cato III

Ernest Cato III’s rise through the ranks of the Chicago Police Department was not a surprise to Jamar Taylor’s family.

Taylor was 26 when he was shot and killed more than ten years ago down the street from his West Side apartment. Then a detective on the case, Cato assured Taylor’s loved ones the murder would be solved, they recalled, remembering Cato as a cop who showed a mix of persistence and compassion.

Within a year, there were murder charges. Then a conviction.

“He came inside our home. He talked to us. He treated us well. And he went out and he did the job,” said Taylor’s aunt, Dorothy Taylor, 54. “He felt for us. And that’s something that sometimes you don’t get.”

Cato is the lone insider chosen as a finalist to become Chicago’s next top cop. Many observers said they doubted a CPD member would even be considered for the job, but Cato’s track record for community engagement has earned him high praise from city officials and the various neighborhood groups with whom they work.

Perhaps that partly explains his rapid ascension to CPD’s upper echelon. Three years ago, Cato was just a lieutenant in the West Side’s Austin patrol district, an area long beset by poverty, drug dealing and gun violence. Then in October 2017, then-police Superintendent Eddie Johnson promoted him to district commander.

The move appeared to be encouraging. By July of last year — less than two years into Cato’s leadership post — the district had seen a dramatic 40% drop in total shootings, with 55 through the halfway point of 2019, down from 90 a year earlier.

Cato was promoted again by Johnson to the rank of deputy chief last fall.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to choose ex-Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck as her interim superintendent was telling to many observers, since the temporary post is usually given to a high-ranking official on the inside. Lightfoot has also been known to question the overall quality of CPD’s leadership, further suggesting their would be no inside candidate considered for the department’s top spot this time around.

The brother of a retired CPD sergeant, Cato was born in Chicago and raised on the West Side. According to his CPD personnel file, obtained by the Tribune through an open-records request, Cato served in the Illinois Army National Guard from 1985 to 1991 and attained the rank of second lieutenant.

He started with the Chicago Police Department in July 1990, serving as class commander as a recruit in the police academy. He also received the top physical fitness award in his class.

In the early 1990s, he was a tactical officer responding to gang- and narcotic-related crimes in the old Prairie District, which encompassed such South Side areas as Hyde Park and Washington Park. Records show he was later assigned to the city’s inspector general’s office as an investigator specialist, looking into criminal and non-criminal misconduct allegations against city employees.

He also once worked as a youth investigator, according to the records, and later as a detective investigating homicides in the old Area 4 division on the West Side.

Cato, who now has 29 years with CPD, has been viewed as a rising star by even some outside the department. And he also may have another inside track, as records show he is the mayor’s neighbor, living just up the street from Lightfoot’s home in Logan Square.

His elevation comes at a time when it’s crucial for CPD to improve its fractured relationship with African-American neighborhoods throughout the city. Much of this has to do with his willingness to work alongside community organizations that offer mediation on gang conflicts, and help with social services and job opportunities.

For years, such groups were known to be on shaky ground with Chicago police. Officers didn’t trust them since many of their workers are ex-convicts, and the workers also chose not to interact with Chicago police out of fear they could lose credibility with gang members they’re trying to help.

But last year, while still Austin’s district commander, Cato spoke to a Tribune reporter about the importance of the groups.

“Any group that’s going to bring something to the table to reduce violence is important,” Cato said last spring following a news conference in the Austin District station on West Madison Street. “I think it’s important that we listen to them. I think it’s important that we take that opportunity to see what they’re about.”

Cato sees these street workers’ criminal backgrounds as a plus when it comes to preventing violence.

“They may have spent time in the penitentiary in the past, but we have to remember one thing, they actually caused some of the issues (in) society. Who better to help us to rectify those problems in the future?” Cato said. “What they did in the past and what they’re doing now, that’s talking to the young people out on the streets who are doing the same thing and telling them what not to do.”

Teny Gross, who runs one of those groups in Austin, said he met Cato when he was the district’s tactical lieutenant, overseeing teams of officers who go on aggressive enforcement missions in response to patterns of violence and other crimes in the area.

Gross said Cato would push those tactical, plainclothes officers to show up at community meetings and build relationships with residents, a function often reserved for beat patrol officers or those working in the district’s community-policing offices.

“He really did believe, and he does believe also from his previous experience as a homicide detective, that relationship-building is important,” said Gross, who heads the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. “And then when he became the commander, he even took it further.”

“I’ll see him at 2 in the morning when there’s large gathering and there was concern over there on the weekend,” Gross said. “He often shows up at the hospital…His work ethic is insane.”

But Austin resident Ronald Reid was a bit more critical of Cato’s efforts.

Reid, who helps run the Central Austin Neighborhood Association, praised Cato’s engagement with the community but believes he and Austin’s several other district commanders before him fell short of eliminating the criminal element from the blocks surrounding his home.

“I’m angry because none of them have decided that they want to clear up the drug corners,” said Reid, whose organization is in the midst of a nearly decade-old lawsuit against the city alleging there’s a disproportionate number of Chicago cops to respond to 911 calls in the city’s patrol districts.

“Maybe they can cite statistics,” said Reid, “but that means absolutely nothing to the people who live on the ground.”

In January, Cato was among more than 30 of Beck’s top police officials to get new posts in the department’s upcoming reorganization, set to fully begin in April. Cato was assigned as deputy chief of the new Area 4, overseeing patrol officers, as well as some detective and specialized gang and drug units, in the Austin, Harrison and Ogden Districts on the West Side.

The post will one of the busiest in the department due to the area’s high concentration of drug sales and the violence accompanying it. Those three districts are regularly the focus of gang and narcotics units that conduct sensitive investigations, oftentimes with FBI agents and other federal law enforcement.

It was in the old Area 4 where Cato and Jamar Taylor’s family crossed paths.

Taylor was killed in October 2009 near Pulaski Road and Grenshaw Street when, authorities said, another man named Martell Hill approached his car and shot Taylor several times.

Taylor’s family remembered Cato’s empathy during those first days without Jamar. He spoke to his family members separately. He wanted to know about Jamar as a person.

“When he came in, he didn’t come in like he was interrogating us,” said Taylor’s niece, Ebony Taylor, now 28. “He felt what we was going through.”

But the family later found out that Cato and his partner were aggressively working the case, though quietly and without sharing details. The family learned others in the neighborhood were being contacted for questioning. One person even described Cato as “vicious,” because of his persistence, Taylor’s family said.

Police collected enough evidence to obtain an arrest warrant for Hill, and he was arrested in September 2010 during a traffic stop. Now 36, Hill is serving an 80-year prison sentence in the Stateville Correctional Center, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Taylor’s family sat on a porch outside their apartment on the day Cato and his partner drove there to tell them about Hill’s arrest. They remembered Cato’s “little smile” when he delivered the good news.

“He was dedicated to what he was doing,” Jamar Taylor’s niece, Arica Taylor, 37, said of Cato. “He told us that he was going to solve this murder and he did just that.”

Kristen Ziman

Kristen Ziman was dubbed “America’s police chief” by some for how she handled the aftermath of the deadly Aurora warehouse shooting in February 2019.

Stepping onto the podium that day to address a throng of media, Ziman showed command and poise as she answered questions about the shooting that killed five warehouse employees, and injured another employee and five of Ziman’s Aurora police officers.

Even as reports of injured officers trickled in to the command post during the shooting, Ziman exhibited calm and leadership, former Aurora Police Chief Bill Powell said.

“I saw determination and a concerted effort to understand the radio traffic, to respond to what was happening and keep track of hundreds of responders," Powell said.

Since then, Ziman’s star has risen as she’s spoken to police groups and Fortune 500 companies about her department’s response to the warehouse shooting, and she was named the vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. She was recently back in the news when it was disclosed she had tested positive for COVID-19.

Just as Lori Lightfoot broke barriers when she was elected Chicago’s first female black mayor and the city’s first openly gay mayor, Ziman, who also is openly gay, could do the same if she becomes Chicago’s first female police superintendent.

Ziman often compares herself to “Officer Hopps,” a bunny who fights to become a police officer in the Disney movie “Zootopia” and is underestimated because of her tiny stature. Ziman has been described as progressive, innovative, a backer of education and a supporter of increased technology. In 2018, she helped create a critical incident intel center that uses data and social media to help officers solve crimes.

Ziman, 46, was raised in Aurora and started as a cadet in the Aurora Police Department at 17 in 1991. She followed in the footsteps of her father Hans Kjendal-Olsen, who worked as an officer for 17 years in the same department.

When Ziman joined the force, there were no females in the command ranks or anyone to emulate, she said. In her mid-30s, Ziman worked her way up to become the department’s first female commander, and she was named Aurora’s first female police chief since 2016.

“She is a good leader of people, and she grew up in Aurora so she had a good understanding of the area,” Former Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas said.

Aurora, the state’s second-largest city, has never been completely free of the sorts of problems Chicago faces, including gang issues and shootings, Powell said. But Chicago is a different animal, he said.

In the mid-1990s, Aurora’s murder figures were three times the national rate of homicides per 100,000 residents, reaching 26 murders in 1996. Today, the number of murders there has decreased, with Aurora seeing four murders in 2018, 12 in 2019 and 2 so far in 2020.

In Chicago, 72 people had been shot and killed by early March.

Leaving Aurora to run one of the largest police departments in the country would be a massive step for Ziman.

Chicago has a population of 2.7 million, while Aurora’s is 200,000. One police district in Chicago is roughly the same size as Aurora’s entire police department, which has about 300 sworn officers.

Thomas said Ziman could handle it.

“She has been well prepared both by herself and through the experiences and training she has had to move into the (chief’s) position,” Thomas said.

Powell warned there is a segment of people who might look down on Ziman because she is a woman and because she did not advance through the Chicago police ranks herself.

“There is a certain segment who would look down on that and because she is an outsider,” Powell said. “But those are things she would overcome with time. Once she gets comfortable with command staff, those things will fade.”

Eight Chicago police officers died by suicides within the last two years, and Lightfoot has made mental health a priority for the department. It’s a concentration of Ziman’s as well.

Ziman’s father, after retiring from the department, battled alcoholism and died by suicide in November 2015, one day after Ziman interviewed to be Aurora’s police chief.

In 2018, one of Ziman’s Aurora officers contemplated suicide, and the department worked to allow the officer to keep his job even though the state revoked his FOID card after he checked in to a mental health facility.

The department lobbied for legislation, and Gov. Bruce Rauner later signed a bill that prevents police agencies from requiring a FOID card as a condition of continued employment.

After the warehouse shooting, the focus on mental health services within the Aurora police force only increased.

“She is open about herself and she talks about how the shooting affected her personally,” Thomas said. “She makes sure her officers are taken care of both physically and mentally and tries to heal the city. Those are all big things.”

Ziman has called the tough exterior police officers sometimes display a “mirrored sunglasses attitude,” and she recently paired the department with a website that connects officers in need with a peer or mental health professional.

“This has been a long time coming, but the culture of asking for help has changed in our department,” Ziman said in an interview with the Aurora Beacon-News.

In October, Ziman was sworn in as the vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Board of Directors, and in February attended Donald Trump’s State of the Union address as a guest. Lightfoot also attended.

Ziman co-chairs a national committee for recruitment, retention and training law enforcement in the U.S. and recently joined the Police Executive Research Forum’s Board of Directors.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Aurora University and a master’s degree from Boston University, later graduating from the FBI National Academy. She is working toward a second master’s degree in homeland defense and security.

Ziman has said transparency and communication is important to her. She writes a blog and is a proclaimed extrovert.

Ziman, though, has been criticized for a lack of transparency at times. She took to social media in 2017 to lament open records requests from a reporter at the Aurora Beacon-News. Several news outlets and journalism organizations chastised her stance at the time.

Ziman has said previously that she would give herself a minimum of four years as chief in Aurora before she would start “thinking of what is next.” January 2020 marked Ziman’s fourth year as Aurora’s chief.

While Powell said he would be sad to see Ziman leave, he knows even if she doesn’t get the Chicago job, she may be gone in a year or two anyway.

“That is just how well known she is throughout this country now,” Powell said.

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

mejones@chicagotribune.com

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