David Brown was sworn in as superintendent of the Chicago Police Department on April 22, 2020. He previously led the Dallas Police Department from 2010-2016. Superintendent Brown spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about the pandemic, violent crime, and officer wellness.

Wexler: What has the transition from Dallas to Chicago been like for you?

Superintendent Brown: A lot of things are different, coming from the South to the Midwest. But I’ve actually been struck by how much is the same. The dedication of cops seems to travel well, as well as their courage, bravery, and everything else it takes to do the job. And I would say it’s the most challenging time in law enforcement history.

Wexler: How difficult has it been to come into a department during a pandemic?

Superintendent Brown: I started at the end of April last year. That week, Chicago PD had three officers die of COVID-19. The beginning of my tenure here was attending memorials. We had to social-distance and funerals were completely shut down here in Illinois, so we couldn’t do any of the traditional police funeral steps.

It was shocking to the organization that in just a month, COVID had gone from the threat of a virus in China, to the deaths in the Washington State nursing home, to killing three officers in Chicago.

As the country was dealing with this, police officers were worrying about whether they were taking something back home to their families. Officers are really brave, but they’re not willing to put their families at risk by doing their job.

Then a few weeks later, we saw the tape of George Floyd, and it reverberated across law enforcement in this country. We had the social justice movement within the global pandemic. There were new movements calling to “defund the police,” and unprecedented attacks on police during these protests. We had 79 officers shot at or shot in 2020, which was a 500% increase over the previous year.

Normally as a new chief, you come in, start a 100-day plan, and build on what the previous leader was building. In Chicago, [Interim Superintendent] Charlie Beck had just reorganized the department. But the policing landscape completely changed. We had to look at restructuring, so that we could meet the challenge of civil unrest with embedded violence, property destruction, and looting, along with unprecedented violence. For Chicago, 2020 was the highest year for murders since 2016, with 769 homicides, 4,033 shooting victims, and 3,261 shooting incidents.

The pandemic will likely be the challenge of a lifetime. My leadership team was scheduled to retire as I was walking in the door. The first deputy superintendent retired within a month of my arrival. The chief of patrol retired a few months later. And the deputy superintendent retired six months into my tenure. So I was totally recasting my leadership team in the midst of the global pandemic. We ended up having four officers die from COVID, with 3,000 confirmed cases among our police officers. It really is the challenge of a lifetime.

Wexler: How does the violence in Chicago compare to the violence in Dallas?

Superintendent Brown: When you talk about violence and homicides, you’re likely talking about other factors beyond policing. 300 homicides was a lot in Dallas, and we got near 100 during my tenure. The lowest year we had 116, and that was the lowest number of homicides in over 80 years.

In Chicago, there have been ebbs and flows. Previous superintendents had some successes, but homicides would dip down below 500 for a period and then go back up above 500. It hasn’t been below 400 in forever, and that’s one of my goals for the organization. I want to do something that’s never been done. Let’s look at what New York and LAPD do.

I thought we had the opportunity to do something that would put us more in line with New York and LAPD, but 2020 was an unprecedented year. It was really the perfect storm for policing, and I think policing is unsettled. The pendulum is swinging hard left and hard right, so I’m not sure where it’ll land. We really have to push forward and reimagine all the things we’re doing.

Wexler: Is it difficult to implement a consent decree while dealing with the violence?

Superintendent Brown: No, but what has made it difficult is that we had a very slow start. Prior to my arrival we had two monitoring reporting periods, where our compliance levels were at 30%. We had a lot of passive-aggressiveness within CPD and really didn’t take it seriously. I’ve had to convince people in the department that consent decrees can help us do our jobs much better.

If we focus on policy improvements and training, we can be beneficiaries of the consent decree. We can use the consent decree as a floor, not a ceiling. We talk about officer safety, and officers are really hungry for more training. Everyone wants to go home after their shift, and training helps navigate all challenges of interacting with the public in different ways and building trust, which will help officers do their jobs.

It’s been quite a pitch I’ve had to make, but we feel like we’ve gained some momentum. We’re in our third reporting period, and we expect to have progress this period.

Wexler: Tell me how you’re addressing the increase in carjackings.

Superintendent Brown: Carjackings are a national phenomenon, across cities large and small. In Chicago we had a spike that began in the middle of the civil unrest, in July. It really never waned, and it hit a high point in January of this year. We recently put together a regional task force that has pushed the numbers down.

What’s striking about the offenders is that they’re really young people – 13 years old, 14 years old, as young as 11 years old. They’re barely able to drive, and they’re putting a handgun to people’s heads and carjacking them for a joyride. I’ve never seen anything like this, where it’s not for selling car parts or being used to commit another crime. That’s some of it, but the largest part is just for the joyride.

Wexler: What happens when you arrest a juvenile for carjackings?

Superintendent Brown: The court systems haven’t had jury trials since last March here in Chicago, and I think it’s similar across the country. I believe it’s unprecedented to not hold jury trials for 12 months. So the levers of justice are not fully functioning. The men and women in blue are holding up their part of the criminal justice system, but we’re not judge, juror, and jailer. We’re bringing people to justice, but when the whole back end of the process doesn’t occur, there are no consequences, and it emboldens criminals to rachet up their criminality.

That’s what we’ve seen, highlighted by carjackings. It’s a cycle in and out of the court system, with low bonds and people not being held in jail due to COVID. With no jury trials and no convictions, we would have complete anarchy but for the men and women of law enforcement across the country.

Wexler: Tell us about why you appointed a new senior advisor on mental health.

Superintendent Brown: We had two of our officers die by suicide within a seven-day period. As everyone who has been in this profession knows, it is very pervasive throughout law enforcement. We have a high level of suicide among both active duty and retirees in this profession.

I brought in the senior advisor because I thought we might need an outside perspective. Maybe our view on what to do about officer wellness, mental health, and suicide is too narrow. I’m looking for subject matter expertise outside the law enforcement community that may be able to offer some ideas that we would never think of to help improve officer wellness.

Wexler: How is your department currently doing with COVID-19? Are many of your employees vaccinated?

Superintendent Brown: We are at the lowest positivity and hospitalization rates since this began last March. We are easing up on the tight restrictions in our city and our state. We were one of the most restrictive states.

We are vaccinating our officers, and I believe over 3,000 officers have had both doses of the vaccine. We are using all the vaccines that are available to us, and are taking every opportunity to vaccinate our officers.

We did a very aggressive awareness campaign. I took my first and second doses on video. We pushed that video out to the department, along with a conversation with our lead medical director to answer any myths about the vaccine. Our cops got on board, but it took a lot of effort. We are hopeful that in another month or two, the majority of our officers will have taken both doses of the vaccine.

Wexler: What are your aspirations for the department in the next 6-12 months?

Superintendent Brown: Number one, that we embrace the criticism of this profession. And that we come through summer of 2021 with homicides down toward new lows compared to the recent past. And we need to reimagine and figure out how we engage communities to build trust. For Chicago, part of that is a higher percentage of compliance with the consent decree, as well as better interactions with communities of color. That means reduced complaints and reduced excessive force, along with some positive narratives in mainstream media and social media.

Those are a lot of challenges, but I see it as an opportunity. I think we owe it to this profession. If we’re able to move the needle, even a little bit, in a place like Chicago, it sets the table for the next leaders. I’m trying to develop a very deep bench. I’ve looked up to Bill Bratton and Chuck Ramsey, and they went to two large departments and developed deep benches in those organizations. I’m looking to model those great examples.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.