The City Council unanimously confirmed Larry Snelling as the sixty-fourth superintendent of the Chicago police department in a special meeting on Wednesday. He is the first superintendent in the department’s history who was nominated by the Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA). The CCPSA was created in 2021 by the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) Ordinance, which also established twenty-two Police District Councils.
During the public comment period, CCPSA commissioner Rev. Beth Brown said, “This is a big day for Chicago.” She noted five commissioners were in attendance in support of Snelling’s nomination. “It was our pleasure to be able to bring names forward for nomination, and we’re so thrilled by the mayor’s choice,” Brown said.
Arne Duncan, the former CEO of CPS and founder of Chicago CRED, a gun violence prevention nonprofit, also spoke to endorse Snelling’s nomination. “We live in polarizing political times, and yet I’m very hopeful,” because of the burgeoning combination of grassroots anti–violence organizations, philanthropic support for public safety, and civilian oversight, he said. Snelling “will hold us all accountable.”
Snelling, a thirty-one-year veteran from Englewood who most recently was CPD’s chief of counterterrorism, takes the helm of a department that is subject to more civilian accountability than ever before. The CCPSA and Police District Councils have some oversight powers and broad authority to engage with police brass on behalf of the communities they serve.
The nomination process required the CCPSA to shortlist three candidates for the mayor to select from. Along with Snelling, the CCPSA nominated Angel Novales, the CPD’s chief of constitutional policing and reform, and Shon Barnes, the police chief of Madison, WI.
Johnson picked Snelling, who addressed community members at a forum in Pilsen on September 7 and spoke to alderpersons at a meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Police and Fire on September 22.
Anthony Driver, the president of the CCPSA, said the civilian-led nomination process is “historic” for Chicago. “Typically, the mayor makes a decision, the City Council rubber stamps it, and that’s it,” Driver told the Weekly earlier this month. “This time, the public got a chance to weigh in on the front end, and they’ll get a chance to weigh in four more times after [Snelling is] selected. And we’ll be here to make sure that he continues to be accessible to the public.”
Former superintendent David Brown, who led the department from 2020 to 2023, resisted the CCPSA’s attempts at oversight, and commissioners accused him of slow-walking his response to their ECPS-mandated efforts at goal-setting. Under Snelling, the department and its civilian minders may enjoy better relations; he has been praised by CCPSA president Anthony Driver as “the right person for the job.”
Multiple civilian oversight bodies have come and gone over the course of Snelling’s thirty-one years with the department. Until 2007, the CPD’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS) investigated complaints against officers. It was replaced with the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which was in turn replaced by COPA in 2017.
COPA investigates complaints and makes recommendations based on its findings to the Chicago Police Board, which makes the final ruling on discipline for officers found to have engaged in misconduct. But last month, an independent arbitrator ruled that in the most serious misconduct cases, where officers face more than a year’s suspension, they can go around the Police Board and deal with the arbitrator only.
Both Johnson and Police Board president Ghian Foreman criticized the ruling. And last week, forty-one of the city’s sixty-six Police District Council members wrote an open letter urging the City Council to reject any changes to the police union contract that would allow officers to circumvent the board. On Tuesday, the Police Board voted to reject the arbitrator’s ruling.
Snelling has not said whether he supports allowing officers to go around COPA and the Police Board to have an independent arbitrator hear their misconduct cases. Over the course of his own career, he has been subject to a number of investigations that predated both COPA and IPRA. In most of them, the complaints against him were not sustained by investigators.
Last month, the Weekly reported that in 1997 Snelling was implicated with three other officers in a corruption scheme where they threatened to plant drugs on a man if he refused to bring them a gun. Snelling, who was also formally accused of “threaten(ing) to plant drugs on the complainant if [he] did not get him a gun,” denied the allegations, and investigators found the complaint was not sustained. Snelling garnered several other complaints during his career; two were sustained.
In the 2000s, as a sergeant working at the Police Training Academy where he taught use-of-force techniques, Snelling testified as an expert witness in more than a dozen civil and criminal cases involving alleged police brutality. In one, Snelling defended the actions of Glenn Evans, an officer with a long history of excessive force complaints, when he was accused of inappropriately using a “pain compliance” technique on a mentally ill woman. Both the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) and then-superintendent Eddie Johnson thought Evans’ use of that technique was wrong under the circumstances and recommended Evans face serious disciplinary consequences.
The police department remains under a consent decree that was imposed in 2019 after a federal judge found CPD had violated the Constitution by engaging “in a pattern of using excessive force, including deadly force, in a manner that disproportionately harms Chicago’s African American and Latino residents.” Since the City entered into the consent decree, the CPD has fully complied with only five percent of its reform mandates. Whether Snelling will be able to speed the department’s compliance up remains to be seen.
In Friday’s committee meeting, Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th Ward) asked Snelling what areas of the consent decree he believed should be prioritized. Selling replied that “the two most important things” are officer training and community engagement. “I know a lot of people think that the consent decree is slow rolling, but there are different levels of compliance,” he added. “So there are a lot of things that are in the works right now that have just not met full compliance, but they are being done.”
The department also is suffering from a widespread morale problem; Snelling has said addressing it will be one of his top priorities. In last week’s committee hearing, he acknowledged that there are “a lot of things” the police department can do better, “but we have to support” police officers.
In response to a police district council member who’d asked him to imagine a world without police at the September 7 meeting, Snelling told the committee Friday that he would “like to be a part of that world. But in order to imagine a world without police,” he’d have to also imagine a world without violent crimes.
Snelling’s remarks sounded “like a blockage of imagination,” Erin Vogel, the district council member, told the Weekly on Tuesday. “If we can actually address the root causes [of violence], we can see that we don’t need the police,” she said. “I’m not saying that we don’t have forms to care for one another and for safety, but branching out of what public safety is to reframe it off of the police. The police aren’t the end all be all to keeping us safe.”
The same grassroots organizers who brought about the ECPS Ordinance are also attempting to change how Chicago is policed, and for once, they have a mayor who is apt to listen. During his campaign for mayor, Johnson threw his support behind Treatment Not Trauma, an ordinance that would send healthcare professionals and social workers instead of police to people experiencing mental health crises.
Former mayor Lori Lightfoot blocked City Council hearings on Treatment Not Trauma. Johnson is pushing to make it a reality with his council allies. At last week’s committee hearing, At last week’s committee hearing, Snelling said, “I’m all for the co-responder model,” which would pair healthcare workers with police to respond to mental health crises. “Anytime that we can have someone free up our officers from jobs that are of a non criminal nature, I’m all for it.”
Snelling and Johnson may find themselves at odds over another of the mayor’s promises: doing away with ShotSpotter, a controversial audio surveillance technology that purports to detect and locate gunshots. Activists have called for the City to end its contract with ShotSpotter for years, saying it doesn’t accurately detect gunshots and leads to over-policing of Black and Latinx communities. Johnson said he’d end the ShotSpotter contract during his campaign.
Snelling has publicly defended ShotSpotter in the past. Residents at the September 7 forum repeatedly asked him whether he would urge the mayor to keep the contract, and each time he declined to answer, saying that it’s Johnson’s decision.
During Wednesday’s meeting, multiple alderpersons praised outgoing interim superintendent Fred Waller, lauded the CCPSA’s nomination process, and said they’re hopeful about Snelling’s leadership. Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st Ward), said Snelling’s selection is “proving out” that civilian oversight of the police department works. “Mr. Mayor, before you made this selection, our Community Commission made this selection, and I want to thank them,” La Spata said.
“We have seen in the last term what it looked like when public safety was not working,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward). “We had fights to get public oversight going.” He commended Alds. Osterman (48th), Leslie Hairston (5th), Ramirez-Rosa (35th), and former Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) for spearheading legislation that led to ECPS. “It was a fight that led to what I believe is a really great system” for appointing the superintendent, Vasquez said. He added that a world without police should be “our North Star” when thinking about how to approach public safety.
“I hope that people follow this lead of having these community councils along with the police, because nobody is saying we don’t need policing,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward). “We’re saying what we want is accountability when they don’t do what they supposed to do.”
The Council voted 48–0 to confirm Snelling; Alds. Derrick Curtis (18th Ward) and Gil Villegas (36th) were not present.
After taking the oath of office, Snelling addressed the City Council in a speech that stressed the importance of working together to affect change. “One thing I wanna say about the [CCPSA] and the example they set: I guarantee the people on that commission didn’t agree on everything,” Snelling said. “But it shows you when people sit in a room, they can come to a consensus. Things can get done. They should serve as an example of what we can do across this entire city.”
He added that while he believes officers should be held accountable for misconduct, they must be judged “fairly.” At a press conference after the meeting, he said that “officers who make mistakes will be held accountable,” but reiterated that the penalty has to be fair.
“If we have officers amongst our ranks, who are not here faithfully, and we know they’re doing more harm than good, then yes, we want to remove that officer,” Snelling said. “The reason we want to remove that officer is because the majority of our officers go out there every single day and put their lives on the line. We don’t want to protect an officer who does not have the best interests of the city of Chicago and their fellow police officers in mind.”
Before he was elected to the City Council in 2023, Ald. Desmon Yancy (5th Ward) was a community organizer who co–founded the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA), one of the groups that won passage of the ECPS Ordinance. On Wednesday, he told the Weekly that seeing the confirmation of the first superintendent to be appointed as a result of that effort is “proof that democracy works.”
“It was a tough process over six years of bringing this ordinance to bear, and it was to do this exact thing: to make sure that the community was involved in shaping our public safety system,” Yancy said. “And I think it showed up well today.”
Vogel said she loves that Chicago has a new process for selecting the superintendent. “I’m an abolitionist and I believe in transparency and, in the meantime, harm reduction…. I think that this has been an incredible process and I’m looking forward to it growing. And I think that Chicago can really, with CCPSA and [police] district counselors, I think we can really pave the way for a nationwide conversation about what transparency and accountability really looks like within police departments.”
Commissioner Brown said during her public comment that she shares that goal.“As a pastor, I’m trying to create a world where we don’t have armed people who serve and protect,” she said, but added that police “serve a very important purpose.”
Vogel said Snelling is “not a bad person” and spoke highly of his interactions with the community in Englewood when he was a lieutenant. But she added that abolishing police and prisons goes beyond a single person in leadership.
“It’s not the individual that needs to be abolished,” Vogel said. “It’s the whole damn system.”