Larry Snelling speaks after he was unanimously confirmed as Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department by City Council on Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CITY HALL — Supt. Larry Snelling pledged Tuesday police leaders will “do everything we can” to oust officers with confirmed ties to hate and extremist groups. 

The comments came days after an investigation from WBEZ, the Sun-Times and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found more than two dozen current and former Chicago cops were listed in leaked documents as members of the Oath Keepers, a right wing extremist group which helped carry out the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. 

At least nine current officers have ties to the Oath Keepers, the report found. The department launched an investigation into their involvement with the organization last week. 

Snelling addressed the investigation in his opening remarks during a Tuesday budget hearing at City Hall, where alderpeople are vetting Mayor Brandon Johnson’s proposed 2024 budget. 

“We will complete thorough investigations to make sure that we do not have members of hate groups amongst our Chicago Police Department,” said Snelling, who was joined by other department leaders. “Through those investigations, once those investigations have been completed and due process is served, and we find that we have members amongst our ranks who are members of hate groups, we will do everything that we can to remove those members from our ranks.” 

Chicago Police officers patrol during the Taste of Chicago in Grant Park on Sept. 9, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Numerous alderpeople condemned the Oath Keepers on Tuesday and urged Snelling to oust any cop linked to the group. Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) called for a “thorough” investigation instead of a “swift one.” 

“I really think that this is low-hanging fruit, given the fact that we really want to focus on changing the whole culture in the police department,” Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said. “Let’s get them and get them out.”

Dowell pressed police officials on how long the investigation would take, but she did not receive an exact answer. Yolanda Talley, chief of internal affairs, estimated it would last “less than six months.” 

“Anybody who might be associated with the Oath Keepers, there’s no place for that. I appreciate your strong position on that, getting to the bottom of it,” said Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), whose Southwest Side ward is home to many police officers and first responders. 

Ald. Matthew O’Shea (19th) speaks at a special City Council meeting to confirm Larry Snelling as Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department on Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Alderpeople also questioned Snelling and other police brass about the department’s 2024 spending priorities under Johnson’s budget proposal, which was introduced earlier this month

The police budget would rise about $91 million to just under $2 billion under Johnson’s plan.

Alderpeople asked about everything from police staffing levels to buying helicopters, why commanders are shifted in and out of districts and how the department evaluates technology like ShotSpotter. 

Quinn Myers explains how Mayor Johnson’s proposed budget is funded:

Snelling and other officials also spoke about their plans to promote another 100 detectives next year while creating about 400 civilian jobs to free up sworn officers from desk duty — a central plank of Johnson’s budget address earlier this month. 

During a news briefing Oct. 13, Johnson said the increase was mainly due to contractually-obligated pay raises for police officers and officials.

“The police budget is, essentially it’s flat,” Johnson said. “The slight increase is primarily based on, was solely based on, the gradual raises that workers get. So this is not my administration pouring more dollars into the police budget. This is about workers getting their raises.”. 

A Chicago Police squad car is parked in Bucktown on Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Civilian Hires

A key talking point for Snelling since he took over the department last month has been strengthening officer and community relations to reduce crime and “get the city back on track,” he previously told Block Club

Civilian roles prove to neighbors the police and the public “can work together,” Snelling said Tuesday. It also “creates a better environment for the officers” by giving them the opportunity to work with people outside of sworn members, Snelling said. 

For the civilian positions, 100 newly created civilian roles would be assigned to the department’s training academy while the other 300 would work at districts throughout the city.

The department is “looking at retired police officers to be trainers” for the civilian jobs to reduce the number of sworn officers responsible for the role and “put more officers on the street,” Snelling said. 

The department doesn’t have a timeline for filling the civilian positions but is working to get them posted online, officials said. 

“I would love to say as soon as possible, but there’s a hiring process,” Snelling said. 

A Chicago Police helicopter flies above Grant Park during Lollapalooza on July 29, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Our Helicopters Are Not In Good Shape

Like in past years, alderpeople pressed police brass about the department’s use of helicopters and how officers apprehend people fleeing crime scenes.

The department has two helicopters, although they are often temporarily out of service due to maintenance issues, officials said Tuesday.

The city is currently acquiring two more helicopters, which are expected to be delivered next year, Deputy Director Ryan Fitzsimons told alderpeople. 

“The helicopter is very, very important for us,” said Duane DeVries, acting chief of the Bureau of Counterterrorism. “Currently, our helicopters are not in good shape, or they’re down more than they’re up, so that makes it difficult, because without the helicopter, you don’t have the eyes in the sky that can follow these vehicles.” 

That lack of resources was a frequent source of frustration for alderpeople Tuesday, several of whom wondered why the city was not able to quickly buy more helicopters when police deem them so necessary to public safety. 

Large cities like Houston and Los Angeles each have more than 20 police helicopters, a police official confirmed. 

“I would just say to procurement, hurry up,” Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said. “Time is of essence, and let’s talk about budgeting for more helicopters. We are way behind the rest of the country when it comes to that technology, and I think it shows, and you guys deserve to have those tools.”

Chicago police drive past Parkside of Old Town, which was built by the Holsten Real Estate Development Corp. Credit: Davon Clark for the Better Government Association/CatchLight Local

In recent months, the department’s vehicle chase policy has been criticized by some neighbors and politicians as armed robberies have surged across the city, especially on the Near West and Northwest sides. 

The city has strengthened its pursuit policy several times in recent years after costly lawsuits stemming from numerous crashes.

Snelling stressed that officers can chase people fleeing a crime scene in cars, but they must undertake a “balancing test” to determine if the risks of a chase are worth apprehending the suspects. 

“Oftentimes [that’s] depending on the location, time of day, number of people on the street, and we have to look at the vehicle that is being pursued. And now we weigh that balancing test,” Snelling said. “If that pursuit ends in an accident where someone’s hurt, injured, the liability on the officer, the liability on the city is huge.”

About 70 protestors carried signs stating “surveillance is useless expensive and racist” and “stop ShotSpotter” while chanting cancel the contract. Credit: Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago

Will ShotSpotter Stay Or Go?

Snelling remained noncommittal on the city’s decision to continue its contract with ShotSpotter, the controversial gunshot detection technology, as alderpeople questioned how well it works.

Johnson promised to end the city’s contract with the company while campaigning for mayor but has yet to do so

Snelling previously said any claims that ShotSpotter is a “tool of surveillance” are inaccurate, and he’s “all for” any technology that “helps officers do the job better.” 

Alderpeople continued to scrutinize the technology, citing reports and studies that found harmful flaws in its use. 

Snelling invited alderpeople to witness how the technology works in “real time,” but Ald. Rossana Rodriguez–Sanchez (33rd) said that’s not enough for her to be convinced.

“I can go and look at the device, I can go and look at how it works, but that gives me a tiny insight,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “I need to see the big picture and how and what results we’re getting from this.

“I do want to be able to understand, how do we choose the technologies that we choose? And how do we constantly evaluate if they are working or not?” 

14th District Sergeant Michael Edens and 12th District Commander Beth Giltmier interact while 14th District Commander Elizabeth Collazo speaks during a joint public safety meeting hosted by the 12th and 14th Police Districts at St. Mary’s Hospital in West Town on Jan. 17, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

High Turnover Of Command Staff

Another frequent concern at Tuesday’s budget hearing was related to the often swift departures of commanders across the city’s 22 police districts. 

The revolving door has been especially prevalent in South Side neighborhoods, like Auburn Gresham’s 6th District and Englewood’s 7th District, where Snelling previously served as commander. 

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), whose ward includes the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th police districts, praised her local commanders and said she hopes to “not lose any of them.”

“Every time I bond with one, before the bonding is complete, it’s like you’re pulling the baby away from me, so I just need to know that I’m going to be able to keep them,” Harris said. 

Sposato has had six commander changes in the Jefferson Park (16th) District, he said. Three have been promoted, Sposato said.

Snelling said commanders do frequently move around the department, but he promised a “smooth transition of power” when it does happen under his leadership. 

“It won’t be someone just walking in that you don’t know. There’s going to be that transition of power. Because in order for that commander to be successful, we have to set them up for success,” he said. “So rest assured, we won’t be moving anybody too soon.” 

Sposato also worried losing district staff to promote an additional 100 detectives under the 2024 budget “would be devastating.” 

But those promotions “won’t happen all at once,” Snelling told alderpeople Tuesday.

The department will “assess the number of officers we have” and evaluate recruitment and training numbers to replace district staff, the superintendent said. 

If 50 recruits exit the training academy, 50 other officers won’t automatically be promoted to detective positions, Snelling said. 

Snelling speaks during a City Council hearing to advance his nomination as the new police superintendent. Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Block Club Chicago

More Support For Mental Health Emergency Response

Johnson’s budget plan also calls for implementing parts of the longstanding Treatment Not Trauma proposal. That includes doubling the staff dedicated to a co-responder pilot program that deploys behavioral health workers, paramedics, officers and other experts in several neighborhoods to respond to certain 911 calls for mental health emergencies or non-fatal opioid overdoses.

Snelling favors the model and said it would free up sworn officers to focus on violent crime instead of responding to non-violent mental health or drug crises. 

“We’re not looking to lock those people up or take them to jail,” Snelling said. “Those people need help, and if we can get someone to that call that’s not in uniform, that frees our officers to handle more violent crimes and focus on robberies and things of that nature while we now have someone who’s qualified to actually maybe diagnose that person at the scene and recognize what they need and then get them the help that they need.”

Sposato, a frequent law enforcement booster at City Hall, voiced skepticism over the program and asked Snelling if mental health professionals would be left on their own if things became violent. 

“That’s not how it works,” Snelling said. “In any situation like that, once they make the assessment and they find that this person is violent, or there’s nothing that they can do, obviously, the next thing to do is to call the police. If it turns into something of a criminal nature, now the officers will respond.” 

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis