Larry Snelling has a tightrope to walk.
He took over as superintendent of the Chicago Police Department last month as it struggles to meet obligations under a federal consent decree. The department has worked to build stronger community relationships while still trying to reduce the gun violence that’s been entrenched in the city for decades.
On one hand, Snelling is tasked with leading a department that must meet a series of reform goals that were born out of the 2014 fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald. On the other, many city residents have called for more aggressive policing as robberies in Chicago have surged this year.
Homicides and nonfatal shootings still outpace pre-pandemic levels as well, though they are trending downward.
In his first interview with the Tribune since he was named the city’s top cop, Snelling, an Englewood native who joined CPD in 1992, said fostering a greater understanding of police officers’ role in society is paramount if the department is to achieve its reform and community relations goals.
“I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of explaining what real constitutional, proactive police work looks like,” Snelling said Tuesday. “The way that we balance this is to, one, be transparent about what we do. Sometimes police work does not look good. But if we can explain the constitutionality of stops, of our interactions with individuals, I think it’ll be a lot more palatable for those who just don’t understand what they’re looking at.”
Police need to explain their strategy better, so the community can understand what cops are trying to do, he said.
“I think we need education of our officers, the openness to explain and the transparency to explain to our communities and to the public what officers are doing to keep everyone safe,” Snelling said. “I think we can police proactively and have our community members understand what we’re doing.”
That need for transparency was crystal clear for Snelling in August 2020. That summer, civil unrest and looting broke out in Chicago and other cities across the country after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. On Aug. 9 that year, a police shooting in the Englewood District, which Snelling commanded at the time, left the neighborhood on edge after rumors circulated on social media accusing CPD officers of fatally shooting a 15-year-old boy in the back.
None of that was true, and the man who was shot by officers was convicted earlier this year of attempted murder. But still, in the immediate aftermath, speculation about the shooting was blamed for another round of looting that occurred in the downtown area that same day. Snelling said he was able to maintain the neighborhood’s trust by talking to residents directly.
“That constant communication and the previous relationships that I had developed with members of the community helped us out a lot there,” he said.
There’s much work to do, and the new superintendent said he’s still deciding who he will surround himself with on the CPD’s command staff.
“There will be changes amongst the brass,” Snelling said.
Asked about three specific CPD higher-ups — Chief of Detectives Antoinette Ursitti, Internal Affairs Chief Yolanda Talley and Angel Novalez, chief of constitutional policing and reform — Snelling said he has decisions to make.
“What I’m going to do is take my time and assess every situation just to make sure that we have the right people in the right places and the best people with the best knowledge for a particular position,” he said. “I think all of those individuals are doing an excellent job right now, but there are positions that we need to take a deep look at and make sure that we have the best and most well-equipped person for each one of those positions.”
Snelling was confirmed as superintendent about six months after the last permanent CPD leader, David Brown, resigned following former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s failure to qualify for the runoff election.
A native of Texas, Brown was deeply unpopular among CPD officers and supervisors. However, Brown was the one who promoted Snelling twice, first to deputy chief of Area 2 on the Far South Side and then to chief of counterterrorism.
Asked what Brown saw in him, Snelling said dedication, hard work and being mindful of the interests of others. More importantly, though, Snelling said he demonstrated that “it wasn’t just about me.”
“Because when you’re in leadership positions, you don’t get there because of yourself, just by yourself,” he added. “There are other people around you, there are people who work with you, who help you get there, and I can tell you the officers that are out there working right now, having those people work with you, work around you, those are the people who build your skill set. Those are the people who make you look good. And if, as leadership, we don’t recognize that and acknowledge that, then we’re self-serving and we shouldn’t be.”
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