The majority of the West Siders who spoke at the April 11 Chicago police superintendent search town hall had one clear message – they want former 15th District chief Ernest Cato to get the job.
The town hall at Kehrein Center for The Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd., was the first of four town halls that the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA) is organizing to give Chicagoans from all parts of the city a chance to sound off on what they want to see in the new superintendent. CCPSA is responsible for selecting three candidates, and the next mayor will need to choose one within 30 days. The applications are due on May 7, and the commission doesn’t expect to pick the finalists until after Austin’s Brandon Johnson is sworn in as Chicago’s new mayor.
An estimated 50-60 people attended the town hall.
Both Cato supporters and speakers who didn’t support anyone in particular said they wanted the next superintendent to be compassionate, make sure police officers treat all parts of the city equally and focus on improving mental health, both within the police departments and in the community. Many also wanted the superintendent to make sure officers build relationships with residents, especially kids and teens.
Cato joined the Chicago Police Department in 1992. He spent much of his career on the West Side. In March 2016, he was assigned to the 15th District, which falls entirely within the portion of Austin south of Division Street, Cato made his way up to district commander in October 2017.
In October 2019, he was promoted to Deputy Chief of Patrol for Area North, which, at the time, included most North and West Side neighborhoods.
When Mayor Lori Lightfoot fired then-Superintendent Eddie Johnson in December 2019, Cato applied for the job. The Chicago Police Board, which was responsible for choosing candidates at the time, picked him as one of the three finalists. Lightfoot chose former Dallas Police Chief David Brown in April 2020.
Late that month Lightfoot rearranged the police areas, moving West Side’s 10th, 11th and 15th police districts into a separate Area 4. Cato because the area’s deputy chief. He became chief of the Bureau of Counterterrorism in October 2021. He retired from the department effective mid-October 2022. Cato is in his late 50s.
CCPSA President Anthony Driver and Remel Terry, one of the West Side commissioners, co-hosted the April 11 meeting. A few other commission members sat in the audience to observe the proceedings. Residents had to fill out cards and give their full names to speak, and Driver occasionally asked the speakers follow-up questions.
“We would like to hear what are the qualifications, what are the [qualities] the next superintendent of Chicago police must have to be an effective leader,” Terry said in her opening remarks.
Michele Clark Academic Prep High School principal Charles Anderson, said he wanted to see a superintendent who “knows the streets” and interacts with residents enough to “know my name.” He also urged CCPSA to set up a community forum exclusively for youth, where they would feel free to share their opinions without feeling judged.
Deondre Rutues, member of the newly created 15th Police District Council, noted that he has been doing community engagement for the Neighborhood Policing Project, which seeks to improve the connections between police and the community since it launched in the 25th District, and he wanted the new superintendent to expand it city-wide.
“I would love for the superintendent to get behind the program, to reinvent policing, that they’re off the radio, in the community, there making real connections,” he said. He added that he also wanted the new superintendent to commit the department to meeting the federal consent decree targets.
Activist Princess Shaw, who urged West Siders in several online groups to come to the town hall to support Cato, said the new superintendent should embrace “a mixture of old and new ways,” including mental health programs and expansion of restorative justice practices.
Arewa Karen Winters, another 15th District council member, recalled that, when she first met Cato, she was “in my trauma body” because her grandnephew was recently shot by the police.
“[When I first talked to him] I felt as if I was speaking to an old friend,” she said, adding that this spoke to the kind of person he was, and that “he has earned the chance to transform the narrative of what public safety needs.”
Antonio Daniels, head of 5500 Adams Block Club, recalled an incident a few years ago when someone stole his lawnmower, and his son saw the thief trying to sell it. Daniels wanted to confront the thief, but Cato persuaded him to file a police complaint.
“He stopped me before I got myself in trouble, encouraged me to file a complaint,” he recalled “I got back [home], I ran into two of his detectives. They helped find that person, helped me get my lawnmower back on the same day. I’ll never forget it.”
Tyler Phillips said that, as the 15th District commander, Cato was a mentor to him.
“He showed me how to be a leader, basically, because, when I was a kid, I was really shy, didn’t talk in front of nobody,” he said. “He told me — once you put your mind to it, you can do it.”
Community activist LaCresha Birts, said she supported Cato because he is willing to meet West Siders “where we are.”
“One of the reasons why he stands out, just from my conversations with community members, [is] because he made himself accessible to community members,” she said. “I hope that you take the recommendations of those of us who are on West Side, so shout out to Earnest Cato and we hope he’s considered.”
After the town hall concluded, Terry said she was pleased with how it went.
“My heart is so full to see so many people come out,” she said.
When asked whether the meeting improved Cato’s chances, Terry responded that it was too early to ask that question, given that the applications were still coming in. But if he does apply, she said, CCPSA will give him the same consideration as anybody else.
“We don’t have any candidates in the pipeline, but as we go through the process, we shall see,” she said.