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Here's Why The Chicago Police Promotion Exam Cheating Probe Matters

By Mark Konkol | April 8, 2016 6:49am
 Interim Supt. Eddie Johnson, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Lt. Nakia Fenner at Chicago Police Department headquarters on Monday, March 28, 2016.
Interim Supt. Eddie Johnson, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Lt. Nakia Fenner at Chicago Police Department headquarters on Monday, March 28, 2016.
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Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

THE LOOP — Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants everyone to believe his handpicked success story, interim Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, is the key to rebuilding broken trust between Chicagoans and the beleaguered police department.

Emanuel has repeatedly stressed that point of view every time he’s been asked about the ongoing inspector general investigation into allegations that Deputy Chief Eugene Williams, who helped create the newest lieutenant promotion exam, ran a study group that gave certain sergeants, including Johnson’s fiancée, an unfair advantage on the test.

It’s hard to fault Emanuel’s decision to firmly stand behind his top cop pick. But the controversy isn’t about Johnson.

It’s not about even about Johnson’s fiancée, Lt. Nakia Fenner, who was named in the Internal Affairs investigative complaint obtained by DNAinfo Chicago.

The investigation into cheating on police promotional exams is about trust — specifically, the trust rank-and-file cops have in the top brass who lead the department and the white shirt lieutenants who supervise their work on the street.

RELATED: New Top Cop's Fiancee Under Investigation For Alleged Police Exam Cheating

In some ways, Johnson and his fiancée have become a soap opera storyline that distracts from the important trust issues at the core of the inspector general’s new investigation into cheating allegations that target Williams, a top member of the department’s command staff, that were made in November 2014 and, according to several police sources, were swept under the rug by Internal Affairs.

So far, Emanuel’s comments have only focused on Johnson as a trust builder and have failed to address the need to reform a police promotion exam process that currently keeps test results secret, allows department bosses access to the confidential test information in their roles as “subject matter experts” and allows for meritorious promotions based on undefined criteria.

If the mayor would set aside time to take questions about the matter we could ask him if he’s interested in knowing why Internal Affairs buried its investigation into the allegations against Williams, or if he has written off the cheating probe as a look into what his spokeswoman called “unsubstantiated questions.”

The investigation into cheating on promotion exams should matter to a big city boss hoping to rebuild Chicagoans' faith in a beleaguered police department they don’t trust.

The newly appointed lieutenants set to “graduate” Friday are the future leaders of the department.

Indeed, any cop who dreams of elevating to a $162,000-a-year district commander jobs has to first become lieutenant either by scoring high on the exam or getting promoted by merit, which in Chicago is a synonym for clout.

Before making the big bucks, though, these lieutenants are shift commanders who play a key role in fighting crime and curbing violence.

They oversee crime scenes, supervise investigations and tactical operations, and make sure crime-fighting initiatives ordered up from headquarters are successfully executed on the street by the rank-and-file.

When good police officers work for lieutenants promoted under suspicion of cheating on the exam that was never seriously investigated by internal affairs — or bumped ahead of someone else who had a better score due to merit/clout — some of those cops say they have a pretty good reason not to trust their boss.

Consider the mass email sent by the tipster who convinced city Inspector General Joe Ferguson to start looking into allegations against Williams.

"I hope you all take this as a warning to all those taking future examinations that the process is fixed, and as evidence to all officers and sergeants receiving the tainted group of new 'lieutenants' to watch your back, and finally, to hopefully shame whoever the new superintendent is to revamping the entire promotional process to bring integrity to it," the tipster wrote in an email to the entire police department.

Judging by the calls, emails and anonymous document dumps that I received from cops concerned about the culture of cover-up, the anonymous tipster who triggered a new cheating probe isn’t the only one with trust issues.

Like the practice of an officer “getting the story straight” by lying on official reports to cover for a colleague, cheating on promotional exams isn’t a new phenomenon in the Chicago police department.

A retired police sergeant told me, the 11th Ward, home to a powerful political organization run by both former mayors named Daley, "rigged exams for decades and never got caught.”

The difference between now and then: “The old Irish bosses never had girlfriends. They might have loved the bottle or taken an envelope or two but no girlfriends,” the retired sergeant said.

During my first interview with Supt. Johnson — which I’ve been told could be my last sitdown with the top cop — he talked about the department’s unwritten policy on handling anonymous allegations like the one made against Williams.

“I can tell you that Internal Affairs for CPD, we don’t typically handle anonymous complaints about things,” Johnson said.

I pointed out that in recent years the department has made extra efforts to allow citizens to provide anonymous information to detectives as a way to combat the so-called “no-snitch” code of silence on the street that is the No. 1 reason fewer than 10 percent of shootings gets solved in Chicago.

Johnson said, “That’s true, but in this respect we have people that are specifically targeting individuals in CPD. So if you know those things to be a fact, sign your name to ‘em, and stand up to it. … I don’t like it when anyone makes an anonymous characterization of another person because you don’t know what that person’s agenda is for doing it.”

Well, more than a dozen police department employees contacted me since news broke about the investigation into the cheating allegations and each said they didn’t want their names printed because they feared being ostracized, reassigned, retaliated against or worse for speaking out against colleagues and breaking the code of silence within the department.

During my sitdown with Johnson, I offered a trust-building suggestion: “Fire the liars,” meaning the scores of Chicago Police officers still on the job despite having sustained findings of violating Rule 14, a provision in the Police Department’s disciplinary code referring to “making a false statement, written or oral” that’s called a career killer in almost every department in America.

I asked Johnson if he thought an officer who is found guilty of lying should automatically be fired.

“No, it’s not automatic termination,” Johnson said.

That’s opposite to the opinion of former police Supt. Garry McCarthy who complained that he didn’t have enough authority to fire officers who have been found guilty of lying during investigations or on written police reports.

Johnson’s take on anonymous tips and punishment for lying cops is the stuff that certainly might raise rank-and-file morale.

It’s also a point of view that has allowed the code of silence within the Police Department to harbor a culture that protects dirty cops from punishment for generations.

Ultimately, the inspector general’s investigation into lieutenants' exam cheating allegations centers on a corrupt promotion system that’s connected to the culture of lying and cheating within the department that is the very reason so many people say they don’t trust the Police Department.

Mayor Emanuel has said his support of Johnson despite the cheating investigation stems from a belief that the new interim top cop will do the right thing when it comes to handling police misconduct in a way that builds trust in the department.

There was a moment during my chat with Johnson at police headquarters that I thought Rahm might be right about his top cop.

It happened when Johnson asked me why I thought cops with sustained Rule 14 violations should automatically be fired.

I told him a couple things experts have told me:

♦ The courtroom testimony of a police officer identified as a liar can and should be impeached by defense attorneys.

♦ Until the department makes termination the automatic punishment for violating Rule 14 it’s impossible for the public to know if the officer they encounter on the street is a liar, and ultimately that destroys trust in the entire department.

Then, Johnson’s responded in a way that Mayor Emanuel never has, and probably never would.

“You just made me think about the Rule 14,” Johnson said. “See, in my previous positions I never really dealt with that kind of thing. But you just brought up something that I’m really going to take a look at.

“All that stuff matters. And one thing I know about being a cop: The little things are what give you a stairway to the big things. So if we can knock down [problems] when they’re little, then all of us will be a lot better.”

If Emanuel and his top cop really want Chicagoans to trust the Police Department again, they’ve got to realize that the investigation into cheating on the lieutenants' exam is one of those little things that matter.

And then do something about it.

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