Sweet home, Chicago? Maybe. The Chief’s just … interested

Every day Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert White goes to work, he knows that the health of his reputation and legacy hang by a thread. As part of running a police department, he must be accountable to the mayor, translate policy to citizens who don’t necessarily comprehend the awkward and messy business of policing, and oversee a force of 1,200 cops, many of whom have the right, in certain situations, to take lives.

In 2002, Mayor Jerry Abramson hired White away from Greensboro, N.C., to help remake the city and county police departments, and to help reverse the cops’ then-suffering perception as a shoot-first, ask-questions-later body of public servants.

That was a tall order. In particular, Louisville’s African-American community was — and, some would argue, still is — deeply and openly distrustful of its finest, a fact that was not lost on White: In one of his first acts as chief, he made it a point to meet with activists like the Rev. Louis Coleman to assuage concerns that the brass wasn’t minding its proverbial store.

White reformed the new Metro police department, “decentralizing” the force in order to put more cops on the street, which meant abolishing some special units, such as the gang squad. He also outfitted officers with less-than-lethal ammunition as an alternative to deadly force.

Four years later, White’s contract is almost up, and he’s been tapped as a contender for the chief’s job in Chicago, another department in need of surgery. He is interested, and that’s all he and Metro government are saying.

“He has been contacted monthly, if not weekly, about different job opportunities,” Allison Martin, a spokesman for the mayor, says. “He let the mayor know that he felt like he had a dream job in Louisville, and he would not be leaving unless he felt like it would be the perfect opportunity for him and his family.”

If he does go, it will be difficult to determine whether his reforms in Louisville will have lasting, positive effects. The department is only five years old, and a new chief could exercise his or her right to change course at any moment.

One opinion of White, held mainly by non-cops and activists, is that he’s a frank, no-nonsense operator who can respectfully disagree with constituents without alienating them. Christopher 2X, a community activist and founder of the nonprofit Ceremonial Healing Group, first met White when Officer McKenzie Mattingly shot and killed 19-year-old Michael Newby in January 2004. 2X says White’s open-door policy for families of homicide victims has fostered good will with the community.

“Outside of that Mattingly issue, I started to see a man that I thought was frank with the public about issues,” 2X says. “That was something that I felt that families needed. It’s always good to have that other voice that will lend an ear to them. He has never held a grudge about being accessible.”

Bill Keeling, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 614, the lodge for Metro officers, had nothing but good things to say about White. In an interview with LEO last week, Keeling said he and the chief had a solid working relationship “even when we disagree.”

The same cannot be said for the rank and file. When news of White’s interest in Chicago first came to light, the Web site www.lmpd.com, which contains a message board used by members of the lodge, was awash in comments critical of White for mismanaging the department, and they bashed Keeling for not standing up for his membership. (FOP members voted on a new president yesterday, but results were unavailable before press time. Keeling ran against FOP Vice President John McGuire.)

If White does wind up leaving, his community relations and interdepartmental skills will be tested tenfold in an agency that makes Metro police look angelic.

Earlier this month, in a story titled “Breaking the Blue Wall,” the British magazine The Economist detailed Chicago’s myriad problems. Seven officers in that department’s special operations unit have been charged with kidnapping, burglary and false arrest, and one officer was accused in September of plotting a murder.

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