Imagine someone refereeing the Super Bowl one day and then jumping at the chance to head a crew of officials in a youth flag football game shortly thereafter.
Christopher Kennedy essentially did the equivalent earlier this year—in the field of law enforcement.
Kennedy, 50, was serving as deputy chief/ executive officer overseeing Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) when he was named Northbrook’s chief of police from a field of 70 candidates on March 1.
The big city’s population: nearly 2,700,000.
Northbrook’s population: nearly 33, 500.
Night and day.
Water tower and cup of water.
But don’t think for a second that Kennedy— a 29-year CPD veteran and son of former Chicago policeman Jack Kennedy, a tactical team member at the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago— is taking his new post any less seriously than he did his last CPD position.
“I am honored to have been chosen to lead one of the most revered departments in the state,” says Kennedy, who succeeded Roger Adkins and started working in the village formerly known as Shermerville in early April. “Known for its high level of service, professionalism, and community trust, the Northbrook Police Department is poised to address current law enforcement challenges and is the perfect place for me to begin the next chapter of my law enforcement career.
“I am excited for the opportunity to mentor officers and strengthen community relationships.”
History thrilled Kennedy at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, so he majored in it. Were he to appear on Jeopardy! and tackle a category that required knowledge of Sir Robert Peel, he’d race through it at breakneck speed. Peel served twice as the prime minister of the United Kingdom (1834-1835 and 1841-1846).
Peel is also known as the father of modern British policing. One of the nine policing principles he espoused was, “To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public trust.”
“Many of Peel’s principles still apply today,” says Kennedy, who lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side and has two children, Aidan, 14, and Maeve, 12. “They’re still functional. Take a look at what Peel believed in the 1800s; his beliefs formed a strong foundation for policing, with an emphasis on maintaining positive police-community relationships.
“A community’s residents,” he continues, “empower those in law enforcement and expect honesty and integrity.”
Kennedy attended Taft High School in Chicago and competed for the Eagles’ track and field team for a couple of seasons, first as a sprinter and then as a distance specialist. He dubbed himself “a common kid” who got along with everyone, and he’s quick to point out that a cowriter (Jim Jacobs) of the musical Grease is a Taft alumnus.
Jack Kennedy, now 78, became a well-known homicide detective and top-notch hostage negotiator with the CPD, but he never talked shop with Christopher at the kitchen table.
Or anywhere else.
“My father wasn’t a ‘war story’ guy,” Kennedy says.
Kennedy earned his master’s in public administration at the Illinois Institute of Technology before deciding
to take the police exam in the early 1990s and follow in his father’s beat steps.
“I was part of the massive hiring of police officers when federal funding expanded in the wake of the crack epidemic,” says Kennedy, who had promised his grandmother that he would not become a cop. “Fast forward to 9/11, and people recognized how tough the job is and often showed their appreciation for what we do. There’s still considerable respect for police officers. There’s a silent majority out there.
“A lot of us would like the people in that majority to be more vocal.”
Kennedy spent more than 12 command-level years in leadership and strategic planning with the CPD. In addition to be being a sergeant, he was a commanding officer/watch commander (Targeted Response Unit), a commanding officer (Marine & Helicopter Unit), and a commander (Gang Investigation Division, Bureau of Organized Crime), among other posts.
He received more than 90 awards and commendations for search and rescue, life-saving, skill, and fitness. Christopher Jack Kennedy is decorated, in spades.
“I’d done a lot in Chicago,” says Kennedy, who helped the CPD prepare for the NATO Summit in 2012—the first time a U.S. city outside of Washington, D.C., was tapped to host the alliance’s international meeting. “Tough times, with a lot of challenges. There’s a touch of a small-town feel in Northbrook. I like it. I’m happy here. The police department is dedicated, caring. No cynicism. It’s a well-run village, and its political structure is supportive and kind.”
Kennedy had some terrific bosses in Chicago and some not-so-terrific ones. But he learned from both sets of supervisors and packed the accrued knowledge in his leadership arsenal. It’ll certainly come in handy during his tenure at 1401 Landwehr Road in Northbrook.
“Ultimately everybody wants to be led,” Kennedy says. “I’m looking forward to deciding pathways for Northbrook’s police officers. An effective mentor has to be good at reading individuals and understanding where they would best thrive.”
Kennedy’s paternal grandfather served as the deputy director of the Illinois State Police. He never got to know him; Christopher was young when that grandpa died. Kennedy’s maternal grandfather worked as a machinist in Chicago, or, as Kennedy puts it, a “hardworking wrench turner.”
He got to know him.
“The kindest soul,” Kennedy recalls. “A little guy, with the biggest, sweetest heart. I hope I picked up some of his traits.”
Nothing means more to Chief Kennedy than fatherhood does. Attending any of his kids’ events ranks No. 1 on his What I Love To Do In My Free Time list, ahead of spending time with “my handful of friends,” occasionally talking shop with his father, and lifting weights.
Northbrook’s Police Department is in good hands—and in good shape—with Kennedy at the helm.
“Policing, in any community, is unique,” Kennedy says. “It’s difficult to judge. It’s hard to quantify success in the field, because police work isn’t anything like making widgets and aiming for monetary gain.
“I’m nearly two months in as police chief here, and I’m building my leadership team. We’re going to emphasize community outreach.”