CHICAGO -- Eddie Johnson, the face of the Chicago Police Department as superintendent during one of the most tumultuous times in its 184-year history, confirmed Thursday that he would step down effective at the end of the year.
With his family and Mayor Lori Lightfoot at his side, Johnson, 59, grew emotional as he said at a news conference that he would be hanging up the four stars pinned to his dress blues.
“These stars can sometimes feel like carrying the weight of the world, but I’m confident that I leave CPD in a better place than when I became superintendent,” he said.
Johnson insisted that the timing had nothing to do with his health or the ongoing investigation by the city’s watchdog into why the superintendent was found asleep in his running vehicle at a stop sign after dinner and drinks with friends last month. The superintendent underwent a successful kidney transplant in August 2017.
The announcement came as no surprise. Johnson told reporters during a break Monday at the city’s budget hearings that he was “toying” with retirement, and on Tuesday night, the Tribune, quoting sources, reported that Johnson was expected to reveal later in the week that he was stepping down.
Johnson said he began seriously thinking about retirement while attending a ceremony in August honoring three officers who died in the line of duty last year.
Johnson was that rare superintendent who never sought the job -- in part out of deference, he said, to a higher-ranking colleague who pursued the post. But in a surprise, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, dissatisfied with the three finalists chosen by the Chicago Police Board, plucked him from relative anonymity as chief of patrol in April 2016 to head the department.
“Rahm Emanuel saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Johnson told reporters Thursday.
Johnson took over a department reeling from the court-ordered release of police dashboard camera video showing a white officer shoot black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times. To compound the challenges he faced, violence reached levels in his first year in office not seen in Chicago for two decades, a landmark U.S. Department of Justice probe found the Police Department routinely violated the civil rights of citizens and longstanding police practices such as street stops came under fire as racially biased.
Despite his turbulent first year, Johnson is set to depart at year’s end with homicides and shooting incidents on track to drop by more than 10 percent for a third consecutive year, likely his most significant achievement as superintendent.
Even without the personal turmoil of recent weeks, Johnson’s time in office seemed likely near its end. Lightfoot, who won a landslide victory in May in part on her police reform credentials, has been careful to avoid giving Johnson her long-term backing as superintendent. Instead, she made it clear she’d initially kept Johnson on because an immediate change in superintendent would be ill-timed with the hot summer months fast approaching and the uptick in violence that historically has followed.
But on Thursday, Lightfoot heaped praise on Johnson, particularly his stewardship of the department in those uncertain months after the McDonald scandal rocked Chicago.
Just last week, the mayor came to Johnson’s defense as President Donald Trump, in Chicago to speak at a police chiefs conference, excoriated the superintendent for boycotting his remarks. The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police had issued a vote of no-confidence after Johnson announced his intentions to skip the speech.
In explaining his absence, Johnson, the fourth African American to head the Chicago Police Department, said the president’s policies don’t “line up with our city’s core values, along with my personal values,"
In defending Johnson, Lightfoot contrasted the superintendent’s dedication to public service with “the crime wave” she said Trump has been “perpetrating against the American people from the White House.”
Rose through the ranks
Johnson’s style marked a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Garry McCarthy, the brash New Yorker who took the fall for the McDonald scandal and later unsuccessfully ran for mayor. By comparison, Johnson came off as humble and soft spoken, a Chicago native who grew up in the rough-and-tumble former Cabrini-Green public housing complex before his family moved to the Far South Side when he was 9.
Johnson had worked his way up the ranks in his three decades with the department. While testifying in 2017 at a trial over a police shooting, Johnson revealed that a dozen years earlier when he was a detective sergeant he suffered a graze wound to his head when he chased on foot after a suspect who had tried to carjack him at gunpoint while working off-duty in a plainclothes security job for a South Side business. The suspect fired four shots at Johnson, who took cover with his weapon drawn but didn’t return fire, a department spokesman said at the time.
“So I know it can happen,” testified Johnson, pointing out a scar near the top of his head for the jury.
As superintendent, he was a popular figure with the public, a cool head under pressure with a friendly smile and a knack for speaking from his gut at times. That quality was on national display in February when Johnson spoke with palpable anger at a news conference after then-"Empire" actor Jussie Smollett had been charged with a staging an attack on himself on a bitterly cold morning in downtown Chicago. Saying he was personally offended as an African American, Johnson accused Smollett of dragging Chicago’s reputation through the mud and taking “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”
But the product of 31 years on the police force wasn’t the reformer that many say is desperately needed at this critical juncture as the department tries to implement a consent decree intended to fundamentally alter the way officers treat those they are sworn to serve and protect.
“When we look back, we will probably have a lot of gratitude for Superintendent Johnson for giving us a sense of transformation and stability at the same time,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch, the longtime pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on the West Side. “But this department needs radical reform. He wouldn’t have been able to reform it because he was too much a part of it.”
Sheila Bedi, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law who’s involved in litigation over the consent decree, agreed that Johnson didn’t represent the reform-minded leader necessary to change the culture of the department.
“He has not been the kind of change agent who would demonstrate transformational leadership that would result in a new form of policing in Chicago," she said.
But Bedi credited Johnson for not watering down changes to department rules on officers’ use of force and noted his willingness to talk to diverse community representatives.
“He was willing to sit down with his critics, and that’s an important skill that any leader needs to have,” she said.
While Johnson frequently spoke about the need to improve the African-American community’s deep anger and distrust of the police, he refused to acknowledge the existence of a code of silence within the department despite repeated evidence over the decades after one scandal after another.
“In my personal experience, I’ve never heard an officer talk about a code of silence,” Johnson testified during a deposition in lawsuits stemming from Officer Robert Rialmo’s fatal shooting in 2015 of a teen wielding a baseball bat and an innocent woman standing behind him.
In recent public remarks at a University of Chicago Crime Lab event, Johnson celebrated the implementation of technology centers in 20 of the city’s 22 police districts and described the department as being very close to a “model” on both reform and officer wellness.
But much work remains to be done. While Chicago has reversed the shocking spike in violence in 2016, the city has yet to close its gap with New York and Los Angeles in the sheer number of shootings and homicides. And the Police Department, criticized for its mental health counseling efforts in the scathing Justice Department report, had to confront a cluster of at least eight officer suicides over a recent 14-month period.
‘A tragic mistake’
Johnson also took heat after the Chicago Tribune revealed in late 2016 that sealed testimony in the city Inspector General’s investigation into McDonald’s slaying showed Johnson, then a deputy chief, had attended a meeting about a week after the October 2014 shooting in which police brass viewed the dashboard camera video. No one at the meeting raised concerns about the shooting, a detective lieutenant later told investigators.
It wasn’t until last month, though, that Johnson offered any explanation amid community and political pressure after Lightfoot publicly released thousands of pages from that investigation.
“I was a senior member of the department, but I was not involved in any superintendent-level decisions on discipline following uses of force," Johnson told reporters. “To be clear, I never thought and never said the shooting of Laquan McDonald was justified."
Hatch, the West Side pastor, said he took part in a meeting last month at which ministers and community leaders confronted Johnson about what they considered his role in covering up McDonald’s killing. But it was Johnson’s support of Officer Rialmo -- recently fired for fatally shooting Quintonio LeGrier, 19, and Bettie Jones, 55 -- that caused Hatch to lose all confidence in Johnson as a leader.
“I had to preach both those eulogies in one week,” Hatch said. “It’s very personal with me. I can’t overlook that he supported Rialmo. That was a tragic mistake (Johnson) made. It took moral authority away from his position.”
Johnson had averted any personal issues as superintendent until officers responding to a 911 call at about 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 17 found him asleep in his running car pulled over a few blocks from his home in the Bridgeport neighborhood.
Johnson went public about the incident later that same day, calling for an investigation on himself by the department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs. The city Inspector General’s Office later took on the probe.
Officers did not notice “any signs of impairment” on the superintendent’s part and let him drive to his nearby home, a Police Department spokesman said.
Lightfoot later said that Johnson admitted to her that he had “a couple of drinks” before driving himself home.
Johnson told reporters he had been tired after a long day at work but went out to dinner with friends that night. He said he felt ill as he drove home from the dinner, pulled over at a stop sign and fell asleep. He blamed the incident on his failure to take his blood pressure medication.
The superintendent defended the officers’ decision not to test for whether he had been drinking, saying, “Someone asleep in a car doesn’t mean they’re impaired.”
Chicago Tribune’s Lolly Bowean contributed.
©2019 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.