By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It’s quiet in the office of the highest-ranking cop in Chicago. WGN’s late-morning newscast is showing on a 35-inch flat screen, but the volume is very low. With the vanilla window blinds open on a sunny day, the Chicago skyline sparkles. Sitting at his desk is Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, looking slimmer and healthy. He left work last night at 11 p.m., three hours later than his normal quitting time. Without his formal superintendent jacket and decorated police hat, Johnson is winding down another tough week on the job.
For the first time since he was appointed two years ago, Johnson gave a sit-down interview with the Chicago Crusader. It occurred just one day before one of his officers shot and killed 37-year-old Harith Augustus in South Shore, sparking days of protests in the predominantly Black neighborhood. He was the fifth person to be fatally shot by Chicago police this year.
Johnson’s department earned some praise after releasing the body cam video two days after the shooting, but it wasn’t enough to silence critics. Some activists renewed calls for police reforms, and there were criticisms from citizens fed up with seeing young Black males die in the hands of police.
Many are fed up with the Chicago Police Department and some are even fed up with Johnson. Activists and a growing chorus of critics accuse Johnson of being Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s puppet. It is said that Rahm appointed him in an attempt to restore his profile in the Black community. However, the release of the video reinforced what Johnson said days earlier during the Crusader interview.
“I found that you have to work with people. You can never operate in silence,” he said. “You can’t operate in silence. You just can’t because if you do it that way, transparency isn’t there.”
Johnson said Emanuel has been “a great partner with me in terms of crime fighting. Emanuel hired me to be the police superintendent, and he lets me do my job. We talk frequently about what’s going on, but he never says to me ‘I want you to do like that’…and I’m grateful for that.
“He’ll (the mayor) will ask me what I think about certain things, and I would tell him. At the end of the day, he’ll say, ‘Well you’re superintendent, you know it’s your call.’ He has supported me in my decisions. I don’t think he has an interest in running the police department. He has enough stuff to do.”
Critics may disagree. Six days before this interview, Johnson was on the Dan Ryan Expressway holding hands with Rev. Jesse Jackson and St. Sabina’s Fr. Michael Pfleger. The three led some 3,000 people who shut down the Dan Ryan.
Days before, Emanuel gave his support despite the wishes of Chicago Police First Deputy Supt. Anthony Riccio, who said it would take 200 or more police officers to shut down the Ryan to protect the marchers who accused the city of not doing enough to help stop crime.
“This wasn’t a political march,” Johnson said. “This was an anti-violence march. It was a march against crime in Black and Brown communities. If I can’t stand for anything, I should stand for that.
“You know, I might have a couple of years ago said, ‘If I ever became superintendent, the most frustrating thing would probably be politicians and the political meddling.’ But I have to say that hasn’t really affected me. The most frustrating thing about my job is that I see the gun violence in our communities first-hand.”
So far, this year, 244 people have been killed by gunfire. Some 1,284 people have been wounded.
“That’s why I commend the people that go out there and protest against violence. Any time you have a police-involved incident, you’ll see activists, clergy, community people, all over the media. We had a person killed yesterday. Did you hear anybody in the community say anything about it? [There was] Silence. You don’t see the anger in the community like you do when a police officer is involved in a shooting.”
Little did Johnson know how prophetic his words would be. Outrage over the shooting of Harith Augustus in South Shore by police the very next day fueled a tense few days of protest and calls for justice.
“I’m not tone deaf to things. As much as I would like to say CPD is perfect, we’re not. We’re people. When they make honest mistakes, they’re still going to be disciplined, but my job is to get them a mentoring coach and training that they need so they won’t repeat that. I think we are doing a better job at identifying those individuals. If you look at my track record since I became superintendent, I have separated quite a few others.”
Since 2016, Johnson has weathered a storm of criticism as the leader of the nation’s second- largest police force. He became Chicago’s fourth Black police superintendent. He replaced Garry McCarthy, who was fired a week after a video was released in November 2015, showing Officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 bullets into the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. After more than two years of pre-trial hearings, on July 17, a Cook County judge said that case will go to trial on September 5.
It became Chicago’s highest-profile shooting in decades and defined a difficult era for Emanuel, the Chicago Police Department and Johnson, a product of the Cabrini Green projects who spent 28 years on the force before a public campaign by Chicago’s Black leaders led to his appointment to the top spot on April 13, 2016.
However, during his tenure as superintendent, Johnson’s relationship with Black leadership has not always been rosy.
Earlier this year, he drew fire when he decided to keep Officer Robert Rialmo on the force after the Civilian Office of Police Accountability recommended termination, saying he was not justified when he killed 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier and 55-year-old Bettie Jones on Dec. 26, 2016. Johnson said Rialmo was trying to defend himself out of fear for his life.
“I think right now, in the world we live in right now, the biggest challenge is mitigating the anti-police narrative, not just in Chicago, but around the country,” Johnson said. “I think law enforcement, in general, [gets a bad rap] because anytime a police officer is involved in something, he’s wrong, and that’s simply not true.”
A scathing U.S. Department of Justice report in 2017 found that the Chicago police department often used excessive force on minorities and rarely disciplined its officers for misconduct. While Johnson said his department has already implemented reforms and is “way ahead” of where they have to be, the department has yet to enter a consent decree they promised to former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in January 2017.
“As a Black police superintendent, I understand the challenges in minority communities. The two biggest challenges I’ve had since becoming superintendent is restoring the trust the community has in this police department because, after all, they are clients and we actually work for them.”
Johnson is behind the city’s plan to build a $95 million police academy in West Garfield Park. The plan has been criticized by Black leaders who say the money should be used to improve neighborhoods and create programs that would better serve low-income neighborhoods.
“The police academy that we use right now was built in the 70s. We can’t rely on PowerPoints [presentations] and videos to train these officers. If we want them to be the best, we have to treat them like the best and part of that is providing the facility to train appropriately.
“I think people take for granted that police officers are people, too, with family, friends, colleagues; the same issues the everyday guy has. But at the end of the day, they would give their lives for the protection of this city.”