Updated at 11:37 a.m. Nov. 7, 2019
Eddie Johnson took over a Chicago Police Department that was facing a historic spike in gun violence, an eroded trust with minority communities and an uproar among rank-and-file officers over increased criticism and scrutiny.
Three and a half years later, Johnson said he’s leaving the department in better shape.
“It’s time for someone else to pin these four stars to their shoulders,” Johnson said Thursday. “These stars can sometimes feel like carrying the weight of the world, but I’m confident I leave CPD in a better place than when I became superintendent.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised Johnson’s work.
“I know this decision wasn’t an easy one,” Lightfoot said. “Over three decades, the only employer he has had is the people of the city of Chicago.”
Johnson, 59, will stay on until the end of the year, and Lightfoot said she and others in the city will work to “outline a plan for a smooth and orderly transition.” She did not talk about a possible successor, but WBEZ has learned that former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is the leading candidate to take over as interim superintendent while the Chicago Police Board conducts a search for a permanent replacement.
Despite public praise from the mayor on Thursday, sources said Johnson’s fate was sealed after police found him asleep in his car at 12:30 a.m. Oct. 17. Johnson told reporters he failed to take his blood-pressure medication, but Lightfoot soon revealed that Johnson admitted that he’d had a “couple drinks with dinner.” Johnson, however, said his decision had nothing to do with the incident.
In recent weeks, Johnson had also come under withering ridicule from President Donald Trump, both on Twitter and in a Chicago speech that Johnson boycotted to a conference of police chiefs in which Trump called the city a haven for criminals.
Johnson’s retirement ends at 31-year career at the Police Department. An African American man who spent his early childhood living in one of the city’s most notorious public housing projects, Johnson held just about every rank in his more than three decades career on the force.
Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi tweeted that Johnson is a “true son of Chicago who grew up in public housing & went to public schools [and] went on to become one of our most dedicated public servants.”
He joined CPD as a patrolman in 1988 and later spent seven years as a sergeant in the detective division. He quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the department’s highest-ranking members.
But with the promotions came controversy. Johnson was the chief of patrol when a judge ordered the city to release a dashcam video that showed Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times in the middle of a Southwest Side street. Johnson later admitted to watching the recording after the shooting.
The video shattered public trust in the Police Department, and set off a political crisis that eventually led to Johnson’s promotion to the city’s top cop.
Under pressure, Emanuel fired Superintendent Garry McCarthy and turned to the city’s Police Board to conduct a nationwide search. The board, which at the time was led by Lightfoot, recommended three candidates, but Emanuel rejected all three and instead tapped Johnson — who had not even applied.
Johnson took over in March 2016. His willingness to show his human side helped him weather difficult times and endeared him to both his department and the city. He became emotional when he faced the press to talk about the shooting death of a longtime commander, and close friend, Paul Bauer. And he had the city rooting for him when he had a kidney transplant.
“This job has taken its toll,” Johnson said. “It’s taken a toll on my health, my family, my friends. But my integrity remains intact.”
He also famously showed his anger when he announced the arrest of actor Jussie Smollett, casting what he said was Smollett’s staged racist attack as an attack on the city itself. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office later dropped the charges, prompting a rebuke from Johnson.
On Thursday, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx issued a statement praising Johnson’s work. “This work calls for tremendous sacrifice, and I am grateful for Superintendent Johnson’s collaborative partnership and mutual respect as we worked to increase public safety and end the cycle of violence in our communities,” the statement said.
As superintendent, Johnson came up with a two-year plan to expand the department’s sworn personnel by 1,000 officers. The department hit that goal at the end of 2018.
The city has seen reductions in shootings the past three years following a bloody 2016 where more than 750 people were killed. This year, murder numbers are about back to about where they were in 2015, before Johnson took over.
Johnson was also the superintendent when the Department of Justice issued a blistering report that found Chicago police officers are poorly trained, misconduct investigations are largely biased toward cops and officers were not properly supervised.
Johnson, over the police union’s objections, supported a court-enforced plan to reform the department.
Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who campaigned as a reformer, will look for a replacement who also will enforce the plan.
In the short term, the city could turn to Beck, who retired as Los Angeles’ top cop last year. Beck is known as an architect of key reforms in that city’s police department.
Beck, who spent nine years leading LAPD, was also known for improving police-community relations, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.