Lightfoot Fires Top Cop Weeks Before His Retirement, Accuses Him Of Lying To Her

Lightfoot and Johnson
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, left, stands with police Superintendent Eddie Johnson as he announces his retirement on Nov. 7, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lightfoot and Johnson
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, left, stands with police Superintendent Eddie Johnson as he announces his retirement on Nov. 7, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Lightfoot Fires Top Cop Weeks Before His Retirement, Accuses Him Of Lying To Her

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Updated at 6:03 p.m.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has fired the city’s top cop just weeks before his scheduled retirement after more than three decades with the Police Department.

In a news conference Monday, Lightfoot said police Superintendent Eddie Johnson had lied about an Oct. 17 incident in which he was found asleep inside his car.

“What he portrayed to me and what he portrayed to the public was fundamentally different than what the facts show,” Lightfoot said. “The underlying conduct itself was one that warranted this significant and serious action of relieving him of his role as superintendent.”

Lightfoot said she had fired Johnson in the morning but she did not provide details about his conduct, saying her comments could taint an investigation by Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office. She said it would also not be fair to Johnson’s wife and children.

Johnson, 59, last month said he was “not concerned” about that investigation as he told reporters at City Hall he was contemplating retirement. Days later he announced he would retire at the end of the year.

Lightfoot, meanwhile, said former Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck, 66, would take over as interim superintendent upon Johnson’s retirement and serve in the position until she and the Police Board chose a permanent CPD leader.

At Monday morning’s news conference, Lightfoot said Beck was on a flight to Chicago to begin the job ahead of schedule.

Beck, the first outsider in decades to serve as interim police superintendent, retired as Los Angeles’ top cop in 2018 after leading that department for nearly nine years. He is known for rehabbing the LAPD’s Rampart Division after a corruption scandal, embracing community policing, and leading his department to the end of a 12-year consent decree.

On Monday, Lightfoot called Johnson’s firing a “turning point” for CPD.

“Perhaps in years past, someone in Mr. Johnson’s circumstances would have been allowed to simply retire,” Lightfoot said. “Doing so today in these circumstances would have been inconsistent with who I am and with the kind of principled leadership I want to bring to the city.”

“The old Chicago way must give way to the new reality,” Lightfoot said. “Ethical leadership, integrity, accountability, legitimacy and, yes, honesty, must be the hallmarks of city government. There must be no mistake about the message I’m sending today.”

On thin ice for months

Johnson’s fate had been a topic of discussion in City Hall and within law-enforcement circles since former Mayor Rahm Emanuel dropped his reelection bid more than a year ago.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a leading candidate to replace Emanuel, vowed to fire Johnson if she won the race.

But Lightfoot, who defeated Preckwinkle and took office in May, said she would keep Johnson as top cop through summer — the annual peak of Chicago gun violence. She said his future from there would be the subject of a “conversation.”

Johnson’s fate was sealed, sources say, after the driving incident, in which the officers found him asleep in the vehicle at 12:30 a.m.

On the job later that day, Johnson told reporters he had failed to take his blood-pressure medication.

But Lightfoot later said he had told her he had consumed alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

The incident prompted the inspector general’s investigation, which is focusing on Johnson’s conduct and questions including why the responding officers did not give him a field sobriety test and why they allowed him to drive home.

Within days, Johnson came under attack for a different reason. The Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents roughly 12,000 rank-and-file Chicago officers warned on its Facebook page that Johnson’s decision to skip a planned Chicago speech by President Donald Trump “would be an insult” to the presidency and “would be a mark of disgrace upon the city throughout the entire nation, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot.”

A day later, the union posted a one-sentence statement that its board of directors had “issued a vote of no confidence against” the superintendent — a symbolic move that nonetheless captured much attention.

Johnson hit back with a statement of his own: “As police officers, our job is to be the voice for the voiceless and ambassadors to the communities that we serve. I can’t in good conscience stand by while racial insults and hatred are cast from the Oval Office, or Chicago is held hostage because of our views on New Americans.”

Lightfoot, meanwhile, tried to tamp down speculation she was planning to dump Johnson anytime soon. In a City Council speech, she credited his leadership for a drop in the city’s crime over the previous two years.

After learning of the dismissal Monday, several aldermen praised Lightfoot’s handling of Johnson.

“We don’t know what the story is,” Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th Ward, said, “but for whatever reason there’s a lot that went on and the mayor isn’t going to have anyone lying to her.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, said the mayor had been “consistent on how she’s trying to run her administration.”

“The coverup is worse than the mistake and that’s what you’re seeing right here,” said Villegas, the mayor’s floor leader.

His rise to top cop

Johnson, a lifelong Chicagoan, was raised until age 9 in Cabrini-Green, a former North Side public housing complex. He joined CPD in 1988 and spent seven years as a sergeant in the detective division before rising fast through the ranks.

In 2015, Johnson had been the department’s patrol chief for less than a year when a Cook County judge ordered the city to release the dashcam video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting. A public outcry about the video sent Emanuel into a political crisis.

A week later, Emanuel fired Supt. Garry McCarthy.

The city’s Police Board, led by Lightfoot, conducted a nationwide search and recommended three candidates. In an unusual move, however, Emanuel rejected all three and tapped Johnson, who had not even applied for the job.

When Johnson took over the department in March 2016, the city’s low-income neighborhoods were suffering from an historic surge in gun violence, community trust in the Police Department was at a low point due to the McDonald killing and other high-profile shootings by officers, and rank-and-file officers complained of low morale as they faced increased criticism and scrutiny.

During his first weeks as top cop, Johnson was widely mocked after he told a Chicago TV reporter he had never witnessed officer misconduct firsthand in his 27 years on the force.

“I’ve actually never encountered police misconduct because, you got to understand, officers that commit misconduct don’t do it in front of people that they think are going to hold them accountable for it,” Johnson said. “But now that I’m sitting in this chair, if I come across it, I will deal with it accordingly.”

Johnson also appeared before a City Council hearing and said his “No. 1 goal” was to “get the trust of the community back.”

“I’ve already reached out to several of our younger activists,” Johnson told aldermen. “I might not agree with everything they say but I can tell you this: They’re Chicagoans and they deserve to have their voices heard also. So I think that, the more that we listen to everybody, we can get closer to a solution to drive some this violence down.”

On his watch

But the violence did not let up.

In September 2016, with Emanuel’s blessing, Johnson announced a two-year plan to expand the department’s sworn personnel by 1,000 officers.

“When we get done with this thing,” Johnson vowed at a hearing before aldermen that fall, “CPD is going to be a model for the rest of the country in terms of the training, in terms of our professionalism, in terms of our cultural diversity.”

But when it came time for the hiring, whites got nearly twice as many of the jobs as African Americans, according to a WBEZ analysis of city personnel data. As the department grew, black representation in CPD actually decreased.

Along with increasing boots on the ground, Johnson embraced new technology, including high-tech centers set up in police stations to analyze new gunshot-detection sensors and video surveillance.

Johnson, unlike most of his predecessors as top cop, also embraced working with community groups that employed ex-offenders to reach out to gangs, mediate deadly conflicts and connect the highest-risk individuals to social services and jobs.

The gun-violence surge was finally subsiding by August 2017.

On another front — implementing a court-mandated agreement to reform the city’s policing — Johnson’s performance has been anything but clear.

The agreement, which stemmed from a U.S. Justice Department investigation following the McDonald video release, took effect this past March.

A report last month by the independent monitor overseeing the reforms said the city is failing to meet most of the deadlines.

At her news conference Monday, Lightfoot made it clear that Johnson might be just the first top CPD official on the way out as Beck takes the department’s helm.

“I’m aware that some people are going to be retiring,” Lightfoot said.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Tony Arnold and Claudia Morell report for WBEZ about politics. WBEZ criminal justice reporter Patrick Smith contributed. Follow them at @ChipMitchell1, @tonyjarnold, @claudiamorell and @pksmid.

A date in this story has been corrected. Police Supt. Eddie Johnson addressed aldermen about the CPD expansion in the fall of 2016.