Top Cop Defends Tenure And Wins Key Support

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson
Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has faced criticism for not objecting to a police narrative that officer Jason Van Dyke’s fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald was justified. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson
Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has faced criticism for not objecting to a police narrative that officer Jason Van Dyke’s fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald was justified. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Top Cop Defends Tenure And Wins Key Support

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Updated Thursday, October 24, 10:25 a.m.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson won some sympathy from religious leaders at a Wednesday afternoon meeting in which the top cop defended his leadership amid speculation he could be on the way out.

Some West Side pastors called the meeting to grill Johnson about his response to Laquan McDonald’s shooting — a response detailed in records released this month by the city.

Johnson also faces questions about why he was found last week sleeping in his police vehicle. Mayor Lori Lightfoot disclosed to the Chicago Sun-Times that Johnson told her he had consumed alcohol that night.

But Wednesday, Johnson won some allies.

“I don’t believe that this superintendent has had a chance to speak to the masses about what he really believes, what he really feels,” Bishop Larry Trotter of the South Side’s Sweet Holy Spirit Church said after the meeting, held behind closed doors in a church in the Austin neighborhood. “If what he says is true, we really have a hero and not somebody who has failed.”

The meeting, held with about 15 pastors and rabbis, was a redo of a planned gathering last Friday for which Johnson arrived more than an hour late. Most of the clergy, tired of waiting, had left.

Johnson, speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s meeting, revealed new details about his response to the shooting, which took place in October 2014 when he was a deputy patrol chief.

“I was never interviewed,” Johnson said of a city investigation, which examined the alleged police cover-up for Jason Van Dyke, the officer who fired the 16 shots. “The reason why I was never interviewed is because I never had a role in it.”

Johnson disputed a lieutenant’s characterization of a meeting about 10 days after the shooting as part of CPD’s formal review of the incident. The lieutenant, Osvaldo Valdez, said under oath to investigators with Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office that Johnson watched the now-infamous dashcam video of the shooting with other members of the department’s command staff and that the meeting’s purpose was “to review the video and understand that 16 shots was justified.”

“Everyone [at the meeting] agreed that Jason Van Dyke used the force necessary to eliminate the threat,” Valdez said, according to a transcript of his interview with the IG’s office.

But Johnson on Wednesday said, when he saw the video, the purpose was not to voice opinions on whether the shooting was justified but, rather, “to look at training and equipment issues.”

Johnson also disputed the number of attendees at that meeting. “It was myself and then-Chief of Patrol Wayne Gulliford — two people, not a group,” Johnson said.

Johnson said on Wednesday he found the video “troubling” but said he did not express that to Gulliford, his supervisor at the time.

Asked whether he regrets not speaking up, Johnson said “it’s easy to go back five years and come up with different things but all I can say is, look at what I’ve done” since becoming superintendent in 2016.

During his first months as top cop, Johnson pointed out, he recommended several officers for dismissal in the alleged cover-up.

Some of the pastors condemned his handling of a different police shooting — the 2015 slaying of Quintonio LeGrier, 19, and LeGrier’s neighbor, Bettie Jones, 55, by Officer Robert Rialmo in the West Garfield Park neighborhood.

Johnson opposed a city agency’s recommendation to dismiss Rialmo but was overruled by the Police Board, which voted last week to fire the officer.

Despite Johnson’s handling of Rialmo, according to Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Church in East Garfield Park, the superintendent made headway with the clergy.

“We do come away understanding the enormous pressure that Superintendent Johnson has to be under as an African American superintendent over this department,” Hatch said.

Hatch declined to say whether he believes Johnson was the right person to lead police reforms spelled out in a consent decree enforceable by a federal judge.

“That’s the mayor’s decision,” Hatch said. “At this point, she hasn’t given us any reason not to trust that she’s up to the job of making the right decision on the direction of this department.”

During a Wednesday speech on her 2020 budget plan, Lightfoot did not address Johnson’s fate but credited his “leadership” for a drop in crime since a nearly-two-year gun violence surge began to subside in 2017.

The religious leaders said they did not ask Johnson about his driving incident, which took place around 12:30 a.m. last Thursday. Later that day, Johnson blamed the incident on his failure to take his blood pressure medication.

As Johnson met with the religious leaders, Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward, said at City Hall that the superintendent’s initial failure to admit he had been drinking that night has raised questions among police officers and the community.

“I think he should have disclosed it,” said Beale, former chair of the City Council committee focused on the police department.

“Right now there’s a level of confidence at this particular time that the superintendent needs to address,” Beale said.

Johnson has also come under increasing attack from the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents rank-and-file Chicago officers. The union posted a one-sentence statement on its Facebook page that its board of directors on Wednesday “issued a vote of no confidence against” the superintendent.

Lodge officials declined to comment on that vote but an earlier FOP posting says a Johnson decision to skip a speech by President Donald Trump in Chicago next week “would be an insult” to both the president and his office “and would be a mark of disgrace upon the city throughout the entire nation, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot.”

Johnson released a statement in response.

“While today’s decision is from the Board and not the active FOP membership, I understand and respect that the Lodge is upset about the decision to not stand with the president,” the statement says.

“As police officers, our job is to be the voice for the voiceless and ambassadors to the communities that we serve,” Johnson’s statement adds. “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.”

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. WBEZ politics reporter Claudia Morell contributed. Follow them at @ChipMitchell1 and @claudiamorell.