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New top cop insists he will be independent of City Hall

Eddie Johnson speaks to the media Monday after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he was appointing him interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s surprise pick to become the next top cop said Monday that his goal is to restore the public’s trust in the Chicago Police Department while maintaining his independence of City Hall.

“The central challenge facing Chicago is trust,” said Eddie Johnson, later insisting that he has “complete autonomy” to run the department despite City Hall’s recent history of micromanaging it.

Johnson, a 27-year veteran, was the department’s chief of patrol.

Emanuel rejected the three finalists presented by the Chicago Police Board. The mayor’s talks with finalist Cedric Alexander, public safety director of a suburban Atlanta department and a CNN commentator, fell through last week. Johnson wasn’t even among the 39 people who applied for the job.

In a news conference at Chicago police headquarters announcing his decision to install Johnson as interim superintendent, Emanuel praised his “command, character and capability to lead the department at this critical juncture.”

“He will lead from the front by ensuring he and his team have our officers’ back,” the mayor said, adding that Johnson will “build bridges” with the community.

Emanuel also lauded John Escalante, who had served as interim superintendent since early December when the mayor fired Supt. Garry McCarthy.

McCarthy got the boot because of the outrage over the city’s belated decision to release a video showing a Chicago Police officer fatally shooting unarmed black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, is now charged with murder.

READ MORE: If Police Board conducts second top cop search, who would apply?

This year, the department has been grappling with a surge in violent crime with more than 130 murders — nearly 85 percent more than the same period of 2015.

“My expectation is to reduce this gun violence here and now,” Johnson said.

After the news conference, Johnson said he will be independent of City Hall.

“The mayor knows and I know that the police superintendent has to have complete autonomy and independence from City Hall, and I have it,” Johnson said, stressing that he made the decision to install Escalante as his first deputy superintendent.

Since he took office in 2011, Emanuel has been accused of micromanaging the police department, unlike his predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Morale among rank-and-file officers has been shattered because of the additional scrutiny of their conduct following the release of McDonald video, which also sparked a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the department.

Johnson said he “welcomed” that investigation.

“Countless incidents of courage and professionalism far outweigh a few examples of excessive force,” he said. “Nevertheless, these incidents, no matter how isolated, undermine our entire department and the relationship with the community.

“We have to own it and we have to end it. Let me say that again: we have to own it and we have to end it,” Johnson said.

Emanuel said Johnson will “lead by example,” including his unusual decision to wear a body camera when he’s out on the streets — like his officers will be expected to do. Johnson has also told his command staff that they, too, will be expected to wear the cameras.

The department is expected to soon expand its use of body cameras from one district to six more of the department’s 22 districts.

Emanuel said Johnson’s name was frequently mentioned as a prime candidate for superintendent during the mayor’s conversations with aldermen, ministers and other community members.

The mayor said one example of Johnson’s community involvement is the “Peace in the Park After Dark” program that he helped launch in 2010. In the program, children have played games and camped overnight in Nat King Cole Park in Chatham to show community solidarity following the fatal shooting of Officer Thomas Wortham IV in the South Side neighborhood.

Johnson emphasized that he’s a Chicagoan as well as a department insider — and will “lead from the inside out.”

“It’s an honor to serve you. I am one of you. I grew up here. I raised my kids here,” he said.

Fred Waller, another department insider touted as a candidate for superintendent, will replace Johnson as chief of patrol.

The City Council’s Black and Hispanic caucuses have both claimed some credit for the mayor’s end-run around the board in selecting Johnson. They had pressured the mayor to choose someone from inside the department to boost police morale and restore community trust.

Dean Angelo, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the union had rooted for Escalante and another insider, Eugene Williams, to become superintendent, but Johnson’s surprise appointment was still welcomed.

“The last thing the rank-and-file wanted to see was another outsider coming in and running the department,” Angelo said.

Angelo said he dealt with Johnson on scheduling issues and “we were able to work it out.”

“Will we agree on everything? Certainly not. But I do believe we will be able to work together and that morale-wise, having someone from within our ranks will be positive,” he said.

The mayor said he thinks Johnson is the right man to do that and quell the bloodshed in Chicago.

“We have a challenge right now — specifically, but not limited, to the South and the West side — where we have a level of shooting and a level of gun violence that’s unacceptable and must come to an end, and it means that we have to have leadership that can lead from the front and get our officers’ morale not only up but our violence down,” Emanuel said, pounding the dais.

“I believe Eddie Johnson has all of those qualities, and more.”