CPD chief fields pointed questions at Austin townhall meeting

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Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson talks to reporters Wednesday evening outside Hope Community Church in the Austin neighborhood. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

A news helicopter hovered overhead as Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson entered Hope Community Church on Wednesday, but the chief himself made little news.

The copter was circling the scene of a shooting at a convenience store about three blocks from the Austin church. A teenage boy was wounded, according to witnesses.

Johnson was on hand at Hope Community for a townhall meeting with Austin residents hosted by Rev. Steve Epting Sr. and County Board Member Richard Boykin.

Media members were not allowed inside the church for the two-hour meeting, which included a question-and-answer session that several residents said featured pointed questions for Johnson. His ascent to the head of the department comes after months of turmoil for the Chicago Police Department in the wake of the release of video of the Laquan McDonald shooting last November.

Johnson has been on something of a listening tour across the city, which has seen a spike in shootings and homicides as the department copes with backlash from activists; an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice; and a damning report from a mayoral task force that found the department showed a pattern of systemic racism.

“One of the thing I’ve been hearing from the community is they do want the police to be in their neighborhood, but they just want to be treated with respect, and for police to be professional,” Johnson said as he paused before a throng of reporters outside the church.

“If we can go in that direction, then we’ll go a long way to solving some of the issues that we have in the city,” he said.

Including the shooting in the 5700 block of Augusta that happened shortly before Johnson’s townhall meeting, the Austin police district has seen nearly 50 more shootings over the first four months of the year than during the same period last year, Cmdr. Dwayne Betts said.

The surge is part of a citywide increase in violence that began even before video of 17-year-old McDonald being gunned down by a CPD officer was made public. Nearly two dozen murders in Austin since the beginning of this year mark the highest number of any neighborhood in the city.

Walter Gray said the rising violence and the issues of police accountability that have come to a head in the aftermath of the McDonald shooting leaves Johnson with much work to do. Gray, who has lived in Austin for 25 years, left Wednesday’s meeting unsure whether the new chief was up to the task.

“You can’t expect things to change just because they put a new cat in there,” Gray said. “I asked him about the officers that shot [McDonald], that lied about what was on the video, and the [police union] contract. “I told him you’re going to need to have the community involved when they negotiate a new union contract.”

Mildred Wiley, who said she was a “public meeting addict,” said she had attended several meetings of the Police Board that had largely been platforms for protesters and activists to loudly voice their disapproval of the police. Wednesday’s meeting was more civil, which pleased Wiley.

“That was how it had to be, the community was hurting and it had to come out,” Wiley said. “With more transparency and openness, I have to believe things can get better.”

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