Transcript: Supt. Eddie Johnson talks with Mary Mitchell about Rialmo decision

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Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson sits down for a conversation with columnist Mary Mitchell at the Chicago Sun-Times, Wednesday morning, April 4, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson sat down Wednesday with columnist Mary Mitchell to discuss his conclusion that Officer Robert Rialmo was “justified” in the killing of Quintonio LeGrier and neighbor Bettie Jones in response to a 911 call.

Johnson has encountered backlash and disappointment from community leaders about his decision to reject the Civilian Office of Police Accountability’s recommendation to fire the officer.

In a column, Mitchell wrote that his decision showed that “police officers can still shoot black people with immunity.” Johnson told Mitchell that as an African-American man who grew up in Chicago, he understands the disappointment in his decision, but as a police officer he puts his emotions aside to review use-of-force incidents.

Watch the video or read the transcript of Johnson and Mitchell’s conversation below.

Mitchell: So superintendent thank you so much for agreeing to come and I really appreciate that.

Johnson:Not a problem.

Mitchell: I know that my last column that I wrote was an express in my disappointment over a decision that you had made rejecting the Civilian Office of Police Accountability recommendation that Officer Robert Rialmo be separated from the Department for the fatal shootings of 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier and 55 year old Betty Jones. Rialmo was on a 911 call when all of these events happened and one of the things that has bothered me about this case is that it’s such a tragedy. You know no matter how you look at it two lives were lost. And I know you have done a lot of work trying to bridge trust and build, rebuild trust with the communities in the wake of the Laquan McDonald another fatal shooting by a police officer, trying to rebuild that trust. This thing, this decision that seemed to go against everything that you have been trying to do really affected me. So I just wanted you to come in and kind of talk about how you came to that decision. I understand you may be constrained because there are lawsuits involved and lawyers involved but could you give us a sense of how did you come to that conclusion.

Johnson: Sure. You know first of all I think we should acknowledge the significance of today with Martin Luther King because I think it’s important for us to recognize him for myself personally. I wouldn’t be the superintendent of the second largest department in this country without the sacrifice that he makes. I just want to acknowledge that firstly.

In general this is what I would say you know I think that the things we’ve accomplished in the last two years shouldn’t be ignored. You know and I understand the disappointment of people. You know I’m an African-American man first that grew up in the city of Chicago and I’m also a police officer so I look at it from both viewpoints and I understand the disappointment that people have and the emotions and the hurt that goes into situations like this. But in all honesty at the end of the day I have to fight my own emotions sometimes when I’m reviewing situations regardless of what it is. Anytime a police officer is involved in an incident in this city I have to take a careful review of that. You know I have to fight my own emotions, I can’t let political pressure be involved in my decision making or, or public pressure.

Mitchell: Or editorial boards

Johnson: Or editorial boards. So I simply do a few things I have to base my decisions on any incident based on the facts of what happened, the evidence, the law department policy and the training that we provide. Those are the factors that factor into my decision.

Mitchell: OK so what’s the process though. What happens first when it goes to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. They make their decision they say he should be fired. What’s the next step?

Johnson: OK so what happens is, you’re absolutely right. COPA, they do the investigation because as we all know the police department we don’t investigate our own use of force incidents. So COPA investigates it and they make a recommendation which they send to the superintendent, which right now is me.

Mitchell: OK.

Johnson: After that the superintendent will either concur or not concur and send that recommendation back to COPA. If there’s a disagreement. Then what happens is the head of COPA and the superintendent has a conversation to see if we can come to a mutual agreement. If we don’t…

Mitchell: You’re not at that stage yet or are you at at that stage?

Johnson: We’re at that stage now.

Mitchell:OK

Johnson: So what happens then, if we still disagree then it goes to a one person board member of the police board who would either mitigate it then or send it on to the full police board who then has the authority to fire the police officer involved in any incident. So at the end of the day I’ll only make recommendations, I still don’t have the authority to fire a policer.

Mitchell: But if you were to agree with COPA from the outset then it would be a done deal.

Johnson: Not necessarily. It would go to the police board, they could still look at the facts and if they determine that every…

Mitchell: If the police board doesn’t agree with COPA and doesn’t agree with you?

Johnson: Then they still have the authority to fire a police officer.

Mitchell: So what’s been the reaction. I’ve spent a lot of, I mean this came to me at the worst possible time because you remember we’re talking about this now when people in Sacramento are mourning and protesting the shooting of another young black man, Stephon Clark. You know it’s just one of these things that just all the timing just seemed outrageously bad you know. So what has been the community reaction to your part of it, your recommendation?

Johnson: Mary I’ll tell you this. A lot of people are disappointed. You know but at the same time even the ones that have expressed disappointment still say to me you know we know you’re doing the best job that you can and we’re going to trust that you made a decision based on what you know. So they said although I’m disappointed with the decision. I still think you’re doing a great job and we need you to keep doing what you’re doing.

Mitchell: And you still enjoy the support of the Black Caucus and aldermen. And people have been on your, really have been part of your fans, I’d like to say. You still have their support.

Johnson: Yes. You know I tell you Mary, at the end of the day any time a police officer is involved in something I have to make a decision. And you know it’s always going to be some people that are disappointed in a decision no matter which way it goes you know and that’s just a burden I have to carry as the police superintendent.

Mitchell: Have you been able to meet with any of the community groups? You know I know that you’ve been very close to activists. You’ve listened to them. You’ve heard them when they have complaints they feel like they can come in and talk to you. Have you, have you heard from them?

Johnson: Yes I have. I’ve spoken to quite a few of them. And they understand, you know so I think that it’s a process that’s in place because, you know like I said before the process is in place for a reason.

So you know civilian oversight is important to the police department because that’s how we get better, you know. So the decision is made by a few entities and then ultimately goes to a civilian entity to make their final decision. So you know the people that have supported me along the way, they may be disappointed in how this is going right now but they still have told me that they still support.

Mitchell: Can you talk a little bit about the whole police reform effort that’s been underway really since the Laquan McDonald shooting.

Johnson: Sure.

Mitchell: Could you talk about that.

Johnson: So you know last year, I have to point out that we did something last year that has never been done in the history of CPD. And it goes towards the whole reform transformation of the Chicago Police Department. Our use of force policy was put out for the first time for public comment as well as police officer comment. And we didn’t just put it out once, we put it out twice and a lot of that feedback went into shaping our current use of force policy. So that policy went into effect at the end of last year. So now any incident involving a police officer will be governed by the new use of force policy. So the policy changes as well as the training changed. And I think that that’s important because you can change policies all day long but unless you give police officers the training up to date training that they need then it’s just kind of wagging your lips a little bit.

Mitchell: So the training, is this training in any way focused on mental illness because that was one of the issues involved in the Quintonio LeGrier case, was a mental illness episode. Are police officers getting better training to deal with that?

Johnson: Absolutely. So you know our new use of force policy highlights the sanctity of life and de-escalation and as well as crisis intervention training for a lot of police officers. Now, national experts say that a department our size should be up at about 31 to 34 percent trained up on crisis intervention training. And we’re almost at that mark now. We started that training last year. So I think it’s important that we give officers the tools necessary to be able to identify situations like that so that they can properly handle.

Mitchell: Are there any next steps you can share with us in the reform?

Johnson: Sure. So moving into this year, you know we kind of laid out our plan last year. Now what we’re doing is every every police officer on CPD will now receive force mitigation training and that’s at the heart of our new use of force policy. So that will train everybody how to deescalate situations because before officers are trained to use one level of force higher than they were met with, now we’ve kind of highlighted the sanctity of life and de-escalation. So I think that’s very important for people to understand, and now the training is appropriate for that type of thinking. So we’re changing the way we think and the way that we actually handle incidents of that nature.

This year we’re also formally launching our force review panel. And what that is, is leadership within the police department will now review all use of force incidents.

You know and we look at things although we don’t look at them to say whether or not the incident was justified or not justified. What we can do is look at it to see if we need better training if we need more equipment or tactical issues so that we can jump on those issues right away and not wait. So I think that that’s really important to ensure that we get the officers the proper training and that we keep the public safe. The third thing we’re doing is we’re emphasizing our crisis intervention training so that’s the CIT trained I talked about earlier. So that that will better prepare officers to deal with and identify people in mental health crisis.

Mitchell: Ok. Those will be the citizens on the street. Are you doing anything to deal with maybe issues that the police officers might be having. You know in their own lives, in their own personal lives, are you doing anything to treat that?

Johnson: Yes I’m glad you brought that up you know because for years I think law enforcement as a group didn’t recognize that the police officers are our most precious asset and we just didn’t, because it’s such a macho profession, we just didn’t think about officer’s wellness. So now this year we’re highlighting mental wellness and physical wellness because we want them to be at 100 peak efficiency when they have encounters with the public because police officers are not robots. There are people who have the same trials and tribulations that anybody else would have. So I think as a department we owe it to them and we owe it to the citizens to make sure they’re properly ready mentally and physically when they hit the street.

Mitchell: That’s good. You know the other thing that I want to ask you while I have you here is you’ve expressed some concerns about how much power a committee like or a panel like COPA might have in terms of determining policing strategy and how the police responds in situations involving the community. Why do you think that a civilian accountability panel like COPA shouldn’t have that kind of responsibility.

Johnson: Well listen Mary. I’m one person that embraces oversight and civilian voices in our department. Look, I’m an African-American I grew up in this city and I love this city, you know and I’ve seen things in this city that just didn’t sit right with me. So I recognize that civilians should have a voice in how they are policed by the police department because like I said before I think CPD should be a police department that everybody can be proud of not just me and the mayor. You know so I think that there is a place for civilian voices to be heard. You know but now when you get into making policy and strategies I think you need people that are professional in that realm. But I absolutely think that they need a seat at the table so that they have a voice in how we’re policing. And that’s why all of our major policies from this point forward, starting with the use of force policy, that’s why it’s being put out for public input because I want to know what people think.

You know when I go out on the street people tell me things and people won’t believe this but a lot of the things that I hear when I’m out in the community, I implement some of those things.

Mitchell: Alright. Well thank you so much. Thank you so much for coming in. How are you feeling because you’re looking great.

Johnson: I feel great, thanks for asking. Listen, I think that people need to know that I really really care deeply about this city, the police department and the citizens. And you know the emotions of what goes on does not escape me. It doesn’t. You know but I appreciate you asking me how I feel you know I just want CPD to be something that this city can be proud of. Thank you very much. Thank you.

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