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EDITORIAL: The case for Eddie Johnson

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson was interviewed by Fran Spielman Friday, March 29, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s best choice for police superintendent might be the man already on the job, Eddie Johnson.

Lightfoot has said she expects to retain Johnson as superintendent at least through the summer, providing stability within the Chicago Police Department during that sweltering time of year that sees the most crime.

There’s a strong argument, though, that Johnson should be Lightfoot’s more permanent choice, despite questions about his past performance.

Chicago needs a top cop who is committed to police reform, to driving down the rate of violent crime, to soothing relations with alienated neighborhoods, and to maintaining the support of rank-and-file officers.

Since the City Council unanimously confirmed Johnson’s appointment by Mayor Rahm Emanuel three years ago this month, he’s done a pretty good job with all of the above.

Most significantly, violent crime in Chicago has decreased substantially during Johnson’s tenure, even if the crime rate remains a national embarrassment. As the Sun-Times reported this week, murders and shootings during the first quarter of 2019 were down from the same period in 2018, and the city has seen a 52 percent drop in murders over the last three years.

Crime rates ebb and flow for all kinds of reasons, good or bad police work being just one. But the steady decline has occurred on Johnson’s watch, and he deserves credit.

Johnson has also made his mark, for the better, in less obvious ways. Police body cameras have proliferated, making police work more transparent for the sake of officers and the public alike. More officers now have Tasers. Use-of-force rules have been rewritten.

Training reforms and new technology, including ShotSpotter, are in place. More than 2,000 new officers have been hired. And in moments of emotional trauma for the city, such as when there has been a questionable shooting by an officer, Johnson has been a sincere, steadying voice every time he walks up to a microphone.

In recent months, seven Chicago police officers have taken their own lives. In the past, such tragedies might have gone unaddressed by a department that admitted to no vulnerabilities. But Johnson, in a recent formal message to the department, assured every officer that “it is a sign of courage” to reach out for help. And he told his commanders that mental health wellness must be a top priority.

We also respect Johnson’s politically mature handling of the Jussie Smollett case. He was right to be furious that the Cook County state’s attorney’s office dropped all charges. And he’s right now when he says it’s “time to turn the page.”

Johnson has demonstrated an ability to lead effectively during an extremely difficult time for CPD. He has avoided becoming a focal point for anti-police sentiment, which is no small trick in this town, while pushing the department toward greater acceptance of a federal-court-monitored plan of reform. He initially did not favor the so-called consent decree, but he appears to be fully on board now.

Good police superintendents are hard to come by. The job is part police work, part politics and part social worker.

Lightfoot, who has been deeply involved in police reform efforts, knows this well.

Yes, the new mayor might do better than Johnson. But given his general effectiveness, why take that chance?

We say this knowing that serious questions swirl around Johnson’s past performance, issues that never were vetted because Emanuel did an end-around the Chicago Police Board when appointing him superintendent. The board carefully examined the records of other candidates for the job, but Johnson did not apply — so he was never as thoroughly vetted. Emanuel plucked Johnson, who then was chief of patrol, from relative obscurity.

Johnson was the on-call incident commander in 2012 when off-duty detective Dante Servin shot into a crowd of unarmed teens, killing Rekia Boyd. As The Intercept reported last November, police investigators under Johnson’s command waited six hours to give Servin a blood test to check his alcohol level. Police did not inspect or obtain a search warrant for security cameras directly overlooking the scene of the shooting. And Johnson supported Servin’s controversial decision to open fire.

When Johnson was commander of the Gresham District between 2008 and 2012, police under his command repeatedly were accused of misconduct and improper searches and arrests, according to a 2016 Injustice Watch report. In the years Johnson commanded the district, at least 15 federal lawsuits accused officers of illegal searches and arrests.

Johnson’s choice to lead his tactical team, Glenn Evans, had racked up more excessive force complaints between 1988 and 2008 than any other of 1,541 Chicago officers for whom the city provided data, according to data obtained by WBEZ.

But Chicago is evolving, as evidenced by Lightfoot’s election, and our sense is that Johnson has, too. Encouraged by Emanuel, Johnson seems to be questioning more frequently the traditional CPD mindset that says, “Cops don’t make mistakes, this is how it is done.”

For years, Johnson insisted he was unaware of a police code of silence, which was like saying he didn’t know cop uniforms were blue. But last month he acknowledged to the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman that some police officers “look the other way” when it comes to reporting police misconduct.

It was a small but telling shift by a superintendent who has been charged — first by Emanuel and now, perhaps, by Lightfoot — with retooling an entire culture.

In her victory speech on election night, Lightfoot emphasized the need to keep pushing down Chicago’s crime rate, and she praised the “brave” police.

The very next day, she made a point of meeting with Johnson.

At least through the summer, Johnson will likely continue to serve as Chicago’s police superintendent. What happens next is hard to say. Things can change quickly, and not for the better, in a few hot months.

But as we see it now, Lightfoot would be wise to keep Johnson on.

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