Newly appointed Chicago Police Interim Supt. Eddie Johnson loved Cabrini-Green when he was a little boy.
The Near North Side public-housing development where he lived was verdant, and the neighborhood was tight-knit.
But everything changed.
In the late 1960s, Johnson grew accustomed to hearing gunfire every night.
“My parents were really good at sheltering us,” he said.
Then one summer day, he was on a playground with his brother while his dad watched from their apartment.
“And this guy — he was a lot older than us — this guy burned my older brother with a flare. And I remember my dad coming down to get us. That’s when I knew my father was a strong man. Because he took control of that situation.”
The man who burned Johnson’s brother was Johnny Veal, who is now serving a 150-year sentence for the sniper murders of Chicago Police Officers Anthony Rizzato and James Severin at Cabrini-Green.
On Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced Johnson as Chicago’s top cop. Johnson said that summer day in the ‘60s when his brother was burned was a formative moment for him as a future police officer.
“Knowing that my dad protected us gave me the sense that that was my obligation to people,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday.
Johnson, 55, is taking the helm of the Police Department at a time of remarkable bloodshed on Chicago’s streets. During the interview Thursday, he was notified that several people were shot in the Harrison District on the West Side.
At least 135 people in Chicago were killed in the first quarter of 2016 alone.
It was the worst first quarter for murder since 1999, and a more than 70 percent rise in killings over the same period of 2015, according to the department.
Crime is also way up across the city in every other major category, according to department statistics.
Even in the three North Side police districts where no one has been murdered this year, crime has spiraled out of control. In the Near North District, which includes River North, the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, robberies are up 75 percent and aggravated battery is up more than 180 percent.
One theory for the spike in crime is that officers have not been getting out of their cars and engaging with citizens as aggressively as they did in the past because of the intense spotlight on them in recent months.
Officers have been required to document their stops in greater detail as a result of an agreement between the department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
Also, outrage over a video showing an officer fatally shooting a knife-wielding teen 16 times prompted the Justice Department to investigate the police. Federal investigators are preparing to go on ride-alongs with police officers, monitoring their conduct.
Johnson’s challenge will be to motivate his officers to start doing aggressive police work again while ensuring that citizens’ civil-rights are protected.
“I do believe we have to hold officers accountable,” he said, noting that the department is designing a new system to flag officers who could become disciplinary problems.
Johnson doesn’t seem to have any major problems in his background.
He and another officer were sued in federal court in 1996, records show. But Johnson said the man was upset they stopped him because he fit the description of a man with a gun. The man then filed a “nuisance” excessive-force complaint, and the city reached a legal settlement for a minor dollar figure, he said.
Johnson, a divorced father of three college graduates, still lives in Washington Heights on the South Side, where he moved after his family left Cabrini-Green when he was 9.
“I talk to other residents. They complain that they don’t see African-Americans stepping up to the plate and taking their communities back,” said Johnson, who is black.
Johnson pledged to push judges and legislators to get tougher on repeat gun offenses, pleas that have fallen on deaf ears in the past under Emanuel’s tenure.
“I know guys that are on the other side of the law that tell me, point blank, as long as they can get out of jail in a couple of days for carrying a gun, they are going to do it — until they feel like there’s a four- or five-year prison sentence waiting for them for doing it,” Johnson said.
Johnson is taking over from John Escalante, who had been named interim superintendent after Emanuel fired Supt. Garry McCarthy on Dec. 1, following public outrage over the video of Laquan McDonald being shot.
The Chicago Police Board had conducted a national search to replace McCarthy. Escalante was one of the 39 applicants, but Johnson said he didn’t apply out of respect for Escalante.
Emanuel refused to select any of the three finalists, instead picking Johnson, who he said would “lead from the front.” Johnson has selected Escalante as his No. 2 man.
During his brief time as top cop, Escalante had modified several of McCarthy’s strategies, including his CompStat crime-analysis program and a program that puts rookie officers in high-crime “impact zones.” Johnson said he doesn’t intend to tinker with Escalante’s changes. And Johnson didn’t announce any new crime strategies Thursday.
Johnson insisted that he’ll stay independent of aldermen and the mayor in carrying out internal changes in the department.
“Let’s face it,” Johnson said. “Everyone has a boss. I have to answer to the mayor. When I want things done, I have to go through him. In terms of internal decisions, that should be myself, the first deputy and the command staff making those decisions.”
Johnson also said he would not launch a massive replacement of district commanders like McCarthy and prior Supt. Jody Weis did, saying he values stability.
The soft-spoken Johnson, who counts the humble former Chicago Police Supt. Terry Hillard as a mentor, will offer a sharp contrast to his brash predecessor, McCarthy.
Johnson, a fan of the Temptations and the restaurant Maggiano’s Little Italy, says he’s willing to hear from citizens — everyone from community leaders to young people in the neighborhoods — to look for that “breakthrough moment.”
“I am not the smartest guy in the world,” Johnson said.
“My goal is to leave this agency and the city in better shape than when I got here.”