Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday summarily fired the retiring police superintendent she had celebrated less than a month ago, accusing Eddie Johnson of “lying to me and lying to the public” about an embarrassing drinking-and-driving incident in mid-October.
Lightfoot acted quickly after reviewing the findings of Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s report on the Oct. 17 incident.
Johnson was found slumped over in his police SUV at around 12:30 a.m. that day, near the 3400 block of South Aberdeen — after dismissing his driver and trying to drive himself home.
“The findings ... make it clear that Eddie Johnson engaged in conduct that is not only unbecoming, but demonstrated a series of ethical lapses and flawed decision-making that is inconsistent with having the privilege of leading the Chicago Police Department,” the mayor told a hastily-called City Hall news conference.
“Had I known these facts at the time, I would have relieved him of his duties as superintendent then and there. I certainly would not have participated in a celebratory press conference to announce his retirement. Mr. Johnson failed the hard-working members of the Chicago Police Department. He intentionally misled the people of Chicago and he intentionally misled me. None of that is acceptable.”
Johnson was informed of the decision at a City Hall meeting with the mayor that lasted all of a few minutes. He left the mayor’s office without comment. Pressed to describe Johnson’s reaction, Lightfoot offered a one-word answer: “Accepting.”
Lightfoot refused to say what she learned from the inspector general’s report and from bodycam video of the incident that she didn’t already know on the day she told the Sun-Times the superintendent had been drinking. She said only: “The facts I know now are fundamentally different than the facts I knew then.”
Under repeated questioning, the mayor hinted strongly at some kind of a smoking gun that made the facts she already knew infinitely worse.
Noting that Ferguson’s investigation “as to others” involved remains ongoing, the mayor added: “While at some point, the inspector general’s report may become public and those details may be revealed, I don’t think it’s appropriate or fair to Mr. Johnson’s wife or children to do so at this time,” she said.
“I hope we can all take care to treat them with dignity and respect.”
Is the mayor insinuating the “fundamental facts” that have changed have something to do with Johnson’s personal life?
“I’m not gonna verify something one way or the other,” she said. “What I’m saying to you is that what he portrayed to me — what he portrayed to the public — was fundamentally different than what the facts show.”
Sources said Johnson told the mayor he was drinking with a group of friends before he was found slumped over in his car. But sources said he was actually drinking for hours with a member of his security detail, a woman, at a downtown restaurant.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), the mayor’s most outspoken City Council critic, said if the facts are “as bad as what she insinuated,” Lightfoot was “100 percent right” to fire him on the spot.
The alderman’s only caveat was to demand that the mayor release the inspector general’s preliminary report. Never mind Lightfoot’s claim that it’s Johnson’s story to tell.
“I don’t buy that. If things are that bad, that’s something the superintendent should have put in his mind when he was doing whatever it is he did with whomever he was doing it with,” Lopez said.
“She doesn’t need to protect him. She needs to protect the city. She needs to protect the department, which has to face the public in hopes of rebuilding trust in communities. That’s her job. Protecting his family is not her job.”
Sources said Johnson has not yet been interviewed by the inspector general.
The now-former superintendent left City Hall before Lightfoot’s news conference. Johnson, with one of his drivers, arrived at his Bridgeport home about 11:15 a.m. Monday, less than an hour after Lightfoot announced his ouster.
Johnson declined to discuss his termination with a Sun-Times reporter, except to say he didn’t appreciate being confronted at his home. He added: “I give you all everything.”
An unmarked CPD SUV remained outside Johnson’s three-story home as of 11:40 a.m.
Recently terminated CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson arrived at his Bridgeport home a few minutes ago. He wouldn’t talk about his dismissal, except to tell me he didn’t appreciate me going to his house. “I give you all everything,” he said. pic.twitter.com/lTyYRGz8HT— Sam Charles (@samjcharles) December 2, 2019
Ferguson’s investigation of the circumstances surrounding the October incident includes whether Johnson should have been driving, why he was not given a sobriety test and whether the rules were bent to protect the boss.
Freedom of Information requests for video of the incident from body-mounted cameras have been denied, pending the outcome of Ferguson’s investigation.
On Monday, Lightfoot argued Johnson “intentionally misled the public” at the press conference he called to communicate “a narrative replete with false statements all seemingly intended to hide the true nature of his conduct” the night before.
“Just like with the public, Eddie Johnson intentionally lied to me — several times. Even when I challenged him about the narrative that he shared with me, he maintained that he was telling the truth. I now know definitively that he was not,” she said.
In an interview with the Sun-Times last month after announcing his retirement, Johnson discussed leaving the job in the wake of that incident.
Asked if there would be any surprises in any video footage of the incident, he replied:
“I don’t think so. I think what’s been out there at this point has been widely talked about, so that’s about all I’ll say about that.”
From a practical standpoint, Lightfoot’s decision simply means Johnson is gone a month earlier than the Dec. 31 retirement date he announced last month.
But, from a political standpoint, it’s a sea change.
Lightfoot said Johnson’s firing “needs to be a turning point” for CPD and the “way things are done” at a department that has struggled to meet the rigid deadlines demanded by a consent decree outlining the terms of federal court oversight.
“That must start at the top. That hard, but important work is impossible without strong leadership focused on integrity, honesty, legitimacy and accountability.
“Time and again, line police officers are held accountable for their actions, but their supervisors get a pass — even when their supervisors were aware of or directed the conduct at issue. Perhaps in years’ past, someone in Mr. Johnson’s circumstances would have been allowed to simply retire. Doing so today in these circumstances would have been inconsistent with who I am and with the kind of principled leadership I want to bring to the city.”
At the same time Johnson’s retirement was announced, the city also announced retired Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck would serve as interim superintendent until Johnson left.
Now, Beck is taking over, though still on an interim basis during the search for the next superintendent. The mayor told reporters at her morning news conference that Beck was on a flight to Chicago as she spoke.
Johnson’s firing is just the start of a high-level shakeup of the department, a source told the Sun-Times.
The mayor was asked whether Johnson’s firing and Beck’s takeover would trigger other high-level changes at CPD.
“I’m aware that some people are gonna be retiring,” she said.
“Change is difficult [but] change is gonna come. Fundamentally, this department has to be about creating a culture of integrity and accountability and that’s what we are gonna do.”
Under CPD rules, Johnson’s firing should not affect his pension. But it does bring to a pre-mature and controversial end the four-year tenure of Chicago’s reluctant superintendent.
It started when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in the furor over the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, rejected the three finalists chosen by a Police Board led by Lori Lightfoot and dispatched with the charade of a second nationwide search mandated by law.
Emanuel then plucked Johnson out of obscurity, even though he never even applied for the job. At the time, Johnson was chief of patrol.
In early November, the 59-year-old CPD veteran announced he would retire as superintendent at the end of the year.
His retirement after 31 years with the department came amid the inspector general’s investigation.
Johnson said he neglected to take a prescribed medication and became lightheaded before he decided to pull over, but Lightfoot said he told her that he also had “a couple of drinks” at dinner before driving home. He was found slumped in his car, a few blocks from his home.
In a letter to City Council members, Lightfoot assured aldermen the “decision was not made lightly,” adding: “Please rest assured that the Chicago Police Department is in good hands.”
The Fraternal Order of Police has been at loggerheads with Lightfoot ever since her days as co-chair of the Task Force on Police Accountability, whose scathing indictment of CPD laid the groundwork for the U.S. Justice Department to do the same and set the stage for the consent decree.
After Johnson’s firing, the police union released a statement saying rank-and-file police officers “understand Mayor Lightfoot’s decision in this case” and “appreciate her desire to create a police department that is accountable and transparent.”
But the union then criticized Lightfoot over her handling of an incident involving an officer caught on video slamming a suspect to the ground during an arrest.
“With that in mind, it’s important to understand that just this weekend, the department stripped an officer who was the victim of a high-risk battery without any investigation and without even taking a statement from the officer,” the union said, not mentioning the mayor’s tweet calling video of the incident “disturbing.”
“It is also important to hold every facet of the city affecting the police department accountable, including COPA, the Chicago Police Board, and Inspector General. We look forward to assisting the mayor in helping to make all these institutions equally accountable.”
Johnson led the department through a particularly tumultuous 3 ½-year period that was marked by a host of changes that were driven almost entirely by the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
It was the video itself that thrust Johnson to the top of the department.
After its release in November 2015, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired then-CPD Supt. Garry McCarthy. Emanuel eventually tapped Johnson for the job in an effort to quell simmering tensions between the CPD and the city’s communities of color.
In 2017, Lori Lightfoot, then the president of the Chicago Police Board, said Johnson “walked into probably one of the worst circumstances any superintendent has walked into, maybe in the history of the department.”
In the first year of Johnson’s leadership, 2016, the number of murders reached 784, a level not seen since the mid-90s, though they’ve since dropped precipitously to 578 last year. The CPD was investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, which ultimately led to a federal consent decree, entered earlier this year, that will ensure departmental reforms. Before the decree was entered, the department made changes to its use-of-force policy to focus more on de-escalation and preserving the “sanctity of life.”
Contributing: Sam Charles, Frank Main