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Five Chicago Police officers face suspension for covering up for former top cop Eddie Johnson

The harshest penalty — a 28-day suspension — goes to Cmdr. Don Jerome, whose Deering District covers the 3400 block of South Aberdeen, where Johnson was found slumped in his police SUV around 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 17, 2019.

Bodycam video from Chicago police officers who approached former Chief Eddie Johnson when he fell asleep behind the wheel.
Chicago police

Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown has ordered a series of disciplinary actions to punish five Chicago Police officers accused of engaging in a widespread cover-up to protect then-Supt. Eddie Johnson and conceal the circumstances surrounding the drinking-and-driving incident that got Johnson fired.

The harshest penalty — a 28-day suspension — goes to Deering District Cmdr. Don Jerome. His district covers the 3400 block of South Aberdeen, where Johnson was found slumped over in his police SUV around 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 17, 2019 after dismissing his driver and trying to drive home.

Four other officers who responded to the scene received lesser suspensions. The most severe of those penalties — a 21-day suspension — was reserved for a lieutenant, the next-highest-ranking officer involved.

They are all accused of giving their boss a pass — by failing to administer a field sobriety test that would have been required of any other impaired motorist, giving Johnson a police escort home and watching the superintendent violate traffic laws on the way home without issuing a single citation.

One officer facing disciplinary action is believed to be the woman Johnson promoted to his security detail shortly after becoming the city’s top cop.

The woman spent three hours drinking with Johnson the night of Oct. 17, 2019 at Ceres Café, a restaurant known for pouring large drinks to patrons from the nearby Chicago Board of Trade.

Johnson dropped her off at police headquarters — where she picked up her own car and drove away — shortly before attempting to drive to his Bridgeport home. Sources said the woman was accused of removing a SIM card from a cellphone that the inspector general’s office had sought as evidence.

Sources said Brown’s decision to administer progressive discipline is aimed at sending a message: When you’re in a position of authority, “You’ve got to do the right thing, no matter what.”

Jerome could not be reached for comment. The 26-year veteran Chicago Police officer spent years as a detective on the South Side. Johnson promoted him to Deering District commander in April 2019 — just six months before Johnson’s incident.

Chicago Police Cmdr. Don Jerome speaking in Chinatown earlier this year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Sources familiar with Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s investigation of the alleged cover-up acknowledged the timing of the incident put Jerome and the other officers involved in an “impossible situation.”

“Everybody was afraid of retaliation if they didn’t cover up for him,” one source said.

But, the source quickly added: “Anybody of any rank should have immediately made a report to IAD. There’s a million things they should have done. They never should have let him drive away. They should have made him go through a DUI test. They didn’t do any of that.”

Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara finds it difficult to believe the cover-up stops with Jerome.

Catanzara believes that’s why Mayor Lori Lightfoot has emphatically refused to release Ferguson’s final report of the drinking and driving incident.

“It’s real easy to throw the low-hanging fruit — the blue-shirt policemen — under the bus and let it roll over them. But heaven forbid there is any accountability up the chain from there,” the union president said.

Catanzara remains stripped of his police powers and assigned to administrative duty for filing a police report against Johnson after Johnson, then still CPD superintendent, marched arm-in-arm with Father Michael Pfleger on the Dan Ryan Expressway during an anti-violence protest march in July 2018.

“Here are officers who, in Monday-morning quarterback fashion, are being accused of not treating a superintendent like they would anybody else. ... They theoretically, in these peoples’ minds, gave him a pass. And shame on them, they should be punished,” the FOP president said.

But, Catanzara added, he filed a complaint against Johnson from the Dan Ryan march to “hold him accountable for what I thought was a violation of state law and I was punished for it. And I’m still being punished for it two years later. You can’t have it both ways.”

Father Michael Pfleger and Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson march arm-in-arm alongside thousands of anti-violence protesters who poured into the inbound lanes of the Dan Ryan Expressway on Saturday morning, July 7, 2018.
Father Michael Pfleger and Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson march arm-in-arm alongside thousands of anti-violence protesters who poured into the inbound lanes of the Dan Ryan Expressway on Saturday morning, July 7, 2018.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, said it’s tough to second-guess the conduct of the officers responding that night.

“If the superintendent had rolled down his window and there was a heavy smell of alcohol, then I’m quite sure the officers’ proper thing to do would have been to do a field sobriety [test]. But from what I saw in the video, the superintendent only put a crack in his window and said that he was OK. There was not an extended conversation,” Taliaferro said.

“Given those factors, I don’t know whether the officers knew or could even tell that the superintendent may have been impaired.”

Earlier this year, the city’s Law Department released bodycam footage showing Johnson asleep at the wheel of a city-owned SUV. Though only one video was released, sources previously told the Chicago Sun-Times several more exist and show Johnson interacting with responding officers.

The footage released shows two officers walking up to Johnson’s SUV, one on each side. Johnson can be seen in the driver’s seat with his eyes closed as one of the officers shines a flashlight inside.

The officer knocked on the window, saying: “Sir? Sir? You all right? You good? Got your ID?”

After several seconds, Johnson pulls out some form of identification and holds it up to the window.

The officer who knocked on the window then asks: “You just sitting here, or you wanna go home?” Johnson replies: “I’m good.” The officer then says: “You good? All right, sir. Have a good night.”

The officer then walked away and turned off his camera without making Johnson undergo any field sobriety tests.

In July, Ferguson’s office released a report that said a police supervisor escorted Johnson — who lives about a half mile away from where he was found — to the former superintendent’s home.

During the ride, Johnson rolled through a stop sign and made a slow, wide turn into a wrong lane, the inspector general’s report said.

Along with the bodycam video, the city also released internal police records that showed Johnson’s wife, Deering District Lt. Nakia Fenner, reported to work at a station at 5 a.m. on Oct. 17, just hours after the former superintendent was found behind the wheel.

However, it is not clear if Fenner is the lieutenant being suspended.

Contributing: Frank Main