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Rahm’s top cop choice gets praise, but process criticized

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Hours after news broke that Mayor Rahm Emanuel planned to ditch the three candidates the police board had recommended to head the Chicago Police Department and go with Eddie Johnson — a little-known department veteran — politicians and activists weighed in, with some praising the choice but with others criticizing the process.

Johnson, a 27-year CPD veteran, currently serves as chief of patrol — the department’s third-in-command position in which he essentially commands all uniformed officers — nearly 10,000 of the department’s 13,000-strong force.

Sources told the Chicago Sun-Times, which first reported the news Saturday night, that Emanuel made the choice to boost police morale and restore community trust.

 

Though city law requires Emanuel to pick from three finalists the Police Board gives him, Emanuel plans to reject the recommended candidates and ask the board for another set, which presumably would include Johnson, who had not initially applied for the job.

In the meantime, Emanuel plans to appoint Johnson as interim superintendent — replacing John Escalante, who took the gig as interim top cop after Emanuel fired Garry McCarthy following the citywide fallout over the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said the mayor told the three police board recommended finalists Saturday night that they were not getting the job.

“While each of the finalists had strong qualifications, the mayor did not feel that any of them were the complete package that Chicago needs at this time and thus none were offered the position,” Quinn said. She added that Emanuel would formally announce his decision in the next few days.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Emanuel’s decision to tap Johnson was confusing because it went against the mayor’s own appointed police board.

“It creates a zone of mystery because the search committee was appointed by him, and he circumvented his process,” Jackson said.

There is additional pressure on Johnson because he was handpicked by Emanuel, Jackson added.

“He’s putting Mr. Johnson in a very difficult situation,” Jackson said. “He becomes the mayor’s man, as opposed to the people’s man.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who head up the City Council’s black and Latino caucuses, respectively, issued a statement Sunday evening, calling for Johnson to change the culture of the department.

“Deputy Chief Eddie Johnson is a well-respected leader within the Chicago Police Department. As interim superintendent, we expect him to demonstrate a commitment to transparency, accountability and an end to the culture that has led to the use of excessive force and the ‘Blue Wall’ of silence,” the statement said. “We are hopeful that his leadership will help to boost morale within the CPD rank and file, and will begin to build trust and authentic communication and collaboration  between the department and our communities.”

Members of each caucus attempted to yank a preferred candidate from the pile of contenders.

The Black Caucus favored Chicago Police veteran Eugene Williams. The Hispanic Caucus backed Escalante.

“While I supported the nomination of Gene Williams, I believe Eddie Johnson is equally suited to lead the Chicago Police Department and I support Mayor Emanuel’s decision,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), a Black Caucus member.

“Eddie Johnson knows Chicago, he knows the police department and the challenges facing our neighborhoods.  He is a true leader and will bring the fundamental changes CPD needs right now. I look forward to getting to work with Eddie right away,” Beale said.

Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th), also a Black Caucus member, said Sunday that Johnson was “a great pick, but it did come as a compromise.”

“As a caucus, we are not completely satisfied with [Emanuel’s] choice because we still would like to sit down with any of the candidates,” Curtis said.

The top cop job comes with a $260,044-a-year salary and was last filled from within the ranks when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Phil Cline to the post in 2003.

“I think that any internal candidate would help boost the morale of the department,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), a member of the City Council’s Black Caucus.

‘The institution has taken a beating with outside leadership,” Ervin said. “I think that someone who doesn’t have to go through the learning curve that someone outside would, and someone who’s walked in the same shoes, from working the front desk to kicking in doors, knows what they’re going through and will help morale.”

Emanuel decided on Johnson after concluding that only an insider could restore the trust of African-Americans after the release of the video showing McDonald getting shot by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke 16 times, according to sources. They said the move is also intended to rally rank-and-file cops out of the defensive crouch they’ve taken, making far fewer investigatory “stops” since the dashcam video’s release.

That’s been followed by a spike in gang violence that has Chicago on pace to top 600 homicides and 6,000 shootings in 2016.

“The key thing is this is a person that’s accepted,” said Ald. Danny Solis (25th), a member of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus. “He has a strong relationship with the rank-and-file, and we need somebody who has those strong police connections and the confidence of his officers so that police can do the right job in our communities.”

Cedric Alexander, the public safety director of DeKalb County, Georgia, was widely considered the front-runner of the three finalists selected by the police board.

Alexander told the Associated Press on Sunday that Emanuel offered him the job on Thursday during a meeting in Washington, D.C., and that the mayor told him he intended to make Johnson his first deputy. But he said Emanuel called him Saturday night to tell him he had changed his mind.

Andy Shaw, who heads the Better Government Association and is a frequent mayoral critic, applauded Emanuel’s end-run maneuver to land the candidate he thinks is the best, noting the job of top cop is more than critical for the city’s future.

“There is nothing more important to the future of the city than to get this choice right,” he said.

Shaw added that Emanuel’s rejection of the recommended finalists was a necessary step.

“This is good government. This is trying to get it right [and] not being locked in by the process,” Shaw said. “Going outside of protocol may be the best choice.”

To Ja’Mal Green, a leader of a youth movement for police accountability, Emanuel’s maneuver is evidence that he does not respect the process put in place by law.

“I think that Rahm thinks he’s above the law, and we need to show him that he’s not,” said Green, 20.

“I don’t think Johnson should be superintendent. He didn’t want the job. He didn’t apply. The mayor is pushing him for his own reasons. He’s continuing to take the power away from the people, and continuing to take the power away from an independent board. He has to stop trying to be the boss of everything,” Green said.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) said Sunday the weight being assigned to the term “police insider” seemed misplaced.

“I think there’s bizarre debate about insiders and outsiders and not the one about the right person for the job . . . You just want the right person for the job,” Pawar said. “I don’t believe in the idea that somehow only an insider can  improve morale, or that somehow only an outsider could shake things up.”

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum based in Washington, D.C., said a police department’s chief of patrol is often thought of highly by other officers.

“It’s generally thought that the chief of patrol is one of the most highly regarded people in a police agency,” Wexler said, adding that heads of police departments across the country “always put one of the most highly skilled people in that position.”

Johnson’s time as chief of patrol should allow him to work quickly with both rank-and-file officers and the city’s communities, Wexler added.

“There are two constituencies you have to win over: The internal, the rank-and-file, who at this moment are looking for leadership, and the community, who are looking for stronger ties,” Wexler said. “This is an opportunity for an insider to really show how he can lead both internally and externally.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman