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Top cop admits some officers ‘look the other way’ at police misconduct

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson on Friday made the case to keep his $260,044-a-year job even after the retirement of Mayor Rahm Emanuel — and acknowledged that some officers “look the other way” when it comes to reporting police misconduct.

“The reason it’s so difficult to change police cultures is because the leadership changes so often. Every three years you have to start over again,” Johnson told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“It’s gonna take, like, five to seven years to change a culture, a mentality. I don’t want to stay here seven years. But in two more years, we’ll be in a solid place.”

Johnson noted the Chicago Police Department has just begun the years-long process of implementing a consent decree under the watchful eye of a federal monitor.

“It’s important that the leadership believes in it, which I do and the command staff does. I don’t know if the next person will be as vested … as I am,”  he said.

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

Johnson needs one more year to be fully vested in his pension as superintendent. But he emphatically denied that’s what’s behind his desire to stay.

“It’s about this city, and it’s about the police department. I honestly, with every bone in my body, want to see this police department looked at in a more positive light in certain areas of this city,” he said.

Johnson’s fate is uncertain, no matter who wins Tuesday’s mayoral runoff.

Toni Preckwinkle has vowed to replace him for refusing to acknowledge the existence of a code of silence in the police department.

Lori Lightfoot has said she won’t make a change during the traditional summer surge of violence. Beyond that, she’s been non-committal.

Why some cops don’t report police misconduct

On Friday, Johnson acknowledged for the first time that there is a code of silence among some officers in the department even though he hesitated to use that exact term.

“Do I think there might be officers that look the other way? Yeah, I do. … There are a lot of reasons why cops might not report misconduct. If they see their partner engage in misconduct, they may look the other way,” he said.

“Do I think there are issues in that regard? Yeah. But I’ m not going to indict the entire department for the acts of certain individuals … If I’m made aware of it, I deal with it.”

Isn’t that the very definition of a code of silence? Why the hesitation to use the term?

“When I look in the dictionary, I don’t see ‘code of silence.’ This is a term and a phrase that people come up with — and that’s fine. It means different things to different people,” he said.

“We can call it that. I’m fine with that. I just told you, if I see those types of things occurring, I will deal with those individuals.”

During a wide-ranging interview with the Sun-Times, Johnson also talked about an epidemic of recent suicides that has prompted seven Chicago police officers to take their own lives in recent months.

Counseling could help slow suicides

Within a few months, CPD will have 11 licensed clinicians, compared to the paltry three that were so heavily criticized in the U.S. Justice Department’s scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department.

Now the challenge is convincing officers in what Johnson called the “macho profession” of law enforcement to take advantage of those counseling services.

“It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of courage when you reach out to get help. You have to unpack these things,” Johnson said.

“When I was a sergeant, I was going through a difficult time. I had no suicidal thoughts or anything like that. But I knew I needed to unpack what I was thinking about. I called EAP [Employee Assistance Program]. I talked to a counselor for about two hours.”

That wasn’t the only time. Johnson also went to counseling for “a month or so” to resolve what he called “domestic issues.”

“It kind of cleansed me. To be honest, I felt like an anchor had been taken off my shoulders,” Johnson said.

On Friday, the police department buried another one of its own: 23-year-old John Rivera. He was sitting in a parked car after a night out on the town with his girlfriend and buddies in River North when he was shot to death in what Johnson has called a case of mistaken identity.

Rivera’s death hit close to home for the Johnson family.

The superintendent’s own son — the one who donated the kidney that saved Johnson’s life — served with Rivera in the Gresham District, rode with the deceased officer and was “profoundly affected.”

“He called me that morning. I could tell he was just a little off,” Johnson said.

Has the superintendent encouraged his son to talk to a counselor?

“If it gets to that, of course. And I would offer to go with him,” he said.