Rahm’s surprise top cop pick — a Sun-Times exclusive
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Mayor Rahm Emanuel has asked Eddie Johnson, the Chicago Police Department’s African-American chief of patrol, to become the city’s next top cop in an unprecedented end-run around the Chicago Police Board aimed at boosting cops’ morale and restoring the community’s trust.
Sources told the Chicago Sun-Times that Emanuel offered the $260,044-a-year post to Johnson before rejecting the Police Board’s three recommended finalists to replace Supt. Garry McCarthy, dumped by Emanuel amid public outrage over the video released in November showing a white cop shooting and killing black teenager Laquan McDonald.
The law requires the mayor to pick from finalists the Police Board gives him. Emanuel plans to meet the letter of the law by rejecting the three names the board presented and appointing Johnson first to replace John Escalante as interim superintendent. Then, he’ll ask the Police Board to conduct a second search.
This time, Johnson — who hadn’t initially applied for the job — will apply and presumably be one of the finalists. The mayor could then make it official and hand Johnson the permanent job.
The finalists the Police Board gave Emanuel were: Deputy Police Supt. Eugene Williams; Cedric Alexander, the African-American public safety director of DeKalb County, Georgia, outside Atlanta; and Anne Kirkpatrick, a retired police chief of Spokane, Washington.
Sources said Emanuel had been impressed enough with Alexander, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, to fly to Washington to interview him for a second time. But Alexander might have ruined his chances by returning to Atlanta and telling a reporter there that he thought he had the job. Calls to City Hall to verify that the job had been offered to Alexander infuriated the mayor, sources said.
Ultimately, Emanuel concluded that only an insider could restore the trust of African-Americans after the release of the video showing McDonald getting shot 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 this year.
“The mayor wants an insider, and he was not happy with the choices presented to him,” said a source familiar with the process.
Another source — a former top police official — described Johnson as “a prince of a guy, a real gentleman.”
Johnson, 27-year Chicago Police Department veteran, came up the ranks through the patrol division, the backbone of the department.
Sources said he’s not a polarizing figure, as are some others in the department’s command staff.
As a former commander in the crime-plagued Gresham District on the South Side, Johnson had a working relationship with the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the activist Catholic priest, but “he’s not beholden to the ministers or the black caucus” of the Chicago City Council, a police insider said.
That Johnson, despite his sterling credentials, didn’t apply to be superintendent “says volumes about him,” another law enforcement source said.
Johnson was promoted to Gresham commander in 2008 by then-Supt. Jody Weis, who replaced 21 of the city’s 25 district commanders at the time.
Then, in 2012, during McCarthy’s tenure as superintendent, Johnson was promoted to deputy chief of patrol. After McCarthy was fired on Dec. 1, Escalante promoted Johnson to chief of patrol on Dec. 13 in another massive command shakeup.
Announcing that promotion, the department said: “Chief Johnson has significant experience managing large-scale special events and was instrumental in the operational planning and response of the 2012 NATO Summit. He has also served as a supervisor in the detective bureau and is currently completing his master’s degree in public policy and administration at Northwestern University.”
Johnson has operated mostly out of the spotlight during his career. But he took center stage at a news conference last week after a man, recently paroled for a carjacking, was charged with shooting and wounding an off-duty officer on the South Side.
“Until we get real criminal justice reform, the cycle will continue,” Johnson said at the news conference Wednesday. “We have the laws here. We just need to make sure that these criminals are held accountable for their actions.”
Johnson has a daughter and lives on the South Side, a source said.
“He’s not a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer,” the source said. “He’s a straight guy. I would feel safer in the city knowing he is the superintendent.”
“He’s a cop, not a political animal,” another knowledgeable source said. “And that is nice.”
No citizen complaints against Johnson showed up in a search of a database maintained by the Citizens Police Data Project, although he and another officer were sued in a personal injury case that resulted in an unspecified settlement in 1997, court records show.
Police Board President Lori Lightfoot would not comment on Emanuel’s unprecedented end-run. After presenting the three names to the mayor, Lightfoot made clear she was not interested in having to do another time-consuming, nationwide search anytime soon.
The search began with 39 names and was narrowed to a smaller list of candidates summoned for exhaustive in-person interviews. The Police Board cast the broadest possible net under the cloud of a federal civil rights investigation triggered by the police shooting of McDonald.
The last two superintendents — Weis and McCarthy — have been outsiders. They made changes that drove much of the up-and-coming, homegrown talent out of the Chicago Police Department. That left the department almost like a Major League Baseball team with a decimated farm system.
Last week, the mayor spoke about the importance of appointing a police superintendent who could help define his legacy and of the need to “get it right” and boost rock-bottom police morale that he believes is partly to blame for the bloodbath on Chicago streets.
“Their morale post-Laquan McDonald, because of the conversation involved, has been affected,” Emanuel said during a taping of the WLS-AM Radio program “Connected to Chicago,” to be broadcast at 9 a.m. Sunday. “You now have the Justice Department, as one officer just told me, doing ride-arounds with officers. They’re worried about being the next victim in a video gone viral.
“This is not a job where they’re just punching the clock. They picked a career, a calling. They want to make that gun arrest. They want to stop that gang member and arrest them. They need the leadership. They need the confidence that people have their back. In the last three months, they feel that hasn’t been there.”
The mayor’s maneuver around the Police Board comes at a time when aldermen have been pushing back, emboldened by the McDonald controversy, which has weakened Emanuel politically.
Obviously unaware of the mayor’s bold move, the chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee has called a meeting for 9 a.m. Thursday to hear from the now-rejected three finalists for superintendent and from the Police Board.
Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) was responding to requests from the council’s Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus, whose dueling demands had put Emanuel in a political box.
The Hispanic Caucus wanted the mayor to reject all three finalists and order the Police Board to conduct a second search, with the aim of producing a list including a Hispanic finalist, preferably Escalante.
Latino aldermen are furious that Escalante, who has been holding down the fort since Emanuel fired McCarthy on Dec. 1, didn’t make the final cut. They view that as part of an insulting pattern of “using Hispanics as interims” that started at the Chicago Public Schools when Jesse Ruiz stepped in for CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett after a contracting scandal.
Escalante responded to the Police Board’s decision not to include him in the list of three finalists by saying he’d be content to return to his old job as first deputy superintendent. Emanuel is likely to try to appease Hispanic aldermen by asking Johnson to keep Escalante as his first deputy.
Black aldermen have threatened to withhold their votes to ratify the new superintendent if they’re not allowed to question the finalists before Emanuel makes his pick.
The Black Caucus wants an African-American superintendent, preferably an insider. But black aldermen had stopped far short of a full-throated endorsement for Williams, the only one of the three finalists who fits that description. Williams is known for his close ties to the city’s black ministers — which some department officials have said privately might give the ministers too much sway over his decisions.