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Johnson says he’s devising plan to give kids an alternative to downtown mischief

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said Thursday he’s “devising a plan to give kids an alternative” to coming downtown and making mischief, but constitutional concerns make it a “complex issue.”

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot expressed disappointment in the city’s handling of large groups of young people who came downtown during spring break after organizing on social media. She has called it a “missed opportunity” and declared, “We’re not gonna do that again.”

Implied, but not stated, was that it had better not happen again if Johnson hopes to keep his $260,044-a-year job.

After a luncheon address Thursday to the City Club of Chicago, Johnson was asked precisely what he plans to do about the vexing problem that has created an annual dilemma for the Chicago Police Department.

The superintendent responded by acknowledging the need to “stay within the framework of the Constitution” and preserve the right young people have “to come downtown unless they’re committing criminal acts.”

“We’re right now in the process of devising a plan that will give those kids an alternative. . . . I’m not gonna tell you yet. But I think you all will be pleased with what we come up with because I think that will really tamp this down once and for all,” Johnson said.

“If you come downtown . . . and you misbehave, then you’re gonna be held accountable. You don’t want to treat a juvenile like an adult. But there still has to be some accountability when they do that.”

Johnson stressed the punishment will be the same for young people from South and West Side neighborhoods as it is for suburban kids who flood Grant Park for Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago.

“I’m talking about all children. . . . We don’t target people by their race and ethnicity. We target people because of what they’re doing,” he said.

“If you come down there and you act like you have some sense, have at it. But if you come down there and commit criminal acts, you will be held accountable. Period.”

Under former Supt. Garry McCarthy, Chicago police officers flooded the downtown area during summer months and paid particular attention to CTA stations where large groups of young people arrived to congregate in the Michigan Avenue and State Street shopping districts.

If police saw large groups of young people intimidating shoppers or otherwise causing trouble, they would surround those groups, follow them for blocks and sometimes steer them back to CTA stations.

That prompted periodic complaints that police were violating constitutional rights.

That’s the legal tightrope that Johnson is now attempting to walk.

As for the broader plan to combat the traditional summer surge of violence, Johnson gave his City Club audience a few hints.

He said the plan will once again rely on “data” from so-called Strategic Decision Support Centers, now located in 20 of 22 police districts, that allow analysts to use police surveillance cameras and gunshot-detector devices to help determine where officers should be deployed after a shooting.

Several “seasonal deployments” are planned, including a “summer mobile team, saturation teams, gun teams, bicycle teams and more,” Johnson said.

CPD has also created a “special mass transit team to patrol train and bus stations” and plans to add more foot patrols in the business and entertainment districts, he said.

“These teams can be assembled quickly and deployed to areas of immediate concern. They can also patrol an area we know is going to be popular, such as the beachfront or large festivals like Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago,” he said.

Lightfoot has said she won’t make a police leadership change during the summer months. But beyond that, she’s been noncommittal.

That uncertainty prompted someone in a City Club audience that included Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s wife, Amy Rule, to ask Johnson what he hopes will be his “legacy” as superintendent.

“You’re kicking me out already?” Johnson joked as the audience laughed with him.

Turning serious, Johnson talked about how “desperately” he wants CPD to be “a department the entire city can be proud of.”

“We’re not there yet because it’s hard to correct years, decades of mistreatment in some of these communities. But you can’t correct it if you don’t acknowledge that it’s there,” he said.

“I’ve acknowledged that we have treated parts of the city and the African American and Hispanic communities inappropriately. I just want people to know we might not get all the way there before I leave. But we’re a lot closer than when I took this seat.”

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