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Chicago mayor fires police superintendent weeks before his retirement

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 12/3/2019 By Jeremy Gorner, Gregory Pratt and John Byrne, Chicago Tribune
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(Video by ABC 7 Chicago)

CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot fired police Superintendent Eddie Johnson effective immediately Monday for intentionally misleading her and the public about his conduct when he was found asleep in his running vehicle at a stop sign after a late weeknight out in October.

“This moment needs to be a turning point for the Chicago Police Department and the way things are done in this city,” said Lightfoot, emphasizing that a “culture change” must take place.

The stunning announcement came just weeks after Lightfoot held what she referred to Monday as “a celebratory press conference” to announce Johnson’s retirement by year’s end after about 3 1/2 years at the helm.

Former Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck, previously named Johnson’s interim successor, took control of the beleaguered department after flying into Chicago on Monday afternoon. He and the mayor separately met with the department’s top brass.

Sources told the Chicago Tribune that the city inspector general’s office, which has been investigating the October incident, obtained video footage showing Johnson drinking for a few hours on the evening of Oct. 16 with a woman who was not his wife at the Ceres Cafe, a popular restaurant and bar at the Chicago Board of Trade building.

Later that night, when officers responded to a 911 call near Johnson’s home in the Bridgeport neighborhood about 12:30 a.m. Oct. 17, Johnson rolled down the window on his police vehicle partway, flashed his superintendent’s badge and drove off, sources said.

A Ceres employee who identified himself as a general manager declined to comment Monday.

On Monday, Lightfoot told reporters she had reviewed the inspector general’s report into the incident as well as videotaped evidence that left her with no choice but to fire Johnson.

“I saw things that were inconsistent with what Mr. Johnson had told me personally and what he revealed to members of the public,” she said.

With the inspector general’s report still not public, Lightfoot declined to be more specific about what the videotaped evidence showed but hinted that it would be hurtful to Johnson’s family.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stands with Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the announcement of his retirement during a press conference at police headquarters, Thursday, Nov, 7, 2019. © Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stands with Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the announcement of his retirement during a press conference at police headquarters, Thursday, Nov, 7, 2019.

“While at some point the IG’s report may become public and those details may be revealed, I don’t feel like it’s appropriate or fair to Mr. Johnson’s wife or children to do so at this time,” she said.

Sources said Lightfoot moved to fire Johnson before the superintendent had even been interviewed by the inspector general’s office as part of its investigation.

The mayor said she personally delivered the news Monday morning to Johnson, the fourth of the last six superintendents to be fired or resign amid scandal. She gave three reasons for dumping him:

— That he “engaged in conduct that is not only unbecoming but demonstrated a series of ethical lapses and flawed decision-making” in the October incident.

— That the superintendent called a news conference later the day of the incident in which he communicated “a narrative replete with false statements, all seemingly intended to hide the true nature of his conduct from the evening before.”

— That Johnson intentionally lied to the mayor several times, “even when I challenged him about the narrative that he shared with me.”

Johnson, 59, a 31-year department veteran, did not return calls or texts seeking comment Monday, and no one answered at his residence. He was paid about $260,000 a year.

Just last month, in announcing Johnson’s impending retirement, Lightfoot had praised him for his calming influence after taking over a department reeling from the court-ordered release of police dashboard camera video showing a white officer shoot black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times.

Johnson had been plucked from relative obscurity as chief of patrol in April 2016 when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel bypassed three finalists chosen by the Chicago Police Board and appointed him superintendent.

In his initial remarks on the night of Oct. 17 about falling asleep at the wheel early that same morning, Johnson blamed his failure to take his blood pressure medication, saying he felt ill as he drove home from dinner with friends.

The superintendent said he removed old medication from his weekly pillbox after his cardiologist had recently changed his dosage but that he had not yet obtained the new prescription.

“How can I explain it? It’s just your body kind of gives you a warning with the high blood pressure thing that you may pass out, so I pulled over, stopped and I just rested myself until that feeling passed,” said Johnson, who underwent a successful kidney transplant in August 2017.

He did not explain, however, why he was driving home from a dinner engagement at 12:30 a.m., particularly on a day he said he felt fatigued.

He also defended his driving home without being tested for whether he had been drinking, saying, “Someone asleep in a car doesn’t mean they’re impaired.”

Johnson’s chief spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, issued a statement that same day saying that the officers who responded to the 911 call did not notice “any signs of impairment” on the superintendent’s part and that Johnson drove himself home. Guglielmi also said the superintendent had called for an internal investigation on himself “because of the optics.”

The next day, though, Lightfoot said Johnson had admitted to her that he had “a couple of drinks” that night.

At Monday’s news conference, Lightfoot said that she would not have taken part in the celebratory news conference Nov. 7 announcing Johnson’s retirement if she knew what she now knows.

In her opening remarks, Lightfoot said that rank-and-file police officers have been held accountable for wrongdoing “time and again” while supervisors got “a pass even when the supervisors were aware of or directed the conduct at issue.”

“The old Chicago way must give way to the new reality,” the mayor said. “Ethical leadership, integrity, accountability, legitimacy and yes, honesty must be the hallmarks of city government.”

Lightfoot pushed a similar message in an email — obtained by the Tribune — that she sent to the department’s 13,400 sworn and civilian members.

“While I recognize this news comes as a surprise to most of you, this was a decision I felt was absolutely necessary to preserve the legitimacy and honor of the Chicago Police Department. I deeply respect the work that each of you undertake every day and you deserve a superintendent who lives up to the ideals that I expect each of you to exemplify.”

In his own departmentwide memo, Beck, who was L.A.’s police chief for about nine years, called it “an honor and privilege” to serve as CPD’s interim superintendent.

“I know that the events of this morning likely caused a great deal of unease, but rest assured this department is stable, strong and headed in the right direction,” the memo said.

Johnson marks the second consecutive superintendent to be fired and the fourth of the last six to leave under a cloud. Johnson’s predecessor, Garry McCarthy, was dismissed in late 2015 amid public outrage over the release of the graphic video of 17-year-old McDonald’s fatal shooting by police. Philip Cline was forced to resign in 2007 after a succession of scandals, including criminal charges against several officers in the department’s then-elite Special Operations Section as well as an off-duty officer’s videotaped beating of a female bartender. Matt Rodriguez resigned under pressure in 1997 a day after the Tribune questioned his 30-year friendship with a convicted felon.

Key aldermen contacted by the Tribune appeared to back Lightfoot’s firing, even though some praised Johnson’s leadership during a turbulent period for the department.

Northwest Side Alderman Ariel Reboyras, who chaired the City Council’s Public Safety Committee at the time of Johnson’s appointment as superintendent, called it unfortunate that Lightfoot had to fire him. He said the mayor called him Monday morning to inform him of her decision.

“It’s just a shame because I think the world of Eddie Johnson. And this is just another hit on the Police Department, which is doing better than it gets credit for,” he said. “Crime stats have been trending in the right direction, and then something like this happens. It’s just too bad. But as mayor, sometimes you have to act abruptly based on the information you get, and this was evidently one of those times.”

Alderman Jason Ervin said Johnson would be remembered most for the successes on his watch in spite of the dismissal.

“I think that he came in at a tough time and provided some stability and some leadership,” said Ervin, chairman of the City Council Black Caucus.

Ervin said he didn’t believe that Johnson’s dismissal would hurt efforts to reform the Police Department.

“The superintendent was set to leave anyway, so I don’t foresee that changing anything about the city moving forward on reform,” he said.

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(Chicago Tribune’s Javonte Anderson and Annie Sweeney contributed to this report.)

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©2019 Chicago Tribune

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