Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s career in the Chicago Police Department raises troubling questions about the future of police reform in the city.
Chicago detective Dante Servin shot Rekia Boyd in the back of the head late on a warm night in March 2012. Servin was an off-duty detective, a 20-year Chicago police veteran who lived on the block of the shooting, just off Douglas Park on the city’s West Side. Boyd was a 22-year-old African-American woman hanging out in the park with some friends. She was unarmed.
As police converged on the scene, Servin told his fellow officers that he had asked Boyd and her friends to quiet down as he drove out of the alley next to his house. According to Servin, a man in the group, Antonio Cross, responded by pointing a gun at him. Servin then fired five shots over his shoulder from inside his car. One hit Cross’s hand. Another hit Boyd, who fell to the ground.
Ambulances rushed both victims to the hospital while detectives prepared charges against Cross. Officers, including a canine team, spread out to look for the gun Servin claimed he had seen. Meanwhile, Servin freely wandered the scene, talking with a succession of detectives and police supervisors.
Soon, a deputy chief named Eddie Johnson took command of the crowd of officers outside Servin’s house. As the designated on-call incident commander, Johnson assumed responsibility for the department’s initial investigation of the shooting. The OCIC is a central part of the department’s response to police shootings, operating at the scene “with the authority of the superintendent of police,” according to Chicago Police Department regulations.
Johnson faced a difficult task. The first hours after the shooting were marked by conflicting accounts from Servin and multiple civilian witnesses. The undisputed facts of the case were also disturbing: An off-duty officer had shot an unarmed woman in the head. And he had fired into a group of civilians, typically a violation of department rules.
Yet Johnson and the officers under his direct command proceeded to make a number of troubling decisions. In the days after the shooting, witnesses told investigators that Servin appeared to have been drinking. When asked several months after the shooting if he had been drinking that night, Servin told a film crew, “That’s my damn business.” Police investigators waited six hours to administer a blood alcohol test.
Detectives also discovered cameras mounted on Servin’s house that looked directly over the scene of the shooting. When Servin said the cameras didn’t work, instead of insisting on inspecting them or obtaining a search warrant, detectives dropped the matter, eventually asking him to sign an affidavit swearing that the cameras were inoperable.
Detectives also quickly uncovered evidence that Cross had been unarmed. Civilian witnesses denied that Cross had a weapon, and although there was a trail of blood and dashcam footage clearly showing Cross’s path after the shooting, police were unable to find a gun. Despite these findings, police asked prosecutors to charge Cross with felony assault and issued a press release falsely claiming that Servin had fired only after Cross began to “approach him with a handgun” and “pointed the weapon in the direction of the detective.”
At 10:40 a.m., about nine hours after the shooting, Johnson concluded his initial investigation into Servin’s use of force and endorsed the detective’s account in his official use of force report. “Based on the facts available at this time, Officer Servin acted in compliance with department policy,” he wrote, approving Servin’s decision to open fire. “Officer Servin fired his weapon at the offender after the offender pointed a firearm at Officer Servin.” Johnson did not check the box in his report that would have recommended the case for further investigation. The official use of force report Johnson signed never mentioned Rekia Boyd.
Boyd died the next day. In the weeks that followed, the official police narrative unraveled. Search teams never found Cross’s alleged gun at the scene. Cross also continued to insist that he had been holding only his cellphone. Five people eventually testified that he was unarmed that night. Police dashcam video also shows that Cross flagged down a police car within moments of the shooting. “I wanted police to catch the person who shot me,” he later testified. Within a week, 200 protesters rallied in Douglas Park, and Boyd’s case helped fuel a national movement to end police violence against black women. Eventually, prosecutors dropped charges against Cross, and the city paid Boyd’s family a $4.5 million settlement. Servin was eventually indicted for involuntary manslaughter, but charges were abruptly dismissed after a judge ruled that prosecutors should have charged him with murder.
On November 23, 2015 — three and a half years after the shooting — Superintendent Garry McCarthy initiated the process of firing Servin. Less than 24 hours later, faced with a court order, his department also released video footage of the police killing of Laquan McDonald.
That grainy dashcam footage of Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into a teenager upended Chicago, sending thousands of protesters into the streets. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired McCarthy and delivered an emotional speech, in which he apologized for McDonald’s death and acknowledged the existence of a police “code of silence” — a stunning admission in a city where the political establishment has long paid deference to the police. Emanuel promised that the CPD’s next leader would be a transformational figure, declaring that he was “looking for a new leader for the Chicago Police Department to address the problems at the very heart of the policing profession.”
Four months later, Emanuel announced his choice: Eddie Johnson, the 27-year police veteran who had approved Rekia Boyd’s shooting as a justified use of force.
In early 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a comprehensive report on the Chicago Police Department, concluding an investigation opened in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald video release. Finding a “pattern of unlawful force” by officers, the DOJ declared that “the failure to review and investigate officer use of force has helped create a culture in which officers expect to use force and not be questioned about the need for or propriety of that use.”
Craig Futterman, a civil rights attorney and law professor at the University of Chicago Law School who helped lead a lawsuit that sought to force the CPD to undergo court-monitored reform, said that Johnson’s actions on the night of Rekia Boyd’s shooting could be described as “investigation as cover-up.”
“My assessment is that he did indeed in this case endorse a false report in affirmatively writing and documenting, despite the absence of evidence of a gun, that this is a justified shooting because the person had been pointing a gun,” Futterman said.
At least one CPD official has been punished for making a similar decision: Chicago’s inspector general recommended that Deputy Chief David McNaughton be fired in part for signing off on a false use of force form in the killing of Laquan McDonald. McNaughton quietly retired soon after.
In an interview with CBS Chicago shortly after his selection as superintendent, Johnson insisted that he could direct Chicago’s police reforms, declaring, “I’ve actually never encountered police misconduct, ’cause you got to understand, officers that commit misconduct don’t do it in front of people that they think are going to hold them accountable for it.”
The statement was widely mocked, with one columnist questioning whether the superintendent had “come down with a case of temporary misconduct blindness.” But few publicly considered another explanation for the baffling statement — that Johnson was telling the truth and saw shootings like Boyd’s not as misconduct, but as acceptable police procedure.
In fact, the Rekia Boyd case was not an aberration. An investigation of Johnson’s record, drawing on documents obtained by the Invisible Institute via litigation and included in the Citizens Police Data Project, shows that he repeatedly approved police shootings or ignored allegations of excessive force over his years as a supervisor, consistently finding that they did not qualify as misconduct.
In a decade as a senior CPD supervisor, Johnson personally investigated or commanded the officers responsible for six controversial shootings that left five people dead — all young African-Americans — and cost Chicago more than $13 million in misconduct payments. Moreover, Johnson’s tenure as commander of Chicago’s 6th Police District from 2008 to 2011 was marred by serious allegations of misconduct by an elite tactical squad led by a scandal-plagued lieutenant named Glenn Evans. During six months in 2010, members of the roughly 45-person team participated in the fatal shootings of three men, all unarmed or fleeing. During the same period, the entire rest of the CPD killed four people. Another of Johnson’s officers was credibly accused of killing a teenager and planting a gun on his body. After his promotion to deputy chief in 2011, Johnson reviewed and approved more disputed shootings, including the killing of Boyd and a case in which an officer fatally shot a teenager in the back. Johnson was recently called to testify in that final case, but otherwise neither Johnson nor Emanuel has ever acknowledged the superintendent’s involvement in some of the department’s most notorious recent police shootings.
Johnson’s history in the department raises troubling questions about the future of police reform in Chicago. Although Emanuel has announced that he won’t be seeking re-election, he will nonetheless wield considerable power over Chicago’s new police oversight agreement during his remaining half-year in office. Emanuel also appointed Johnson with the unanimous approval of Chicago’s City Council, circumventing the official process and ignoring two outside reformers carefully vetted by Chicago’s Police Board. No politician or newspaper raised the issue of Johnson’s involvement in some of the department’s most notorious scandals. Can a man whose career embodies the CPD’s failure to rigorously review and investigate officers’ use of force — the unlawful pattern the recent Department of Justice report placed at the center of the reform agenda — transform the department?
Johnson first took charge of Chicago’s 6th District in March 2008. The predominately African-American district stretches from blocks along West 79th Street that rank among the city’s poorest to the tidy, middle-class bungalows of Chatham that have been home to generations of the city’s black political, business, and civic leaders.
Johnson had risen quickly through the ranks of the CPD. Just a year earlier, he had been a sergeant, a position that typically directs up to a few dozen officers. As a district commander, he was now responsible for approximately 350 police officers serving 105,000 residents.
As the CPD — like departments nationwide — places increasing emphasis on data-driven policing, its commanders face relentless pressure to produce good numbers: high arrest figures and declining reports of crimes. Upon assuming his new post, Johnson made changes, picking a new leader for his tactical team. Such teams — usually composed of roving plainclothes officers — handle more aggressive police work, serving warrants and targeting high-crime corners. The size of the tactical team varied slightly over time, but typically there were between 40 and 45 officers. Assignment to a tactical team is often a step up for patrol officers, but it also brings extra risks. Johnson chose a hard-charging lieutenant named Glenn Evans to lead his tactical team.
“These kinds of units are almost by definition likely to be involved in more use of force incidents,” said Sam Walker, a policing expert from the University of Nebraska who consults with police departments, including the CPD. “Departments have to take special precautions in terms of clear policies, much closer supervision, than would be the case with just regular patrol units.”
Many officers and residents respected Evans’s dedication to police work — he was known to sleep in his office and patrolled the streets alongside his officers — but he also racked up dozens of complaints and several lawsuits as he rose through the ranks. A formal investigation into a 2005 complaint by Evans’s ex-girlfriend found that he called her a “whore” and damaged her car. The city also paid a nearly $100,000 settlement after a partially paralyzed city worker accused Evans of beating him up. Those cases were not outliers. A report on 1,500 CPD officers compiled by a former epidemiologist and obtained by WBEZ showed that Evans garnered more excessive force complaints than any other officer between 1988 and 2008.
In a sworn deposition taken in 2015, Evans displayed a cavalier attitude toward CPD procedures, declaring that “department orders are a guideline and nothing more.”
Johnson knew Evans long before he moved him to the tactical team. Early in their careers, the two served together as patrolmen in the 6th District. Both were also among the small number of black officers in the CPD’s upper ranks. Johnson explained his support for Evans in a 2017 deposition: “He had a reputation as being a good aggressive officer.”
Evans’s approach to policing soon triggered a backlash, and allegations of excessive force began to swirl around his tactical team as a cadre of younger officers with lengthy complaint records joined the squad. Among the new additions was Jason Landrum, who had shot three people in five years, including a man he shot in the stomach after his partner handcuffed him to a fence.
The new officers appear to have had a major impact on the squad. By mid-2011, toward the end of Johnson’s tenure as commander, officers serving on his tactical team had received an average of seven complaints each over the previous three years, a 70 percent increase from when he took over the district and four times that of the average CPD officer.
A string of lawsuits accompanied the complaints. The city paid a settlement of nearly $500,000 after allegations that a 6th District officer shoved a man down a flight of stairs — fracturing his leg — and a tactical officer shot his dog. A nearly $41,000 settlement followed allegations that tactical officers handcuffed a man with a heart condition and then tased him twice, and a $60,000 settlement came after a man alleged that tactical officers illegally searched him and then harassed him after he filed a complaint. A woman named Rita King alleged that Evans fractured her nose inside the 6th District headquarters, repeatedly telling her, “I’m going to push your nose through your brain.” The city of Chicago paid King $100,000 to settle her case.
Beyond the lawsuits, Johnson reviewed many of the formal complaints in his capacity as commander. In one case, a woman accused Evans of unjustly shooting her dog. Investigators cleared Evans despite acknowledging that all five non-police witnesses had provided accounts that “drastically contradict” Evans’s explanation of the shooting. Johnson affirmed that the shooting was justified.
The growing stream of brutality complaints and lawsuits against the tactical team reached its peak in 2010, when tactical officers were involved in three fatal shootings — all of which killed young men who were unarmed or fleeing — in just six months.
The first took place in July, when two tactical officers approached a young black motorist named William Hope Jr., who was parked outside of a Popeyes around lunchtime. According to the officers, Hope responded by trying to run over one of the officers with his car. The officer’s partner then fired four shots, fatally wounding the 24-year-old.
A lawsuit brought by Hope’s family presented a starkly different account. On the witness stand, one of the officers admitted that Hope’s car had been moving at three miles per hour, matching eyewitnesses who claimed that Hope presented no danger to the officers. Ultimately, the jury ruled that the shooting was unjustified and awarded Hope’s family over $4.5 million. The verdict also ordered the officers to present the case to police recruits as an example of bad policing.
Less than two months later, officers took off in pursuit of a motorist named Garfield King. King had fled a routine traffic stop, worried that officers would find his illegal gun. The multi-car pursuit ended in a collision between King’s vehicle and a police car. King’s car caught fire, and two officers suffered fractured bones. Seven officers, including three tactical officers and two 6th District patrolmen, then opened fire, killing King and wounding his girlfriend, one of three unarmed passengers who had been trying to convince King to surrender. She later told investigators that King never tried to use the gun. The officers who chased King and fired 30 shots into his car knew only that he had fled a traffic stop.
Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, or IPRA, ruled the shooting justified, but the department’s policy at the time stated that “when confronted with an oncoming vehicle and that vehicle is the only force used against them, sworn members will move out of the vehicle’s path.” The Department of Justice later raised concerns about shootings of motorists as well, pointing out that “shooting at a moving vehicle is inherently dangerous and almost always counterproductive.”
Troubling details also emerged about the third tactical team shooting, when tactical officer Tracey Williams shot and killed Ontario Billups in December 2010. Williams claimed that Billups menaced her with a dark object, possibly a handgun. Investigators eventually confirmed that Billups was unarmed. The dark object Williams saw was likely a plastic bag of marijuana. The city paid Billups’s family $500,000 to avoid a trial.
Reached by phone, Glenn Evans said that both his lawyer and the CPD superintendent’s office, “told me not to speak, but I will until they give me a direct order not to.” Evans proceeded to defend his officers, highlighting a 2010 case in which a suspect opened fire on tactical officers, including Evans. Officers resolved the situation peacefully. “We were able to talk it out. … We didn’t beat anyone up, we didn’t torture anyone, we didn’t abuse anyone.”
Evans said that the officers involved in the three fatal shootings in 2010 were “exceptional officers, exceptionally decorated … extremely good officers.” When asked about the names of the three men killed by his officers — Ontario Billups, William Hope Jr., and Garfield King — Evans said, “I don’t even know who these guys are.”
The killings of Billups, Hope, and King within a six-month period by members of a single squad of 45 officers was highly unusual. During the second half of 2010, the other members of the CPD — nearly 13,000 officers — killed just four people. “If [a tactical squad] has more of these incidents compared with other tactical squads, there’s an obvious issue there related to supervision,” said Walker, the policing expert.
Commanders are generally “very aware” of misconduct investigations involving their officers and have wide authority over their tactical teams, said Robert Lombardo, a 30-year CPD veteran who later served as deputy chief of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department and is now a criminal justice professor at Loyola University Chicago. “If they have a personal concern, as they’re called, you put them back in uniform. You take them off the TACT team,” he said. “They have no right to the TACT team, it’s not in the contract. You serve at the pleasure of the commander, so if he doesn’t like the way you’re working, you go back in uniform and he puts someone else there.”
Following the fatal shootings, none of the officers were moved off the squad or off the street. Nor was Evans, their supervisor, reassigned, choices that had serious consequences. Over the next five years, the seven 6th District officers who fired shots in the three fatal shootings would open fire another eight times — nearly 30 times the CPD average. Those subsequent shootings, many in the 6th District, wounded four people and left 19-year-old Niko Husband dead.
The officer who shot Husband was Marco Proano, a non-tactical officer who had also fired shots in the killing of Garfield King. Proano was one of a number of regular patrol officers accused of serious misconduct while serving under Eddie Johnson.
Proano killed Husband outside a South Side dance hall in July 2011. Officers claimed that the teenager was holding a young woman hostage and brandishing a gun. The same woman testified in court that she was a childhood friend of Husband’s and that the two had been hugging when the officers approached. She also denied that her friend had a gun. A jury awarded Husband’s family $3.5 million after a trial in which the family’s lawyer alleged that Proano and two other officers had planted a gun on Husband’s body after killing him. Under Johnson, Proano was not punished. The CPD instead awarded him a medal for valor for the shooting.
In November 2017, a federal jury convicted Proano on charges of using excessive force for firing multiple shots into a car full of unarmed black teenagers, injuring two, while on patrol in the 6th District in 2013, after Johnson had left his role as commander. Charges against Proano came after a retiring judge in a criminal case involving one of the teenagers leaked video of him shooting into the car to the Chicago Reporter, calling Proano’s actions one of the worst things he’d seen in over 30 years as a judge and public defender. He told the Reporter that “I’ve seen lots of gruesome, grisly crimes, but this is disturbing on a whole different level.”
Proano’s shooting of Husband was one of four controversial shootings by non-tactical officers working in the 6th District under Johnson. These cases included two other fatal shootings in which either the autopsy or eyewitnesses raised questions about the police account. The city also paid a man $100,000 after he claimed that two 6th District officers shot him and then planted a gun on him.
Abuses by 6th District officers outside the tactical team during Johnson’s time as commander also led to major misconduct payments and criminal cases. A jury awarded $750,000 to a woman beaten by a 6th District officer who accused the 20-year-old of violating curfew. An Internal Affairs investigation also found that 6th District officers, including a lieutenant, covered for a drunk officer named Richard Bolling — the son of a retired CPD commander — after he struck and killed a 13-year-old out riding his bike. One unidentified officer promised Bolling that “I’m gonna try to help you out as much as possible.” Sixth District officers on the scene waited over two hours to administer a sobriety test. Bolling was eventually sentenced to three years in prison.
The shootings and other misconduct allegations cost taxpayers millions. The Invisible Institute analyzed unit assignment data and a Chicago Reporter database that tracks all police misconduct payments from 2011 through 2016. Johnson’s 6th District was just one of 25 police districts but accounted for roughly $8 million, fully one-sixth of the entire CPD’s misconduct payments during his time as commander. Since the end of 2016, Chicago has paid at least another $3.7 million related to misconduct by 6th District officers during Johnson’s time as commander.
Over Johnson’s tenure, dozens of officers serving on the tactical team were involved in lawsuits that led to settlements totaling $6 million. That total accounted for a huge share of overall CPD misconduct payments, costing the city about $130,000 for each of the team’s roughly 45 officers — nearly 40 times the average for all other CPD officers.
Walker, the University of Nebraska police accountability expert, argues that Johnson’s handling of misconduct as a commander has a strong bearing on his role as superintendent. “It’s another reason why he’s probably not qualified for his current job,” he said. “He just doesn’t think in terms of these kind of problems or see them as problems and take corrective action. … He’s just not qualified to be the chief executive of a police department, especially one as large and complex as Chicago.”
Johnson left the 6th District in August 2011, and from 2012 to 2014, he served as deputy chief of patrol for Area Central, directly supervising nine district commanders.
Johnson’s time as a deputy chief followed a similar pattern as his tenure as commander. He was credited with major reductions in gun crime and murders in 2013 (though only after a spike in 2012), while continuing to sign off on cases like the shooting of 17-year-old Christian Green. As the on-call incident commander in that shooting, Johnson took aside the four officers who witnessed the shooting and interviewed them one by one. The officers all gave Johnson similar accounts: Green had turned around and pointed a gun at pursuing officers, prompting one to return fire. Johnson also conferred with detectives on the scene. He did not speak with any civilian witnesses, he said in a deposition.
Security cameras captured images of Green running from the police and carrying a gun. At one point, Green tried to throw the weapon in a trash can, but it bounced out. Green hurried back to collect it before sprinting off again. Green and his police pursuers then moved out of the cameras’ view. Moments later, he was dead.
One of the pursuing officers had fired 11 shots at the teenager. An eyewitness later testified that the officer stood over Green’s body and shouted, “Motherfucker! You wanna run? Huh? Huh? … You see how fucking far you got?” The same witness said that Green was running away and not facing the officer when he opened fire. Green’s gun was found in an abandoned lot, 75 feet from his body.
Johnson approved the officers’ use of force. While on the scene, he also gave a walkthrough to investigators from IPRA, telling them that Green had been shot in the chest when he turned to point his gun at officers. An autopsy would later reveal that Green had been shot in the back.
In 2017, a jury found that the officer who killed Green had shot without cause and awarded his family $350,000. After the trial, the family’s attorney criticized the investigation overseen by Johnson, declaring that it “fell short on every level.”
Prior to the trial, Johnson testified in a deposition that he did not know that the shooter had previously belonged to a notorious crew led by Sgt. Ronald Watts. Just a year before Green’s shooting, Watts and his partner had been arrested for stealing money from an FBI drug informant. After Watts’s arrest, some questioned why the rest of his team — which included three of the four officers Johnson interviewed — remained on the street. Years later, as superintendent, Johnson placed all three on desk duty after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office found serious problems with over a dozen cases tied to Watts’s team, leading to the largest mass exoneration in Cook County history.
Aggressive officers like Glenn Evans also continued to receive Johnson’s support, even as allegations of excessive force followed him as he entered the highest ranks of the CPD. Evans took charge of the 3rd District in August 2012, becoming one of the nine district commanders who reported directly to Johnson. Former CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy said in a deposition obtained by WBEZ that he likely promoted Evans based on a recommendation from Johnson, though Johnson has disputed this.
Evans ultimately garnered nine complaints in two years as a commander, an exceptional amount for a senior official, who tend to receive far fewer complaints than street-level officers. Only 23 of Chicago’s roughly 13,000 officers received more complaints. One of the complaints against Evans concerned a man named Ricky Williams, who claimed that in 2013, Evans cornered him in an abandoned building and shoved his gun down his throat. Johnson directly supervised Evans at the time, but he and McCarthy took no action — even when IPRA recommended Evans be stripped of police powers after finding Williams’s DNA on his gun.
Evans was eventually indicted over the Williams incident in the summer of 2014. After a controversial acquittal the next year, the department demoted him to lieutenant. During Evans’s brief time as a commander, his subordinates killed two teenagers in troubling circumstances. Investigators ruled one shooting unjustified — though Chicago’s Police Board recently overturned their ruling — and recently reopened an investigation of the second after finding video contradicting officer accounts from the scene. The first shooting — a 15-year-old named Dakota Bright shot in the back of the head — took place while Evans reported directly to Johnson and led to a $925,000 settlement paid to Bright’s family.
“CPD standard operating procedure is, and has been for years, when an officer is accused of misconduct, when an officer uses force, it’s to justify it and circle the wagons and get the officer’s back,” said civil rights attorney Craig Futterman. “You don’t even need a conspiracy, it’s just standard operating procedures, and [Eddie Johnson] has been a part of that for 30 years.”
In response to a detailed list of questions for this article, Johnson provided the following statement:
During my entire career with the Chicago Police Department I have and will always approach every decision, action and investigation with the highest level of integrity and thoughtful deliberation of available facts and evidence. The trust between police and the community is paramount to everything we do and it is vitally important to me as the Police Superintendent and as a lifelong resident of Chicago. Since becoming Superintendent, I implemented a comprehensive reform agenda to solidify CPD’s path toward becoming a model agency that all of Chicago could be proud of. I support the federal consent decree and have embraced and advocated for investments into our police officers including, better training, support and mentoring. I also reinvigorated our community policing philosophy because CPD is only as strong as the community’s faith in our officers and we cannot create a safer Chicago without standing shoulder to shoulder with the people that live and work here.
All of the use of force incidents you reference have gone through an independent use of force investigation, a review by state or federal prosecutorial agency and independent deliberation by the then-Superintendent and Chicago Police Board. All of the answers to your inquiries can be found in the publicly available case records and court transcripts for those incidents.
Johnson took charge of the CPD in 2016, the same year Chicago endured a massive increase in homicides, with the murder rate jumping nearly 60 percent. Though homicides declined in 2017, they remained well above historic levels. Other types of crime also rose, with reported carjackings more than doubling between 2015 and 2017.
In the first months of his tenure, Johnson moved to implement some of the mayor’s key reform promises, greatly expanding the use of body cameras and supplying Tasers to more officers. The department rewrote its use of force rules, which reform advocates largely praised. Johnson also responded to some police shootings more forcefully than his predecessors, immediately suspending officers in a handful of officer-involved shootings, including a case in which an officer killed an unarmed teenager named Paul O’Neal.
But in the context of rising violence, calls to let the police return to their old ways are growing louder. Addressing the possibility of court oversight of the CPD, Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham last year declared, “Already facing an explosion of crime because the police have been so handcuffed from doing their job by the intense anti-police movement in the city, this consent decree will only handcuff the police even further.”
Former CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy, now running for mayor, has voiced similar sentiments, denouncing the DOJ report and insisting that “the problem in Chicago is not the police.”
Faced with pressure from within his own ranks, Johnson has returned to a familiar approach to police shootings. He defended Officer Robert Rialmo, who shot and killed Quintonio LeGrier, a college student in the midst of an emotional disturbance, and Bettie Jones, a 55-year-old bystander, sparking pushback from several African-American aldermen. Johnson’s move to prevent Rialmo’s firing came after he also sought to block the firing of the officer who shot and killed 15-year-old Dakota Bright.
Two and a half years into Johnson’s appointment, Chicago’s police department is far from reformed. Three separate lawsuits filed last year — one by a broad civil rights coalition, including the Chicago branches of Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, and the Urban League, represented by civil rights attorneys Craig Futterman and Sheila Bedi; one from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and community groups such as the Community Renewal Society; and one from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office — all insisted that only court-overseen reforms will truly change the department. (Andrew Fan provided pro bono data analysis of a CPD use of force database to the first coalition suing the CPD).
The Madigan lawsuit pushed Mayor Rahm Emanuel to begin negotiations to accept formal court oversight of police reforms in Chicago. In July, Madigan and Emanuel announced a 225-page draft consent decree that outlines sweeping changes that the department must complete in the coming years.
In early September, Emanuel’s announcement that he would not run for re-election jolted the mayoral race, prompting many of Chicago’s most prominent politicians to consider jumping into the contest. Many observers pointed to the approaching trial of Jason Van Dyke, the officer who killed Laquan McDonald, and the likelihood of renewed public attention toward Emanuel’s record on police misconduct as a key factor in his decision to step down.
Still, Emanuel will remain in office for over six months, during which time the city will finalize and begin to implement its historic court-ordered reforms. Emanuel’s unwillingness to embrace police reform is now as important as ever, with the mayor in a position of power but unconstrained by the threat of an election. Despite his repeated reform promises, in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Emanuel sought to strike a deal with then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that would have staved off court oversight of the CPD. Even after public pressure ended that effort, Emanuel spoke openly of his fear that reform could worsen the city’s crime rate, worrying that “other cities have done this to the police department and it’s come at the expense of public safety.”
The support of Emanuel and Johnson is crucial even with a formal consent decree. Chiraag Bains, a former DOJ attorney who worked on the federal investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department, argues that “the orientation of the political leadership and the leadership of the police department are key to whether the reform process is successful or not.”
Futterman echoed Bains’s point, but lamented that “sadly under this administration, I’m seeing the antithesis of that. A failure to own [the problem] and a lack of genuine commitment to address the realities that brought the DOJ to Chicago in the first place.”
The problems posed by Eddie Johnson’s leadership extend far beyond the mayor who appointed him. When Emanuel appointed Johnson in early 2016, his hold on the mayor’s office was in jeopardy. After the release of the Laquan McDonald video, one poll showed that a majority of Chicago voters wanted him to resign. The selection process was a rare opportunity for Chicago’s City Council and the media to check the mayor during a moment of weakness, especially after the mayor picked an insider to run the police department even as he promised Chicago “nothing less than complete and total reform of the system.”
Rather than digging into Johnson’s record, political leaders and media outlets, in a deeply familiar Chicago process, instead fixated on Johnson’s political ties and loyalties. A Chicago Tribune editorial congratulated Emanuel on the politics of the pick, noting that “the mayor scored the support of the Black and Latino caucuses and the Fraternal Order of Police, a rare trifecta.”
None of the city’s major news outlets connected Johnson to his role in approving Rekia Boyd’s killing, despite devoting major coverage to Dante Servin’s trial less than a year prior. Chicago media also failed to report on Johnson’s record as a senior CPD leader, including the troubling pattern of killings hanging over his time as commander of the 6th District. Chicago’s aldermen, fresh from helping to push out McCarthy for his role in the McDonald shooting, approved Johnson by a vote of 50-0.
Chicago will soon decide on new leadership for the city and its police. With Emanuel’s retirement, voters have a wide range of options, including Garry McCarthy, Bill Daley — brother and son of former Chicago mayors — and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a supporter of police reform who once condemned McCarthy as a “racist bully boy.” With neither an incumbent nor an obvious frontrunner, the city faces perhaps its most wide-open mayoral contest since 1983.
Six years after Rekia Boyd’s killing jolted Chicago activists and three years after video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting channeled activist anger into a citywide movement, Chicagoans face a momentous choice on police reform.
How to fix Chicago’s police is a longstanding and difficult question, but this time the decision lies not in the hands of a powerful mayor, but with the people of Chicago.
This story will appear on the cover of next week’s issue of South Side Weekly, a nonprofit newspaper based on Chicago’s South Side.
Roman Rivera contributed data analysis.
The Invisible Institute, in partnership with The Intercept, investigates the corruption, racism, and violence of the Chicago Police Department.