The battle between the Black community and the Chicago Police Department has stemmed from decades of racial tension, discrimination, unwarranted arrests and convictions that have built a wall of distrust and anger. The very same wall has also become an albatross around the innocent necks of residents who keep a silent tongue about or disregarding the growing violence — choosing not to snitch out its predators, afraid of both them and the police.
Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recent appointment of then CPD Patrol Commander Eddie Johnson as superintendent, the move has been both criticized and praised. After a tedious process of town hall community forums led by Lori Lightfoot, chair of the Chicago Police Board, to give residents a voice in the police disciplinary process, the civilian body of members presented three prospective candidates for the CPD superintendent seat.
Under pressure from community stakeholders, faith leaders and public officials from the Black community led to Mayor Emanuel’s appointment of Johnson, a police veteran with an inside knowledge of Chicago Police Department culture, solid relationships among peers and a deep outreach into the community.
Growing up on the Near North Side, Eddie Johnson lived in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, where he attended Jenner Elementary. Eventually, his family moved to the South Side, where he transferred to Mt. Vernon Elementary School. He quickly made the adjustment, which at the time included two-parent households and neighbors who often looked out for each other’s kids.
Attending Corliss High School, Johnson played both baseball and football. He graduated then went to Eastern Illinois University, where he says he majored in “having a good time” and pledged Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. “I didn’t get my degree from there. I got my degree from Governor’s State, where I got serious.” Johnson graduated from GSU with a 4.0 GPA. He joined the Chicago Police Department in 1988, where he would move up the rank and file for the next 27 years.
Since the first African-American was appointed as the superintedent of the Chicago Police Department, Fred Rice, Jr. in 1983, two others have held the top post: LeRoy Martin (1987-1992) and Terry G. Hillard (1998-2003). Johnson is the city’s fourth Black superintendent
After a very intense wave of police misconduct cases and the video release of several victims of police shootings, including the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in November 2015 — it was the nail in the coffin for Chicago residents.
Working With the Community
Despite a decrease of homicides and reported shootings over the last seven years, former Superintendent Garry McCarthy was reluctantly fired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Community organizations such as Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.) has built a great relationship with the 7th District Commander encouraging positive initiative for its residents. President and Founder Asiaha Butler has been a homeowner and resident in the community since 2002.
She was at first skeptical of the mayor’s new appointment. “My initial thoughts were anyone appointed by the mayor is suspect. I think at this point, Englewood and probably the entire city of Chicago does not trust the appointments of our mayor. We’ve seen the kind of ways that he moves around the city and the people who are put in these high positions.”
As a mother and wife, Butler has fought hard to bring light and positive programs to residents and recently had met Superintendent Johnson at a park event. She was impressed. “I didn’t know him prior to his appointment. He really talked to everyone who was at the event and talked about how he wants to support efforts like R.A.G.E to take over the parks in the name of peace and how CPD can support us moving forward. He had a dialogue with activists and organizations, young and seniors,” said Butler.
Since his appointment to the new post, Johnson has met with several young activist leaders.
“We had about four Black activist groups that were thorns in the sides of CPD after the Laquan McDonald video hit. I’m not angry with them. They are forcing CPD to be transparent and to be accountable, and that’s OK,” Johnson said. He said he’s been meeting with young activists — Jedidah Brown, Will Calloway and Ja’Mal Green — to move toward more community trust and transparency and accountability within the Chicago Police Department.
“So, now they want to be part of the solution to resolve this violence in Chicago as opposed to just attacking CPD. I talk to those three individuals quite regularly to help resolve issues before it gets to that point. Amazingly, it has been very positive,” he said.
Johnson has spent a great deal of his time attending community forums, CAPS meetings, neighborhood roll calls and connecting with people one-on-one, but as his presence becomes familiar, so does the gun violence.
Just this past weekend, seven people were killed and 35 other people were victims of gun violence. One of the youngest victims was a 5-year-old girl wounded in Marquette Park when a gunman opened fire on her and a 34-year old woman.
At press time, this has brought the estimated number of shootings to 1,450, with 289 homicides this year alone. A staggering number of casualties, the highest since the 1990s.
The Chicago Police Department has named 1,400 to the Strategic Subject List (SSL) — a system developed by the Illinois Institute of Technology. The system calculates the probability of their committing gun violence or being targeted.
“CPD has also done a great job in arresting these individuals. The piece that we’re missing is actually holding the repeat gun offenders accountable for their acts. We need to do a better job in holding them accountable,” says Johnson. He is confident that they will be able to monitor subjects without bias — it monitors based on previous criminal history. “The great thing about the SSL, it doesn’t identify gender, race, ethnicity, or where you live. It only identifies people who have a history of contact with law enforcement in some form or fashion.”
Johnson says it takes removing individuals who commit these crimes from our community. “Our judicial and legislative partners have to help us hold these individuals accountable.” He believes part of the solution is tougher mandates and sentencing.
He explains the concern of police officers is arresting someone on an illegal weapon charge on Friday and the following week, they are back on the streets.
“That’s unacceptable for this amount of violence to be occurring in the Black community. It’s unacceptable for any community leaders to think that’s OK — that’s unacceptable. In order to reduce this gun violence, you need everybody to play their part, their role in reducing this violence.”
The problem still falls on the trust between Black communities and the Chicago Police Department. How will CPD move forward under his watch to mend those deep wounds?
Former Chicago police officer and 29th Ward Alderman Chris Taliaferro understands deeply the mistrust that has placed a serious void between officers and the African-American community. In Austin, shootings and homicides have increased, and it holds the number one position as the most violent area in the city.
“I think that’s an indicator at the level of trust between the residents of this city. When you gain that trust then you feel at ease about talking about what’s going on in the streets. They may be afraid if ‘I do talk to the police; my name will be released in some shape or form or they start questioning me regarding what I know about the crime.’ That’s a strong indicator that we don’t have the level of trust that we need to see reduction in violence. Our superintendent has to have the goal or the intent which I do believe he has in forming that relationship,” said Taliaferro.
The 27-year CPD veteran admits there is a long way to go, but one of the first things that is necessary is going out and touching the people — listening to them. He feels it must start at the top and work its way down in order to lead by example.
“If I do it, then my command staff will do it, they do it — then the people who work under them will do it. It’s not going to happen overnight, but that’s the goal that we’re reaching for. If the rank-and-file police officers and command staff have dialogue with citizens, they will start to get more comfortable with us. In turn, they will help us solve some of the crimes out here and there,” he added. “Until they trust the police, they’re just not going to feel comfortable with telling us or giving us information. I get that.”
The events that have put the Chicago Police Department on center stage from the senseless deaths of Rekia Boyd, Philip Coleman and Cedrick Chatman to the 55-year-old mother of six, Bettie Jones — it goes back to a cultural disconnect between officers and Black residents.
President of Violence Interrupters, NFP and community activist Tio Hardiman has been in the trenches over the last two decades mediating gang and street disputes between various factions across the city. He feels despite Johnson’s goodwill efforts — change must begin within one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the country.
“The reality is that it doesn’t matter if the police superintendent is white, Black, Hispanic or Asian — the reality is the ‘code of silence’ that has existed in Chicago within the police department for over a hundred years,” Hardiman explains, “The only disagreement that I have with him is that he stated previously that he never witnessed an act of police misconduct, but a guy like Eddie Johnson — a veteran police officer?” Hardiman said it’s hard to not be privy to conversations that may have involved police misconduct because of the police culture that supports the “code of silence” era.
More Minority Applicants Sought
Today, many of our ethnic neighborhoods are patrolled by predominantly white officers — some not trained for the cultural divide. Johnson just recently pushed to increase more minority applicants to join the Police Department.
“I’m a firm believer we should reflect the demographics of the city. In order to get that, we need the particular segments to step up and apply for the job. We just had an entry exam, we made a big push to apply for the test.”
In keeping with the traditional outreach of notifying potential applicants such as television, print and aldermanic offices — they didn’t receive the necessary young people of color to apply. They had to read just their strategy and outreach.
“We had to go back to the drawing board and we realized that the young folks now look to social media to get their information. We made a big push this time around and as a result, 70 percent of the applicants are minority applicants for this next round. Testing has been done. Now we’re going through the process of vetting them,” said Johnson.
As the CPD moves forward in preparing new police officers to adjust to serve Chicago communities by partnering with several high schools — forming peace circles.
Johnson explains, “What that’s doing is letting those recruits that come from a different culture meet with the minority teenager so they can see that all these kids aren’t bad kids. Also, so that these teenagers can see these officers as people—so it works both ways. But I think one of the problems we’ve had in the past, we have people from different cultures and when they don’t know each other, they fear each other. When you have fear like that, sometimes we make bad decisions.”
The father of three understands the importance of having solid role models in young kids’ lives. His own father was a constant inspiration and strong presence in growing up.
“My father was a hard-working man. Anything he touched turned to gold. He was a strict disciplinarian. I had five brothers, six boys. He just didn’t tolerate nonsense and taught us right from wrong.”
He said a childhood incident could’ve put him on a totally different path when one of his friends suggested he and his friends try to rob the neighborhood candy store. Fearing the wrath of his father, Johnson said he and his best friend chose not go along with the other boys. Unbeknownst to the group — the kid who led the group to the candy store had a pistol, and the attempt to steal a handful of penny candy turned into an armed robbery.
Johnson said two neighborhood beat cops came across the kids and all were arrested as he and his friend waited in the park for their return.
“My life could’ve taken a different turn had I chose to participate in that. That’s why the decisions you make in life and your role models are so important. I had good role models — my dad, my uncles or just men in the neighborhood.” He reflects on moving at nine from the concrete walls of Cabrini-Green to the South Side. “When I moved out South, all the families were two-parent families and the men who lived on the block all helped raise us. I like to think that little piece of them, I carry inside of me every day.”
Johnson is looking forward to completing his thesis to acquire his master’s from Northwestern University as he finds time, but for now, his first priority is turning around one of the world’s largest law enforcement agencies in building a better level of trust and transparency.
“The problem is for us, one cop doing bad things — it paints us all in a negative light. That boulder becomes too huge to keep pushing uphill, so I have to create a mechanism that police officers first report what they see without fear of retribution; second — I have to make it so that they’re not stigmatized or ostracized for reporting a misconduct.”
Johnson said he’s working on this currently and will announce a new policy soon.
“You can’t fix it until you acknowledge that problems exist, so I’m telling you that CPD is not perfect, but we are working to correct these issues.”
Recent Police Update
As the paper was going to print, this recent development came across the wire. In a statement, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said:
“After careful consideration and reviewing the video footage, Superintendent Johnson has decided to relieve one of the officers involved in the incident that occurred on the 3900 block of West Greenshaw of his police powers while IPRA (Independent Police Review Authority) investigates the case.”