Chicago’s mayor on Monday fired police Superintendent Eddie Johnson less than a month before his planned retirement, citing a “series of ethical lapses” surrounding a mid-October incident in which Johnson was found asleep in his car at a stop sign. The firing marks an unceremonious end for one of the nation’s most recognizable police leaders who has overseen a decline in homicides during his tenure.
Beginning her news conference with a deep sigh, Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) said the unexpected announcement was spurred by an ongoing investigation into the events of Oct. 17. Johnson had indicated that issues with his blood pressure medication caused him to pull over near his home and fall asleep behind the wheel of his SUV. Lightfoot later told the Chicago Sun-Times that Johnson said he’d had a “couple of drinks with dinner” that night.
But in a searing monologue on Monday, the mayor said she’d recently learned through an inspector general’s report and video evidence that Johnson had “engaged in conduct that is not only unbecoming, but demonstrated a series of ethical lapses and flawed decision-making that is inconsistent with having the privilege of leading the Chicago Police Department.”
“Just like with the public, Eddie Johnson intentionally lied to me several times, even when I challenged him about the narrative that he shared with me,” Lightfoot said. “He maintained that he was telling the truth, I now know definitively that he was not.”
Lightfoot did not elaborate on the details of Johnson’s case and declined to specify what he lied about, but said certain aspects of the investigation could become public later. Johnson told reporters after the incident that he became lightheaded and pulled over after failing to take new medication for his high blood pressure. The officers who found Johnson allowed him to drive home and did not administer a breath test. In October, he asked the department’s internal affairs division to investigate the incident.
Johnson joined the Chicago force as a patrolman in 1988. In a news conference last month, he said his decision to retire was because the job had taken a toll on his health and family, denying that it had anything to do with the October incident. As he announced his retirement, Lightfoot lauded Johnson for his leadership and efforts over the years to make the city safer.
“Had I known these facts at the time, I would’ve relieved him of his duties as superintendent then and there,” Lightfoot said Monday. “I certainly wouldn’t have participated in a celebratory news conference to announce his retirement.”
Johnson was appointed superintendent in 2016 by former mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had fired the previous police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, amid widespread criticism over how authorities responded to the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by a white police officer. Emanuel said in 2015 that “public trust in the leadership of the department has been shaken and eroded.”
In choosing Johnson, Emanuel rejected three finalists recommended by the Chicago Police Board. Emanuel said Johnson, a Chicago native known for his humility, had the “command, character and capability to lead the department at this critical juncture.”
Johnson quickly became one of the most recognizable police leaders in the country. He made headlines again in late October after announcing that he would not attend a gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, because he felt “it just didn’t line up with our city’s core values.”
President Trump, who spoke at the event, singled out Johnson and his remarks. Citing several crime statistics, Trump called violence in Chicago “embarrassing to us as a nation” and said “Afghanistan is a safe place by comparison.”
He further accused Johnson of valuing illegal immigrants and criminals more than law-abiding citizens.
“And frankly those values to me are a disgrace,” Trump said. “I want Eddie Johnson to change his values and to change them fast.”
Chicago has seen a reduction in homicides and shooting victims since 2016, according to data from the Chicago Tribune. There had been 467 homicides in the city this year through Saturday, compared with 526 in 2018 and 713 in 2016. The newspaper’s database also indicates that there have been 2,482 shooting victims this year, compared with 2,694 last year.
On Monday, Lightfoot renewed a plea for cultural change within the department — beginning at the top — and emphasized the importance of creating an environment conducive to honesty, integrity and accountability, even when “time and time again, lying police officers are held accountable for their actions, but their supervisors get a pass.”
“Perhaps in years past, someone in Mr. Johnson’s circumstances would’ve been allowed to simply retire,” she said. “Doing so today, in these circumstances, would’ve been inconsistent with who I am, and the kind of principled leadership I want to bring to the city.”
Lightfoot said former Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck, who was supposed to take over as interim superintendent after Johnson’s retirement, would assume the role immediately.
The city and the police department did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment on the firing and the status of Johnson’s pension.
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