Top Cop Eddie Johnson Announces Retirement: ‘It’s Time’

Police superintendent will serve through the end of 2019

It wasn’t long-standing health issues or an ongoing investigation by the Chicago inspector general that got Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson thinking about his retirement. Rather, it was a meeting in September with the widows of three police officers who were killed last year in the line of duty.

“Not only could I see the pride in their faces,” Johnson told reporters Thursday, “I saw the pain in their faces. And I also saw the reflection of their husbands.”

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After that talk, Johnson found a seat beside Mayor Lori Lightfoot and whispered in her ear: “We need to start talking about an end date for me.”

That discussion came to a head Thursday when Johnson officially announced his plans to retire after more than three years as Chicago’s top cop.

“It’s time for someone else to pin these four stars to their shoulders,” he said, choking up during a press conference at Chicago police headquarters. “These stars can sometimes feel like carrying the weight of the world. But I’m confident that I leave CPD in a better place than when I became superintendent.”

Johnson will serve out the next two months before stepping down at the start of the new year.

Johnson has been with the Chicago Police Department for more than three decades. He was appointed to his current role in 2016 by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had fired previous Superintendent Garry McCarthy after video was released showing the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a police officer.

Standing beside his wife, Nakia Fenner, and two children, Daniel and Joshua, Johnson spoke to reporters for more than 30 minutes, recounting his upbringing in the city’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood to his appointment as superintendent to his accomplishments in the years since.

Among them: decreased violent crime since a spike in 2016; police reforms from a consent decree that brought in federal oversight to the department; and a drop in police-involved shootings to their lowest point since 2009.

Though he said the job has taken a toll on his health and his family, Johnson said: “My integrity remains intact.”

“I’ve been doing this 31 years,” he said, pounding his fist on a podium inside the media room at CPD headquarters. “It’s time. 2020 will be a new year and a new chapter in my life, and I’m looking forward to it. I am so at peace mentally.”

Johnson’s retirement comes during an ongoing investigation by the city’s inspector general after the superintendent was found asleep inside his car last month. That incident was initially blamed on a change in Johnson’s blood pressure medication. But Lightfoot later said Johnson had told her he had had a couple of drinks with dinner earlier that evening.

Johnson, who told reporters earlier this week he’d been “toying” with the idea of retirement, said his decision was not based on the ongoing investigation. Neither he nor Lightfoot would discuss that matter substantively Thursday, saying it would be “inappropriate” to comment on a continuing investigation.

WBEZ this week reported Lightfoot made up her mind to replace Johnson shortly after that incident. But the mayor stood beside Johnson on Thursday and repeatedly complimented his career of service.

“Chicago is better because Superintendent Eddie Johnson calls our great city home,” Lightfoot said, “and because he dedicated his life to serving it.”

Who’s next?

As Johnson leaves, Lightfoot must now begin the process of selecting his replacement.

As head of the Chicago Police Board in 2016, she helped identify three finalists for the post, each of whom were bypassed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he tabbed Johnson for the role.

Media reports this week have linked the mayor to former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who she has reportedly sought to serve in an interim role. Lightfoot denied that rumor Wednesday.

Asked for his thoughts, Johnson his replacement should be someone who wants to “keep the momentum going” in terms of decreasing violent crime. But he wouldn’t say if he thought that person was already working for the department.

“That’s for the mayor to decide,” he said.

Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham said he wants the new superintendent to be someone who has “walked in the shoes” of an officer and “knows what it’s like to go on dangerous calls.”

“When it comes to that, we need to have a police officer who understands those difficulties in this job and are going to address those.”

Does that mean they have to be from Chicago?

“I think that a Chicago police officer has a perspective of the city that can correct things that are wrong; who actually knows what the contract says, who actually knows how things are done,” Graham said. “I think you miss that when you go outside the city to try and find someone.”

Raw video: Paris Schutz interviews Eddie Johnson following Johnson’s announcement.

A timeline of Johnson’s tenure as superintendent:

March 28, 2016: Johnson is appointed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to serve as superintendent. Emanuel bypasses the three finalists for the post chosen by the Chicago Police Board in favor of someone who he says “knows our city” and can “restore trust and accountability in the police department.”

Aug. 18, 2016: Johnson moves to fire seven officers involved in the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald by officer Jason Van Dyke.

Sept.1, 2016: The city of Chicago releases its latest crime figures, which show August was the city’s deadliest month in some 20 years with 90 murders recorded.  

Sept. 21, 2016: Johnson pledges to hire 1,000 additional officers to boost the police department by the end of 2018.

Jan. 27, 2017: Johnson gets lightheaded and nearly collapses during a press conference with Emanuel. He was briefly hospitalized, but a CPD spokesman said the incident was unrelated to Johnson’s longstanding kidney issues.

Aug. 30, 2017: Johnson undergoes a kidney transplant, receiving a kidney donation from his son Daniel.

April 2, 2018: Johnson breaks with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability’s findings in the fatal shootings of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones by officer Robert Rialmo. He stood by the officer and rejected COPA’s determination that the shooting was unjustified.

Oct. 5, 2018: Jason Van Dyke is found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm for killing Laquan McDonald, becoming the first CPD officer convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in decades. He is later sentenced to nearly seven years in prison.

Nov. 7, 2018: Although Johnson believed officer Robert Rialmo’s fatal shooting of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones was justified, Johnson files charges with the Chicago Police Board recommending Rialmo be fired, alleging multiple rule violations.

May 21, 2019: Newly elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces she will keep Johnson on board as superintendent as her first term gets underway.

Oct. 17, 2019: Johnson is found asleep inside his car. A police spokesman says Johnson pulled over after feeling lightheaded following a change in his blood pressure medication. Lightfoot tells the Chicago Sun-Times a day later that Johnson had told her he’d had a “couple of drinks” with dinner earlier that evening. Eventually, the city’s inspector general launches an investigation, which remains ongoing.

Oct. 22, 2019: Johnson announces he will be skipping President Donald Trump’s upcoming appearance and speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference. That decision draws the ire of Trump and the board of directors of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, which issues a vote of no confidence in the superintendent.

Nov. 4, 2019: Johnson tells reporters at City Hall he has been “toying” with the idea of retiring. But he says that decision has nothing to do with the ongoing inspector general investigation.

Nov.  7, 2019: Johnson announces his plan to retire.

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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