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Why Chicago pick for police chief is lauded – and criticized

Rebuilding trust

To many in Chicago's black community, Mayor Rahm Emanuel chose the right new police chief amid a time of high racial tension. How he went about it, however, is a problem.

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    Chicago Police Department Chief of Patrol Eddie Johnson speaks during a news conference at the Public Safety Headquarters in Chicago March 23. Alderman Anthony Beale said the mayor's office called him Saturday to inform him that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has selected Johnson as interim police superintendent.
    Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/AP
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Mayor Rahm Emanuel is moving to tap an African-American and long-time Chicago police veteran as the city’s new chief of police – but the step risks faltering from the outset in its goal of repairing damaged police-community relations.

That’s because, even as community members praise Eddie Johnson’s record as a police officer, many say that the manner of his selection undercuts community trust. Mayor Emanuel is rejecting three candidates recommended by a civilian review board in order to name Mr. Johnson as interim chief, with the apparent intention of giving him the position permanently.

So although Johnson is seen as a credible choice, on his own merits, he is an instantly controversial one.

No one doubts Chicago’s need for a new police superintendent. Four months ago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired the city’s chief of police amid large-scale protests against the police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald.

"Now is the time for fresh eyes and new leadership to confront the challenges the department and our community and our city are facing as we go forward," Emanuel said at the time.

If Emanuel gets his way, those fresh eyes at the top will also be familiar ones to the city and its beat cops. Johnson is a 27-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department who currently serves as the department’s chief of patrol.

Richard Wooten, who worked for Johnson as a police officer in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side before retiring last summer, says Johnson is very qualified and that “he will make an excellent superintendent.”

But there’s a twist.

Ignoring the process

Chicago law requires that the mayor select a new police superintendent from a list of finalists chosen by the Police Board, a nine-member civilian body appointed by the mayor to oversee certain activities of the police department. The board began searching for finalists in December, after Superintendent Garry McCarthy stepped down.

Thirty-nine candidates applied for the position; Johnson was not among them – and the result is an outcome that rankles many in the community, including at least one family of a police shooting victim.

Mr. Wooten is among those who are troubled by how the mayor went outside of the process to find Johnson. He says the apparent need to start the search process over again, just so that the mayor can handpick Johnson, is a waste of time and taxpayer’s money.

“It’s like he’s not listening to what the people are saying,” says Wooten, who now leads a group of retired African-American police officers as the executive director of Gathering Point Community Council. “We see hypocrisy, not democracy in action.”

The Police Board voted to approve three candidates on March 17. These included: Cedric Alexander, deputy chief operating officer for public safety in DeKalb County, Ga.; Anne E. Kirkpatrick, the former chief of police of Spokane, Wash.; and Eugene Williams, the chief of support services for the Chicago Police Department.

More than mere personal preference seems to be at play in Emanuel’s decision, however.

Of the three candidates, Cedric Alexander appeared to be the top choice. But after members of the Chicago City Council Black Caucus said on Thursday that they wanted a local police veteran to take the position and asked to interview the top candidates, Emanuel decided to go in a different direction.

The mayor’s choice, though, means that the Police Board will now have to start a new search for candidates and present its new suggestions – which will undoubtedly include Johnson – to the mayor. Until then, Emanuel has appointed Johnson as interim superintendent.

Johnson's good reputation

In a statement released yesterday, Emanuel said that he spent the past 3-1/2 months talking to police officers, residents, community leaders and others about what kind of police chief the city needs.

“With the help of their feedback, the Mayor is confident that Eddie Johnson is the right person at the right time to fight crime, lift morale in the Police Department, and build on the work that’s been done to restore trust and accountability in the police department,” the statement reads.

Johnson has a good reputation among community activists and retired police officers alike.  

Father Michael Pfleger – a well-known social activist and senior pastor at St. Sabina Church on the city’s South Side – says he knows Johnson well and was happy with his selection.

"He's loved and respected by police officers on the street, number one,” Pfleger told ABC 7 News. “But I think equally important, he is loved by the community.”

But in a statement Sunday, the family of Bettie Jones raised doubts about Johnson’s selection. Ms. Jones was accidentally shot and killed by a Chicago police officer on Dec. 26 last year. Her family said that they were familiar with Johnson and  “cautiously optimistic” about his potential appointment. But they said that the fact that Emanuel rejected the candidates selected by a board he created makes them question the mayor’s dedication to change.

“Now he no longer values [the Police Board’s] opinion, which makes the Jones family feel he is still playing politics and is insincere in addressing the deadly violence and murderous police culture that resulted in the execution of their mother,” said Eric Russell, the Jones family spokesman.

Wooten, the retired officer, says that because of the way Johnson was chosen, he will have a hard time gaining the community’s trust, adding to the already difficult relationship between the police and citizens in Chicago.

“The way the mayor did this, I think the greatness of Eddie Johnson will be overshadowed by the mayor’s appointment per se, because people don’t believe in the mayor and they don’t trust the mayor,” says Wooten. “One of the things that Eddie Johnson will have to prove when he gets to that position is that he is not the mayor’s puppet. That means he’s going to have to go in and shake things up.”

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