CHICAGO (FOX 32 / AP) - Eddie Johnson didn't apply to become Chicago's police chief, but his appointment as interim superintendent in line for the top job could address many of the issues facing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a city reeling from a police shooting scandal.
After firing the previous superintendent over the shooting, Emanuel has searched for a replacement during a spike in violent crime, low department morale and intensified scrutiny of police shootings - in particular the death of Laquan McDonald, a black teen shot 16 times by a white officer. Bypassing three finalists recommended by the police board, the mayor chose an insider who will face immediate pressure to bring about change within a force he's been part of for 27 years.
Johnson was named interim chief Monday and Emanuel has asked him to apply for the permanent job. He will take over a department criticized for lax accountability on police misconduct and a "code of silence" culture that protects problem officers.
A former commander on the South Side, Johnson is black and a Chicago native, satisfying concerns from some aldermen after two consecutive white superintendents came from outside Chicago. Former colleagues credit Johnson with the ability to unify officers.
Johnson said his focus would be rebuilding trust.
"Trust between the police and the people we serve. Trust between the rank and file and the command staff. Trust between police and elected officials and community leaders. And trust among police officers," he said. "I know the first trust has been broken too often."
Johnson grew up in the rough Cabrini Green housing project until age 9, when his family moved to a South Side neighborhood where he still resides. He joined the Chicago Police Department in 1988 and held supervisory roles including chief of patrol, where he commanded 8,000 officers.
Emanuel said Johnson would both have officers' backs and hold them accountable.
"He has the command, the character and the capability to lead the department at this critical juncture," the mayor said.
“I am one of you, I grew up here, I raised my kids here, my family is here,” Johnson said.
Johnson stressed his local roots Monday, including 27 years as a Chicago cop. Mayor Emanuel even said Johnson "grew up" in the police department.
“I believe he is the right person at the right time to serve as interim superintendent,” Emanuel said.
Johnson is engaged with three adult children, and his favorite hobby is being a grandfather. He has a Bachelor’s degree from Governor's State and is working on a Masters from Northwestern, and he says there's one guiding philosophy that he'll use going forward.
“I want to focus my brief remarks on one word. It is at the heart of good policing. Safe communities. And it is the central challenge facing Chicago today. That word is trust,” Johnson said.
Bruce Rottner is a former deputy chief of patrol.
“How I really got to know Eddie was the night Tom Wortham was murdered,” Rottner said.
If there's a defining moment in Johnson's career, it may be the night off-duty Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham was gunned down by some motorcycle thieves. Johnson was commander of the 6th District where the shooting happened. Johnson impressed his supervisor, Rottner, with his demeanor and leadership.
“His concern was for his officers that night. A police shooting is a horrible thing. When one of us are killed, it has a tremendous impact on everybody. And you could just see, he got it. He understood that,” Rottner said.
The Mayor says he was impressed by Johnson's starting of a ‘Peace in the Park after Dark’ program after the Wortham tragedy.
“During the first event, children and parents spent the night in parks , sleeping out. Eddie Johnson camped out with them,” Emanuel said.
Johnson acknowledged that one of his biggest challenges will be handling the fallout from Officer Jason Van Dyke's shooting of 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald.
This was his message on the incidents that have undermined the public's trust: “We have to own it, and we have to end it. Let me say that again. We have to own it, and we have to end it,” Johnson said.
The black and Latino caucuses of the City Council said they were pleased with Johnson's selection, but some community leaders criticized Emanuel for sidestepping the finalists.
The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Ira Acree said the mayor's actions undermined the police board. Emanuel has also been criticized over the McDonald case, accused of a cover-up for releasing police video of the shooting the video only after a judge ordered it.
"You would think that in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald police scandal, that Mayor Emanuel would have learned his lesson and honored his pledge of giving Chicago ultimate transparency in the pursuit of rebuilding public trust," Acree said.
Jackson said the Police Department's culture needs changing and the way an insider was chosen "complicates and compounds the crisis."
Emanuel, criticized during his five years in office for not always listening to the public, defended his approach as the result of spending months gathering community input. Johnson said he was best equipped to make changes, and welcomed outside help, including a pending investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
"Because I'm an insider I can fix things from the inside out as opposed to coming from the outside and having to fix it from the outside in," he said.
Rottner also said Johnson was calm, knowledgeable and had officers' respect. However, he said it will hard to change the "code of silence."
"Can he have an impact on that wall of silence? ... To some degree he can, but just to some degree," he said.
The black and Latino caucuses had called on Emanuel to seek a minority and someone from within the department. The Black Caucus stopped short of endorsing Eugene Williams, a black deputy chief in Chicago who was a finalist.
Caucus chairman Alderman Roderick Sawyer said he didn't lobby exclusively for Johnson, but believed the selection signified that Emanuel heard their concerns. "I believe he thought the qualities (we wanted) made sense, and maybe he picked somebody who fit those qualities," he said.
Latino Caucus members had been upset that interim Superintendent John Escalante, who was named to the post after Garry McCarthy was fired and applied for the permanent post, wasn't a finalist.
Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said the union hoped Escalante or Williams would become superintendent, but he welcomed Johnson's appointment.
"The last thing the rank-and-file wanted to see was another outsider coming in and running the department," Angelo said, adding it's unlikely he and Johnson will completely agree. "But I do believe we will be able to work together and that morale-wise, having someone from within our ranks will be positive."
A city ordinance allows Emanuel to appoint an interim chief and ask the board for new finalists. Police Board President Lori Lightfoot said it would convene as soon as possible to "decide appropriate next steps."
The police board is now at a crossroads, though, as it must decide how to proceed after months of work that the mayor rejected.
“I appreciate everybody on the police board who did their work, they did it with dedication and they worked very hard at it,” Emanuel said.
But in the end, the three finalists all came up short by the mayor's standards so he picked Johnson to lead the department, for now. But the signal he gave was that anybody else who applies for the job in round two is almost wasting their time.
“Eddie Johnson has what I'm looking for because it's consistent with what I heard from everybody throughout the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said.
And that has critics wondering what happened to the process and the promise of transparency.
“I think that's a joke, for the mayor to already have selected a police chief and then ordered the (police) board to go back to the drawing board. I think he promised us that he would give us total transparency and I think he fumbled the ball cause everyone knows this is his choice,” said Pastor Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church.
But some members of the Black and Hispanic caucuses who were on hand for the mayor's announcement defended what he's done.
“I think what he said was he's found a perfect person for now, so we have to have somebody who he feels can move the Chicago Police Department forward,” said Alderman Michelle Harris.
The Chair of the Public Safety Committee, Alderman Ariel Reboyras, said the police board's work and roll was not undermined.
“The work that they did is not lost in the shuffle, and I think the mayor, the mayor can make those decisions, it's clear that he can do that and he did exactly what he said he can do,” said Reboyras.
The mayor said that if other candidates believe they have something to offer, then they will apply. But the question is if the "best" candidate did not apply in round one, then who will apply when the mayor raved about his interim superintendent in this way: “I believe Eddie Johnson has everything that the city needs,” Emanuel said.
Of course, the irony in all of this is that Johnson did not apply for the superintendent's position to begin with, out of deference he said to John Escalante who previously held the position of interim superintendent and who Johnson knew was applying for the top cop job.