Sitting Down With Superintendent Eddie Johnson

Last Updated by Eva Green on

Robin Robinson sat down with Superintendent Eddie Johnson to discuss the challenges facing Chicago police and how he plans to confront the city’s rising violence. Below are excerpts of their conversation which can also be seen on WYCC PBS Chicago-In The Loop

“The community relationship with the police department is the number one thing I think that is going to help us reduce this violence." -Superintendent Eddie Johnson 

Robin Robinson: You have said that you will have zero tolerance.  What exactly does that mean?

Superintendent Johnson: That means that if you choose to engage in violence, then we’ll bring everything we have in our disposal to hold you accountable for your actions. But I will tell you this Robin, those individuals that are engaging in this behavior, if they want to go in a different direction, we will also offer them outreach services to put their lives back on track.

Robin Robinson: So you can offer them something besides arrest and incarceration?

Superintendent Johnson: Yes. We started a diversion program, roughly about a month ago. So we’ve had several individuals who have been arrested choose that option.  

"The mission of police should change a bit and we should become more of a partner with the communities, rather than a force that comes in and just arrests people." -Superintendent Eddie Johnson

Robin Robinson: Certain police union rules seem to be in the way of swift justice when there’s police misconduct suspected. Are you pushing for major changes?

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Superintendent Johnson: I think in order for discipline to be effective, it has to be efficient and handed down quickly. We need to be more flexible in terms of the protections that we have because you don’t want to unduly punish good people for making honest mistakes. But those that choose to engage in intentional misconduct, they should be punished severely and quickly.

Robin Robinson: I’m sure every superintendent has said that “I want to root out bad cops, they undermine what we’re doing.” What is it that you are going to do differently?

Superintendent Johnson: Our system was broken so we’re fixing that. I’m making easier it for police officers to report misconduct. Those officers that report misconduct, I’m creating a mechanism so that they won’t be ostracized for reporting that misconduct.

Robin Robinson: Everyone is complaining that the police in my neighborhood don’t look like my neighborhood. What are you going to do about diversity in the department?

Superintendent Johnson: Well I am a firm believer that the police department should reflect the city as a whole. So what we found out was, we did a huge recruiting drive to get minorities to apply for the police test, two tests ago. So we targeted social media and this time, the entry exam was 71% minority applicants so that should bolster up the diversity that we’re looking for.

Robin Robinson: Within the department, the task force on police accountability said there is racism here. Do you agree?

Superintendent Johnson: I know we have racism in America, we have racism in Chicago so it only follows that there would be racism within the CPD. The majority of officers are trying to do the right thing. But those that want to be racist and engage in inappropriate behavior, we have zero tolerance for them and once it’s been identified, we will handle it accordingly.

Robin Robinson: Would you say you’re looking for tweaks or radical changes?

Superintendent Johnson: I’m looking for a radical change. Because I just believe that if I can make CPD better then I make the City of Chicago better.

Robin Robinson: One of the things that has changed is the release of these videos. Where in the past it would take months and months of fighting in court with the City. Are you of the opinion that we should see them all now?

Superintendent Johnson: The public is asking for them and to be quite honest I don’t know that it would really adversely affect a lot of cases. So I would say put it out there and let them see. And that is why I embrace the body cameras because the body cameras will let us be able to tell our side of the story also.

Robin Robinson: Shooting is up over 50% already over last year. Are we in for a really terrible Chicago summer?

Superintendent Johnson: Well I’m concerned about the summer because any level of violence is unacceptable. That’s the down side. The upside is this--we got off to a really bad start at the beginning of the year and we have seen those number steadily decline so that is progress. It is not success, but it’s still of a concern to me, yes.

Robin Robinson: Is what we’re seeing in terms of violence in communities, really a law enforcement problem? Are you being set up for failure because you’re trying to police these communities who need things besides policing?

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Superintendent Johnson: Well I don’t think I’m being set up for failure but I will say this, we will never arrest our way out of this situation. That just won’t happen so, unfortunately a lot of societal rights get dumped at the door step of the police department. So it’s going to take the police, the residents, clergy, politicians, business owners, everybody who has a vast interest in stopping this violence in Chicago.

"A lot of the gang members that talked to me have said, if they had jobs or a way to support their families, or their “shorties” as they call them, that they wouldn’t  engage in that behavior. So we have to look at alternatives to get these people something to get their lives back on track."

Robin Robinson: Just because you are black does not mean you’re going to be better for the African Americans who have a lot of contact with the police. What are you going to have to do to prove that you are not just being propped up to appease people?

Superintendent Johnson: I think people will realize that I am trying to make CPD better and if I make CPD better than that will impact some of the violence out here because people will be more open to share information with us. And I think a lot of it right now, people just don’t feel comfortable sharing information with the police.

Robin Robinson: You said you want to be tougher on violent crimes and stop arresting and incarcerating people for low-level drug crimes but there is some criticism of that. If you’re tougher on violent crimes that is still probably going to result in the incarceration of a lot of young black men.

Superintendent Johnson: We have roughly 1,300 to 1,400 individuals in the City of Chicago that are driving most of our violent crimes.  So 70 to 75 percent of the people are repeat gun offenders. Those individuals need to be accountable for what they do, so I’m reaching out to our judicial and legislators to help me hold them accountable.

Robin Robinson: But isn’t that the same cycle? Even if you arrest 1,300 and put them away for 20 years, wouldn’t their communities just make 1,300 more?

Superintendent Johnson: Well that’s where the outreach comes in and the community can take back those different blocks and neighborhoods. The Mayor and I talk about it all the time. If we create a vacuum in that particular neighborhood, we have to put something in there so that the gang members don’t come back and take that over. So those are things moving forward that we all have to be a part of.