BRONZEVILLE — Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced 28-year Police Department veteran Eddie Johnson as his choice for interim police superintendent Monday, saying he is "the right person at the right time" to help restore Department morale and curb violence in Chicago.
Johnson hadn't applied for the post, explaining, "I've never applied for any position," but had always been promoted by earning it. He added that he also supported the man he replaced, former interim Supt. John Escalante, for the top spot.
"The police superintendent needs autonomy, and I have it," Johnson said, announcing immediately after a midafternoon news conference at Police Headquarters that he had made Escalante his top deputy.
Emanuel, who ultimately rejected three finalists put forth by the Police Board, identified two key themes in his search: that beat cops are paramount to policing, and he needed a "proven crime-fighter" who knows Chicago.
He said Johnson has "everything the city needs," and that the previous three finalists, while possessing certain "qualities and strengths," all had aspects missing in their makeup.
"He's well-respected within the department among the rank-and-file officers that I spoke with," Emanuel said. "He will have their back when they do their job well and hold them accountable when they do not." Emanuel called Johnson "a bridge to the community" and "uniquely qualified to build the morale of the Police Department and garner the backing of the public."
Johnson immediately embraced that role, insisting that his primary concern was the "trust" between the Department and the city, between beat cops and commanders, while granting that police abuses had put that trust in jeopardy.
"Anyone who thinks that the job of being a police officer is easy hasn't done it," he said, but quickly added, "We have to own it, and we have to end it.
"My expectation is to reduce gun violence here and now," Johnson added. He said gang bangers and others shooting up Chicago streets "are destroying our community, they are destroying families, and it has to stop."
Johnson said he wanted the Department to reflect "empathy, compassion and love for our fellow human beings."
According to the Mayor's Office, Johnson is a Chicago native who grew up in Cabrini-Green until the age of 9, when his family moved to Washington Heights, where he resides today.
Johnson is a White Sox fan, and earned his bachelor's degree at Governors State University. According to the Police Department, he is working on a master's degree in public administration at Northwestern University.
He joined the Department in 1988 and rose through the ranks to serve as district commander, deputy chief for Area Central, executive officer of patrol and finally chief of patrol, where he commanded 8,000 officers. He also served as a sergeant in the Detective Division.
In that, he is someone intimately aware of the unique challenges faced by Chicago Police, especially in the wake of the Laquan McDonald case. After video of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the teenager 16 times was released, the city erupted in protests, and department morale took a major hit.
Johnson said Monday the city has to own up to its police problems — and end them.
"I have spent my entire career with the Chicago Police Department," he said. "I am proud to wear this star and I am absolutely, absolutely confident that we can meet this challenge.
"The countless incidents of courage," he added, "far outweigh the use of excessive force."
Emanuel said he went outside the Police Board's selections because the city faces sinking officer morale and high crime, and Johnson was the best man to tackle those issues.
Johnson's experience as a Police Department insider made him appealing to both the City Council's Black and Latino caucuses, as well as Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), a former Chicago Police officer and firefighter.
"Because I'm an insider, I can fix things from the inside out," he said Monday.
Yet his installation as an 11th-hour candidate, after the Police Board had selected three other finalists, and after sources suggested Johnson himself did not want the post, begged questions Emanuel and Johnson had to answer.
Sources told DNAinfo's Mark Konkol that a cheating scandal plagued one of the candidates, Deputy Supt. Eugene Williams, and the others just didn't make the cut. Williams actually joined Emanuel, Johnson and Escalante at the podium for Monday's announcement at Police Headquarters.
Cedric Alexander, a public safety director in Georgia, told NBC Chicago Emanuel offered him the job then reversed course. Emanuel said Monday he never offered the job to Alexander.
"I offered the job to one person and one person only, and that's Eddie Johnson," Emanuel said.
Reports had Johnson ready to be appointed Alexander's top deputy, and he was apparently the mayor's choice after rejecting Alexander.
Yet city statute demands that Emanuel pick from finalists proposed by the Police Board. So Emanuel has appointed Johnson as interim superintendent, replacing John Escalante, while the board returns to the drawing board to make up a list including Johnson, who hadn't applied for the job.
The Police Board issued a formal statement Monday saying: "We will convene as a board as soon as we are able and decide appropriate next steps."
"When the Police Board runs the process, I've asked Eddie to apply this time," Emanuel said.
"I am going to apply if, in fact, the search is reopened," Johnson said. "That is a given."
"Eddie Johnson will hit the ground running," Emanuel said. "He's already on the job. He knows our Police Department, he knows our city. ... He has the trust and respect of the rank-and-file police officers, which is essential."
While Johnson did not lay out specifics, he acknowledged that the city is facing a major gun-violence problem, and said he intends to fight it however he can.
"It's an honor to serve you," he said Monday. "I'm one of you. I grew up here. I raised my kids here. My family is here. I patrol the neighborhoods at every hour of the day and night, [and have] for 27 years."
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