BRONZEVILLE — Chicago’s top cop sure tells a good folk tale.
With a careful mix of seemingly credible details and unchallenged exaggeration, Police Supt. Eddie Johnson has offered up a pretty fuzzy picture of his journey to becoming the police boss charged with addressing the troubled city’s shooting problem.
Johnson started spinning his yarn on his first day on the job — a position he had not applied for when he was hand-picked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to run the department.
He introduced himself to Chicagoans by offering up some pretty interesting details about his 27 years on the force. One particularly stood out.
“I’ve actually never encountered police misconduct,” he said.
Mark Konkol on earning trust.
Johnson spent many of the years he was on patrol in the Gresham District during a corrupt era when some of his fellow officers were found guilty of robbing undercover officers posing as dope dealers.
So when he says he never witnessed misconduct, not even once, a lot of people, including me, asked how that could be true.
Did Johnson come down with a case of temporary misconduct blindness?
Did he suffer from some rare “see-no-evil disease” that manifested as a crick-in-the-neck that forced him to look the other way when misconduct was nearby?
No, no, no, Johnson told reporters, you’ve got to understand how it works in the Chicago Police Department.
“Officers that commit misconduct don’t do it in front of people that they think are going to hold them accountable for it,” Johnson said.
While that might appear to be sound logic to some people, it just didn’t seem right to me.
Indeed, the statement made me even more curious about Johnson's past, particularly because he was tapped for the job by Emanuel without being fully vetted by the Chicago Police Board.
Also, it is generally accepted that any beat cop doing the job right will from time to time be accused of misconduct.
After all, one of the reasons the police union contract has provisions that keep those complaints secret is to protect officers from the embarrassment of accusations unless they’re proven true and warrant serious punishment — which, as we all now know, almost never happens in Chicago.
Twenty-seven years on the job is a long time to go without seeing a fellow officer break any department rules.
A high-level city source suggested I satisfy my curiosity by filing a Freedom of Information Act request for misconduct complaint reports filed against Johnson throughout his career.
As expected, my request for those reports was promptly denied.
The Police Department FOIA officer cited, among other things, a ruling by Cook County Judge Peter Flynn forbidding the release of any misconduct complaint reports more than 4 years old.
Still, I reached out to see if Johnson himself would release the records, which are part of his personnel file, in an effort to be transparent about his career service record, even when it's not required.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said, “He’s not going to do it. We’re going to be consistent with the judge’s ruling.”
Flynn’s ruling is part of a legal battle waged by the police union that seeks to force the city to destroy all police misconduct records more than 5 years old as required by the union contract.
Independent journalist Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute — the guy who first reported that Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer — said the judge’s order causes harm every day.
“For a year, since Judge Flynn imposed the temporary injunction, the public has been denied access to public information. There will be serious long-term harm if the FOP prevails [and records are destroyed], and there’s daily harm when a judge bars citizens' access to information that belongs to the public,” Kalven told me.
“You’re trying to find information about the new superintendent … and because of Judge Flynn’s injunction, details about the disciplinary history of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked police superintendent remain a secret.”
That leaves Chicagoans stuck with Supt. Johnson’s version of history.
Meanwhile, Johnson continues to tell stories with shocking details that deserve a good fact checking.
There's the folk tale about how Chicago's shooters are getting younger, shared at a West Side community meeting over the weekend, for instance.
“When I started as a patrolman in 1988, the average age of our shooters [was] 19, 20 years old,” Johnson told the crowd as Mayor Emanuel listened. "Right now, the average is 15, 16 years old.”
Obviously, like any good storyteller, Johnson clearly was trying to make a point: Police can’t stop the shooting alone. Parents and guardians can — and have a responsibility — to help.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this situation. It’s not just a police problem. It’s our problem,” Johnson said.
The shocking statistic on the age of Chicago shooters may have made his plea to parents more compelling. It certainly made headlines.
But there’s just one problem — there’s not a dash of proof that the average Chicago triggerman is a teenager.
I checked it out.
Sources with access to police arrest records told me they have determined the average age of Chicago shooters involved in nonfatal shootings and homicides is between 21 and 23 years old.
It’s difficult to be more specific that that for a few reasons:
• First, homicide arrests aren’t classified by the method of murder, and not all accused killers used guns.
• About 90 percent of nonfatal shootings and about 75 percent of murders go unsolved in Chicago.
• There’s no way determine the age of unknown shooters and killers who are still on the street.
On Monday, I asked the Police Department to support Johnson’s claim that the average city shooter is a high school-age kid, but no substantiated evidence was provided.
I also asked to talk with Johnson, but he declined to be interviewed.
Instead, Guglielmi sent along a prepared statement: “Superintendent Johnson was speaking anecdotally to groups of parents about the importance of safeguarding our youngest generation from the dangers of street violence and illegal guns.”
The police spokesman sent over a statistic that I didn’t ask for that didn’t back up Johnson’s claims: “So far this year, there is a more than 20 percent increase in murder offenders aged 15-19 compared to the same period in 2015.”
Guglielmi did offer a detail that appeared to hint at Johnson’s motivation for spinning (pun intended) the tall tale about the average shooter getting younger in Chicago.
“Parenting and community engagement are paramount in our efforts to make Chicago safer, and the Superintendent has stated that we all have a role to play,” Gugliemi wrote.
That's a phrase spit out by the City Hall Spin Machine if I ever saw one. No self-respecting cop talks like that. Johnson must be just playing his role.
And Mayor Emanuel has said Johnson's role is to “lead from the front,” to bring accountability and transparency to a police department that most Chicagoans don’t trust.
If Johnson plans to earn the trust of Chicagoans, he’s got to start talking about police misconduct and the city’s shooting problem in facts, not fables, or he's going to start looking less like a leader and more like a human shield.
Let's start with few facts worth talking about:
There have been 139 total shootings, a 23 percent increase compared to the same time period last May.
And no matter how you spin it, there's no fairy tale ending in sight.
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