WOODLAWN — Accountability and officer-involved shootings were hot topics Tuesday as Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson fielded questions at a Woodlawn community meeting hosted by young black activists.
Organizers on Sunday said Johnson refused to attend the long-planned meeting since it would be open to the public. A police spokesman Monday insisted Johnson wanted to meet with students, but wouldn't clarify whether police were demanding a private meeting.
Johnson strolled into the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday and spent an hour taking occasionally pointed questions from the crowd of 30-40 people.
"We're happy that he showed up after all the confusion," said organizer Eva Lewis, an 18-year-old senior at Walter Payton College Prep. "We're glad that he held himself accountable."
Lewis led the community forum alongside three other teens from Youth for Black Lives: Maxine Wint, 17, of Kenwood Academy; and Maxine Aguilar, 17, and Yahaira Tarr, 17, both of Jones College Prep.
The girls grilled Johnson on accountability, police-involved shootings and training for Chicago Police officers who work at Chicago Public Schools.
"We have a lot of work to do to restore public trust," Johnson said — noting that he plans to offer all Police Department officers enhanced training and will hold accountable police who abuse their power.
"If you always do what you always did," Johnson continued, "You always get what you always got. And what we used to get — I'm not comfortable with. To that end, we're making improvements in how we look at complaints and how we hold officers accountable."
Johnson said officers who "make honest mistakes" will be allowed to stay on the police force after they get additional training or counseling. Sanctions will be more severe for officers who commit crimes.
After roughly 30 minutes of questions from Lewis, Maxine Wint, Maxine Aguilar and Yahaira, the ladies of Youth for Black Lives opened the floor to the public.
The first question came from 8-year-old Claire: "Why do you hurt people who don't even do anything?"
Johnson paused for a moment and reiterated that Police Department officers need better training: "Being a police officer is not easy. You have people out there trying to do the job that they've sworn an oath to do, and it's not always a simple thing [when officers come across] split-second, life-and-death situations."
Another citizen asked Johnson why officers are trained to stop suspects by shooting at heads and chests. Why not slow someone down with shots to arms and legs?
"We're not that good," Johnson deadpanned. "I don't think any law-enforcement agency is. You know, listen. On TV, it looks like that's a simple thing, but when officers are involved in stressful situations, it's difficult.
"I invited you all to come to the [police training] academy," he continued, "and go through a civilian training course so you can see for yourselves just how difficult it is to make that decision."
Organizers said they were happy for Johnson's presence Tuesday, but wished he could've offered more specific information on training initiatives and future accountability plans.
The meeting was originally scheduled so that Youth for Black Lives organizers could sit down with Johnson and discuss police shootings.
But there was some confusion earlier this week, when Chicago Public Schools officials told organizers they couldn't meet at Walter Payton College Prep, as they had planned. The group scrambled to find a new location and landed at the Experimental Station in Woodllawn.
"We hold him accountable to be there since it is what he agreed to do," Lewis said via text Tuesday. "He knows the address and time."
On Friday, police approached a co-organizer to say that Johnson never agreed to a public meeting, according to Lewis.
In a statement Sunday, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said Johnson "values that ongoing dialogue and very much would like to continue meeting with [the youth group] around the structure that was initially agreed upon."
In July, Lewis and other Youth for Black Lives members brought together hundreds of Chicago area teens and adults for a silent protest at Millennium Park against the shootings of black men by police. Students also spoke out against the shooting of a black man by an off-duty police officer in Mount Greenwood in November.
Later that month, the group planned to protest in Mount Greenwood but canceled its demonstration after Johnson agreed to meet with members.
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