Supt. Johnson looks back at career: ‘I think about slain officers every day’

After being asked by WTTW’s Brandis Friedman about the Federal Court consent decree that mandated reform in the Chicago Police Department, Supt. Eddie Johnson said: “I think that [the] consent decree will force the Chicago police department to partner with the people.” (Photos by Marc Monaghan)

Contributing writer

The small room in Ida Noyes Hall was packed. Journalist Brandis Friedman (WTTW) and Chicago Police Department (CPD) Supt. Eddie Johnson sat in steel grey chairs on a small grey riser. Behind them stood a step-and-repeat banner embellished with IOP (Institute of Politics) branding.

It was Johnson’s first open forum interview after announcing his retirement as Superintendent that morning, Nov. 7.

Friedman started the interview by relating the story of Johnson’s attendance at a ceremony with Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Sept. 10 that honored CPD Officers Samuel Jimenez, Conrad Gary and Eduardo Marmolejo, who were killed in the November 2018 Mercy Hospital shooting.

Friedman asked Johnson about an incident at the ceremony at the Gold Star Families Memorial and Park in Burnham Park.

“So, I was standing there talking to them [the widows of the slain officers],” Johnson said. “I could see they were proud that their husbands were being honored, but at the same time, I could see the pain in their faces; that pain, you never reconcile that.

“But then an odd thing happened.

“If you’ve ever been to the police memorial there is a waterfall in the back of it. And the way it was lit up, I could actually see their husbands’ faces, on their faces.

“So, I sat down next to the mayor, and I just whispered in her ear, ‘We need to start thinking about when it’s time for me to leave.’”

“I think about those officers every day,” continued Johnson. “it grinds at you, what could you have done to maybe prevented that from happening.”

During the Q&A period following the Johnson’s interview with Friedman, Hyde Parker and Strides for Peace executive director Mary Stonor Saunders asked Johnson if he could “please talk about trauma in the police force.”

“At a younger age, I’ll say, when I was a sergeant, I was transferred to Area 4 detective division, at Harrison and Kedzie. And, ah, I was there for seven years,” Johnson said. “And so, I would go out on all shootings, murders.

“And, and I gotta tell you, I didn’t recognize it, but that was trauma for me. I mean I just got tired of seein’, I just, I did, I got tired of seein’ it.

“And just when I got to my wits end, let me tell you God is a funny dude, so right when I’ve got to the point wow like man I gotta do something different, because I am tired of seeing that, I got promoted to Lieutenant. “And, pwishh, I was taken out of that.”

“I’ve been involved in four police involved shootings,” continued Johnson. “And at that time, we gave them [police officers involved in shootings] three days off. You didn’t talk to anybody.

“And then [you]come back to work and they stick you right back in that place where you were involved in that shooting. And that was ridiculous.”

“Oh, let me not forget that we only had 3 licensed clinicians to service an agency of 12 to 13 thousand people,” said Johnson. “That’s ridiculous.”

Johnson then described some of the reforms he (both as Superintendent and as Chief of Patrol) pushed through the CPD, including instituting a 30-day administrative leave after an officer was involved in a shooting, an increase in the number of licensed clinicians (counselors) in the department from 3 to 11, and the sending of groups of officers, rather than single officers, to counselors, in an effort to avoid stigmatization.

“But the biggest problem in law enforcement, it’s a macho profession. So, to seek help is looked at as weak. When it’s actually courageous,” said Johnson.

“We’ve made a lot of strides … but [turning to Friedman], when you asked me, ‘What is the one thing I wish I could complete?’ That’s that officer wellness piece of it.”