CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on Thursday said he will retire from the second-largest U.S. police force after a three-year run marked by a sharp reduction in murders, a federal police misconduct probe and clashes with President Donald Trump.
Johnson’s retirement comes three weeks after patrol officers found him asleep in his car. Johnson, 59, initially said he had fallen asleep due to blood pressure medication, but local media later reported that he told the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, he had had a “couple of drinks” before driving. The incident is under investigation.
Flanked by his family and Lightfoot as he announced his retirement, Johnson hailed the drop in shootings on his watch as having made the city a “safer place to live, work and play,” but said the job had taken a toll on his health, family and friends.
“It’s time for someone else to pin these four stars on their shoulders,” Johnson said, choking back tears. “These stars can sometimes feel like they’re carrying the weight of the world.”
He said he would stay on the job through the rest of the year to help with the transition to a successor.
Chicago’s homicide rate stood at a 20-year high of 792 in 2016, when Johnson was appointed chief, and dropped to 561 by the end of 2018. Johnson credited the use of data analysts for the decrease in homicides and shootings. But the number of murders in Chicago remains higher than the combined number in New York and Los Angeles, two much larger cities.
Johnson, who spent his entire 31-year career with the department, was appointed in 2016 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to restore public trust after the city delayed for more than a year the release of a video that showed a white officer’s fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald.
“This tragedy forever changed Chicago,” said Johnson, who is African-American. “Trust in the police department fell to its lowest that I seen in my 31 years. Officer moral bottomed out likely as a result of the lack of trust.”
A U.S. Justice Department investigation into Chicago police shootings found widespread excessive force and racial bias by police officers. It led to a consent decree, a federally enforced agreement overseeing Chicago police reforms.
As a result of the decree, Johnson said he refocused the department’s community policing efforts and made investments in officer training, which has resulted in a drop in officer-involved shootings.
More recently, Johnson traded verbal barbs with President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly assailed Chicago’s leaders for the city’s high crime rate. As superintendent, Johnson has refused to cooperate with the federal government’s efforts to round up undocumented immigrants.
Last month Johnson conspicuously skipped a speech by Trump to a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago, a move lauded by Lightfoot.
“He showed the president what true leadership and character look like,” said the mayor. She added, “And I’m thankful for everything you’ve done.”
During his time as police chief, Johnson also became entangled in a high-profile case against actor Jussie Smollett, who was accused of staging a phony hate crime on the city’s North Side last January.
Smollett was charged with a crime, but those charges were later dropped by the local prosecutor, angering Johnson and Emanuel, who was mayor at the time.
The mood during Thursday’s news conference turned from upbeat to tense when reporters asked about the Oct. 17 incident in which Johnson was found asleep in his car. Lightfoot refused to discuss the matter, saying it was inappropriate to talk about the ongoing investigation.
Johnson told the Chicago Tribune he had been “toying with” retirement for some time. He said on Thursday that he began to think seriously about stepping down over the last two months.
Johnson has dealt with health issues in the past. After nearly fainting in January 2017, the police superintendent made public that he suffered from a chronic kidney ailment that required a transplant, which he underwent in August 2017.
Johnson, who grew up in Cabrini Green, an inner city housing project that has since been torn down, said he hoped his rise to the top of the force from beat cop would inspire others like him “to work hard and do the right thing and maybe even join the department.”
Johnson is the second big-city police chief to announce this week that he is stepping down. New York Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill announced on Monday that he would step down to take a new job in the private sector.
Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler