Nearly 300 people filled the pews of Hope Community Church, 5900 W. Iowa St., on Wednesday to get a glimpse of new Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson during a community townhall meeting. Johnson was appointed last month to the post vacated by former Supt. Garry McCarthy.
Johnson had served as interim chief for less than a month before he was selected — despite not having applied for the job. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pick of Johnson, a widely liked 27-year veteran of the force who is African-American, was seen by many observers as a way for the mayor to assuage the concerns of the city’s black aldermen and community leaders.
Many people are hoping Johnson can turn the page on what have been some of the most fractious months in the department’s history. Last November, a court ordered the release of video footage showing Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old African-American teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Reaction to the video was explosive, with protestors demonstrating almost daily in the weeks after its release.
Since then, there have been numerous other high-profile police-involved shootings, including the murder of Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier, who were both shot to death by cops in West Garfield Park last December after Jones had called the police to intervene in a domestic dispute involving LeGrier and his father.
Last month, the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, convened by Mayor Emanuel following the citywide unrest related to the McDonald video, released a nearly 200-page report that described CPD as a department plagued by racism — a damning indictment that black aldermen and many community members on the West and South Sides met with knowing shrugs.
“If we’re going to fix this thing, I have to be able to acknowledge certain things, including the fact that there are certain segments of the community that have been mistreated by the police,” said Johnson at the May 4 community meeting, hosted by Hope’s pastor, Rev. Steve Epting and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st).
“I promise to work to restore your faith in the department,” he said, before admonishing residents to help the department in circumstances “where blacks are killing blacks.”
“The police cannot resolve this issue alone,” Johnson said.
During the community meeting, which was setup as a panel discussion and Q&A, also featured Boykin, U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th), and Aldermen Emma Mitts (37th) and Chris Taliaferro (29th).
Boykin focused in on what he believes are some main structural reasons for much of the ‘black-on-black’ violence that Johnson referenced.
There are a number of reasons why there is terror in the community,” Boykin said. “What I’ve said is that there has been 50 years of disinvestment in certain areas of Chicago, [including the] West and South Sides. That’s where you’ll see a lot of the violence. We have to provide opportunities.”
Boykin referenced the Community Stabilization and Anti-Violence Act, a plan he introduced in April that calls for imposing a 4-cent per gallon gas tax in order to raise $50 million for jobs programs. The commissioner estimates that the tax will cost motorists $28 a year.
Boykin said the plan calls for allocating $2 million toward hiring 15 new Sheriff’s deputies, $2 million for a violence prevention program aimed at parents and $1 million for the creation of an office that would assist people with disabilities. The bill is scheduled to be debated by commissioners on May 11.
Johnson touted some possible solutions as well, such as increased training for officers in de-escalating confrontations with residents that may result from a mutual distrust between police and residents and a lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of officers.
One program, in particular, would entail new officers in the academy interacting with teenagers from local high schools so those youths can appear to the young cops less as potential suspects and more as “people, too.”
West Side resident Shapearl Faulkner-Wells, however, wanted to know what Johnson plans to do about the “culture of silence” upheld by many of the department’s veteran officers.
“When I looked at the numbers, I see that [more than 1,500 people] were shot from Jan. 1 until today,” Faulkner-Wells said. “We have [nearly 200 dead] and one of those is my son. I’ve come because I am pleading with CPD. Please release videos and all 911 calls they have regarding the night my son was killed.”
In response, Johnson called for a change in how evidence I gathered in police-involved shootings.
“Instead of holding on to the evidence for three or four years, which has been the custom, I’d like to see the videos, documents, audio, etcetera, released within 60 days,” he said.