by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer
CHICAGO (CBS) — Mayor Lori Lightfoot has fired Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, after reviewing an inspector general’s investigation into Johnson being found passed out behind the wheel of his car in October.
“It has become clear that Mr. Johnson engaged in a series of actions that are intolerable for any leader in a position of trust,” she said Monday morning at City Hall. “The finding of the inspector general’s report regarding Mr. Johnson, which I recently reviewed, makes clear that Eddie Johnson engaged in conduct that is not only unbecoming, but demonstrated a series of ethical lapses and flawed decision-making that is inconsistent with having the privilege of leading the Chicago Police Department.”
Mayor Lightfoot says Supt. Johnson's actions were "intolerable" for any leader in a position of trust.
— Audrina Bigos (@AudrinaBigos) December 2, 2019
The mayor said the inspector general’s report and video evidence from the investigation make it clear Johnson lied about the circumstances of the incident.
However, the mayor declined to say exactly how Johnson lied.
“I think out of deference to his wife and his children, it’s not my narrative to tell, it’s not my story to tell,” she said.
Lightfoot said Johnson intentionally misled her when they personally discussed the incident, and also lied to the public when he held a press conference several hours after it happened.
“He was not caught off-guard, and he had plenty of time to choose his words, and the choice he made was to communicate a narrative replete with false statements, all seemingly intended to hide the true nature of his conduct from the evening before,” she said.
During that press conference, Johnson blamed the incident on a mix-up with his medication, but did not mention that he had been drinking before he fell asleep behind the wheel of his car. The mayor later revealed that Johnson had been drinking that night.
While the mayor declined to say exactly what Johnson lied to her and the public about, she said video evidence from the incident contradicted Johnson’s statements to her.
“Even when I challenged him about the narrative that he shared with me, he maintained that he was telling the truth. I now know definitively that he was not,” she said.
At no point did Lightfoot refer to Johnson by his former title, going instead repeatedly with “Mr. Johnson.”
— Megan Hickey (@MeganHickeyTV) December 2, 2019
The decision to fire Johnson comes less than a month after Lightfoot and the superintendent announced he would be retiring at the end of the year. Johnson at the time insisted his decision to retire had nothing to do with the inspector general’s investigation.
The mayor said, had she known then what she knows now, she would not have allowed Johnson to simply retire, much less held a press conference to celebrate his 31-year career on the force.
“That’s why I decided to take this clear and decisive action today. The old Chicago way must give way to the new reality. Ethical leadership, integrity, accountability, legitimacy and – yes – honesty must be the hallmarks of city government,” she said. “The 13,400 sworn [officers] and the civilian members of the Chicago Police Department who work hard every day deserve a leader they can believe in.”
However, Lightfoot has not revealed if Ferguson’s office specifically determined Johnson was drunk, or if he abused his powers when other officers arrived to investigate why he was slumped over behind the wheel.
The mayor declined to discuss the specifics of Ferguson’s investigation until his report is made public. Lightfoot said Ferguson’s office is still investigating the actions of others involved in the incident.
“I think it’s important for me to make sure that I don’t do anything to influence or taint the ongoing investigation of the inspector general; and there are certain things that maybe they will become public later,” she said.
A spokesperson at the inspector general’s office said the investigation into the Johnson incident has been conducted expeditiously, and a summary of the probe might be part of the office’s quarterly report next month. Beyond that, she cited confidentiality as a reason she couldn’t comment further.
Former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has been named as interim superintendent while the Chicago Police Board conducts a nationwide search for Johnson’s permanent successor. Lightfoot said Beck was en route to Chicago on Monday morning to take over for Johnson, and Beck indeed arrived in the city on Monday afternoon.
Beck will start his temporary role immediately and he won’t have Johnson as a sounding board as originally planned.
Lightfoot also sent a letter to all Chicago police officers and civilian staff on Monday, informing them of Johnson’s firing:
“This morning I relieved Eddie Johnson of his duties as Chicago Police Department Superintendent. This decision was not made lightly and was precipitated by the findings made by the Inspector General regarding Mr. Johnson’s actions on the evening of October 16th and the early morning hours of October 17th. 2019. Former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck has been appointed Interim Superintendent effective today. Interim Superintendent Beck will work in close partnership with First Deputy Riccio to manage the day-to-day activities of the Department. Rest assured, the Chicago Police Department is in good hands.
“While I recognize this news comes as a surprise to most of you, this was a decision I felt was absolutely necessary to preserve the legitimacy and honor of the Chicago Police Department. I deeply respect the work that each of you undertake every day and you deserve a Superintendent who lives up to the ideals that I expect each of you to exemplify. I will address command staff later today to discuss my decision and look forward to working with Interim Superintendent Beck and First Deputy Riccio to ensure that the highest standards of ethical behavior are supported throughout the Department.”
Mayor Lightfoot was visibly upset during her remarks Monday morning, and she suggested that other supervisors and commanders could be implicated in the Inspector General’s report.
As to whether being terminated for cause will impact Johnson’s pension, CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov’s understanding is that it would not – unless Johnson were convicted with a felony, which he has not been.
Kozlov did contact the executive director of the Police Pensions Fund for further information, but did not get a call back Monday.
Johnson was found asleep behind the wheel of his SUV early on Oct. 17, after he had gone out for dinner with a group of friends the night before. Speaking before a Police Board meeting the evening after the incident, Johnson blamed the incident on a mix-up in which he failed to take his blood pressure medication, and a feeling that he might faint that prompted him to pull over and rest.
Lightfoot later told the Sun-Times that Johnson had admitted to her in a phone call that he’d had “a couple of drinks with dinner” that night. However, the superintendent made no mention of drinking when he spoke about the incident publicly, and officers who responded to the scene of the incident did not perform a sobriety test on Johnson.
A woman who had seen Johnson slumped over in his SUV had called 911 to report someone sleeping at a stop sign, according to CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. When officers arrived at the scene, they did not see any signs of impairment, and let their boss drive home without administering a field sobriety test.
Johnson said he fell asleep when he pulled over. He has said he would have been better off having a driver with him after going out for dinner the night of the incident, but both he and his usual driver had already worked all day and he sent his driver home.
The superintendent added that he had visited his cardiologist twice in the days before the incident to follow up on a blood clot that he experienced this summer, and his doctor had changed his blood pressure medication. Johnson said he inadvertently forgot to take his new medication on the day of the incident, after throwing out his old medicine.
Hours after the incident, Johnson requested an investigation by the Internal Affairs Division, citing the need for transparency. Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson later took over the investigation.