Can He Make Chicago’s Streets Safe Again?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the violence in Chicago can’t be solved in 140 characters.
This is shaping up to be a rare day for Eddie Johnson, which is to say, a good one. Such is the grim reality of being Chicago’s top cop, a title the 28-year veteran never asked for. He is a year into running the Chicago Police Department, and already has a dim set of numbers to his name. His city, the one the new president painted as plagued with “carnage” in his inauguration address, saw 762 homicides last year — more than New York and Los Angeles combined, and a 57 percent increase from 2015.
Yet today, Johnson’s spirits are up. He’s here to laud progress, a week after graduating the largest class in recent Chicago police academy history and unveiling a series of reforms aimed at reducing the violence. (Broadly: community policing, better training, additional supervisors and more body cameras.) The department’s database-driven ShotSpotter software, implemented in January, has seen promising success in Englewood and Harrison. The city’s two most violent neighborhoods accounted for a third of last year’s killings, yet have reported a significant decrease in shootings with the calendar flip – in Englewood, a 24 percent drop, in Harrison, 45 percent, compared to the same time in 2016. Police partly credited it to the 100 new sensors tracking where shots are fired, alerting authorities at breakneck speed.
Wearing a windbreaker and suit pants that hang loosely, Johnson announces all of this to the reporters (and cameras) gathered, as though reading a police report. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he says, looking up from his script. “We’ve never seen reductions in districts like that.” For a moment, optimism cracks through as he brags to reporters about losing 25 — no, 27 — pounds this year.
But then he steps through the doors to the outside world. A family approaches him with flyers and lifted smartphones. Their 15-year-old daughter went missing over the weekend, and, as they show him, a Facebook Live video was posted of five to six men sexually assaulting her. “They putting this on Facebook?” Johnson, the father of two girls, asks, shaking his head. He turns around and re-enters the police station. Later, the police will report the teenager has been found, and the Facebook video taken down. At least 40 people watched the stream live. No one called the police, a spokesman said.
On his first full day, Johnson told reporters that he had “never encountered police misconduct” in his nearly three decades on the job. Naturally, the remark drew eye-rolls from critics. His is not a radical, chuck-it-all approach. Moderate, deliberate and therefore controversial, Johnson speaks of discovering pieces of solutions, not solutions wholesale, to the police department’s woes. He sees violence as a complex puzzle requiring patience.
Johnson is not the reformer the city asked for. The Chicago Police Board vetted 39 contenders and selected three finalists for Rahm Emanuel to choose from, but last March the brash Chicago mayor chose none of them, instead selecting Johnson, who hadn’t applied for the position. (Emanuel’s staff did not respond to a recent request for comment.) The city’s Latino and Black caucuses cheered Johnson’s selection as a victory: Johnson is the first African-American head of the department since 2003. Others wondered how reform could come from inside a system that repeatedly violated citizens’ civil rights through excessive force, poor oversight and inadequate training, according to federal investigation findings revealed in January.
Reform, when measured in changes to the CPD policy menu, has begun. In October, Johnson proposed changes to the CPD’s use-of-force policy, compelling officers to use the least force possible, limit Taser use and refrain from shooting fleeing people unless they were “an immediate threat.” The policy changes were seen as correct steps, if small ones, with one criminal justice expert proclaiming, “Welcome to the 21st century” in the pages of the Chicago Tribune.
But no conversation about Chicago policing can be understood at the level of mayors or even the incremental changes Johnson advocates for. The challenge and irony of policing in America today is the balance between national attention, melodrama, fatigue and pressure and a reality that community journalist Evan Moore describes as ailing: “There are more than enough churches and barbershops — but not anything of substance. For most people, it’s either you work for the city, you hustle or you work on your jump shot.”
And of course, in the Trump era, Chicago has taken on a significance larger than itself, as a symbol of bureaucratic ineptitude and the damage anti-authority liberals can wreak on the streets. And so the self-portrayed tough-on-crime Trump and his appointee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are loosening the federal grip and gaze on local departments. Sessions has signaled a shift away from the probes that reveal police errors, and Trump decried “a war on police” during his campaign. Likely to be abolished are “consent decrees,” which the feds used to force change at police departments in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland and Baltimore, among other cities. Agencies will no longer operate with Uncle Sam looking over their shoulder, which Trump and others contend will allow them to finally rein in violence free of red tape.
Already the CPD’s October use-of-force policies, written in part thanks to pressure from the Loretta Lynch-led Justice Department, have been watered down. The most recent proposal lets officers make judgment calls about use of force. One provision required that cops stop their partners from abusing citizens; now officers should “intervene verbally on the victim’s behalf.” While the changing of the guard in Washington is just one factor, it comes at a time when activists are increasingly skeptical of the CPD’s willingness to police themselves without oversight.
The presidential attention has been a “double-edged sword,” Johnson says. “It does highlight the fact that we could use some assistance, but at some point we have to get the assistance.” (A recent meeting with Sessions, in which Johnson says he asked for more federal prosecutors, funding for mentoring programs and a federal ballistics lab in Chicago, has not yet borne fruit.) There are factors outside his control, he often notes, from the insufficient gun laws to meager economic investment.
If there’s one thing people thought could change the South Side over the past eight years, it was the 44th president, still a hometown hero. No, locals say. The spirit Obama epitomized as a community organizer failed to manifest when he sat in the White House, says Reverend Marc A. Robertson, between puffs at Smokey Bear, a cigar shop near Ashburn. “We did not benefit from him being president.”
Johnson says that regardless of Washington, his daily work will continue on. His focus is on local eyes and ears. “Bad guys will not continue to be bad guys if we had the community’s help in telling us who they were and what they saw.”
Here in the Washington Heights neighborhood where Johnson has lived since adolescence — far from the Hill, from the room in which Sen. Cory Booker objected to Sessions’ appointment, from the cherry blossoms — one encounters conversations that need not stray far from the block. At Father & Sons Barbershop in Englewood, talk is of the toddler a few blocks down who was recently shot in the head with a parent’s weapon, an accident during a game of cops and robbers.
Would more cops help? “Until the good ones start speaking out on the bad ones, they’re all bad,” says the barber, Jason Williams. “It’s like dogs are barking around the neighborhood, running around and biting people. And then they say, ‘We’re going to bring more dogs — the good dogs, though.’” The local eyes and ears Johnson speaks of sound, to Williams, like snitching — bad news for your safety and your family’s.
When Johnson comes up, many African-Americans in Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods praise his character, but nurse mixed feelings about his time as police chief. It’s too early to feel the weight of promised reforms, most of which remain discussed but not enacted.
But Johnson would point to the 7500 block of South Harvard Ave. for a local good-news story. Here, a band of mothers started a daily patrol. The Englewood corner hasn’t seen a murder in months. “They are an incredible model,” says Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University law professor, although the frequent police critic adds the Mothers Against Senseless Killings “haven’t gotten the support they deserve” to expand. Other community projects include Parents for Peace, which seeks justice in unsolved murder cases, and the Dovetail Project, which trains young African-American fathers. Uber has been a boon, Williams says, pumping new money into struggling communities.
It’s hard, though, to walk from block to block here in the South Side and mark the successes. It’s far easier to track the human ledger of violence at street junctures. They are cited as colloquial epitaphs: South Aberdeen and West 62nd (the toddler), South Throop and West 86th (three men shot dead; found in car), Merrill Avenue and 74th (police shooting; car-jacking teenager). These turn from vigil sites to the staging grounds for protests. “People are used to it,” says Moore, the journalist. The slang nickname for Chicago, “Chi-Raq” — long used locally, and recently entered into the cultural lexicon by Spike Lee’s eponymous 2015 film — isn’t absurd, Moore says. “You see kids wearing RIP T-shirts over RIP T-shirts.”