CHICAGO — Eddie Johnson, who took over Chicago’s police department at a time of cratering public confidence and a spike in homicides, announced his retirement on Thursday, saying at an emotional news conference that after 31 years of police work, “It’s time.”
Superintendent Johnson, a native of Chicago who spent his entire career in the department, stabilized a city and a department that were in crisis after the murder of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a white officer.
With Mayor Lori Lightfoot and his family at his side, Superintendent Johnson said that he had worked to overhaul a department whose institutional failures he had witnessed since he was a child growing up in the Cabrini-Green public housing projects.
“Like too many children in Chicago, I experienced the trauma of gun violence firsthand as a child,” he said. “I saw how these unspeakable acts could tear a family apart. I also saw how those who were sworn to protect our city instead relied on prejudice and intimidation. I could have easily learned to hate this city. But my family taught us to love it.”
Chicago becomes the latest in a series of large cities this year to see turnover at the top of its police department. The Philadelphia police commissioner abruptly resigned in August, the chief in Charlotte, N.C., announced plans to step down and a new commissioner was appointed this week in New York City.
During more than three years in charge of the country’s second-largest municipal police force, Superintendent Johnson led an overhaul in training, introduced more restrictive rules for when officers could use force and guided the department into a court-enforced consent decree. After a dramatic rise in homicides early in his tenure, the murder rate had steadily dropped.
But the superintendent faced mounting problems, especially in recent weeks. He requested an investigation of himself last month after being found asleep in a parked S.U.V. late at night. Superintendent Johnson blamed the episode on medication, but Chicago’s mayor later said he had been drinking that evening. Days later, the superintendent lost a vote of no-confidence by leaders of the city’s main police union.
Superintendent Johnson said he would stay on until the end of the year. His departure leaves the city and its new mayor, Ms. Lightfoot, facing difficult choices on what type of leader to select for a department that has faced intense criticism over crime levels but also distrust from residents.
After video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald was released in late 2015, protesters marched for weeks, the city’s top police official was fired and a national search for a new superintendent ended with a political stalemate. Superintendent Johnson had not applied for the top job, but eventually was tapped.
Ms. Lightfoot praised Superintendent Johnson for his long record, his character, and for defiantly refusing to attend a speech by President Trump at a recent gathering of police chiefs in Chicago.
“Superintendent Johnson showed this city over and over again, but particularly in that act, that he loves this city and will protect our values no matter what,” she said.
When Superintendent Johnson took office in 2016, Chicago was in the midst of what would become its deadliest year in two decades, with more than 760 homicides, the most of any American city. The violence terrified residents, drew national attention and helped make the city a favorite target of President Trump, who at one point said he would “send in the Feds!” to address the city’s “carnage.”
“Chicago will never stop its crime wave with the current Superintendent of Police,” Mr. Trump tweeted after Superintendent Johnson chose to skip his speech at the policing conference. “It just won’t happen!”
Though gunfire remains common — more than 420 people have been killed in Chicago this year — Superintendent Johnson presided over major reductions in violence. Through the end of October, there were 2,242 shooting victims in Chicago this year, down from 3,574 during that same period in 2016.
Superintendent Johnson also tried to repair his department’s strained relationship with black residents. Tensions reached a nadir after the McDonald shooting video was released. The officer involved in that shooting, Jason Van Dyke, was convicted last year of second-degree murder.
“When I took over in 2016, everything was a mess: Crime was a mess, police morale was a mess, the community didn’t trust the police at all,” Superintendent Johnson told reporters this week as he hinted at retirement. “Are we where want to be? No, we’re not. But I think we’ve made significant progress.”
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