Chicago police officers who responded to a call of a man who appeared to be asleep in his vehicle at a stop sign early Thursday morning arrived to a shocking sight -- their boss, slumped behind the wheel.
Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, 59, was found in his vehicle around 12:30 a.m. Thursday near his Bridgeport home, a Chicago police spokesman told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Johnson, who spoke to reporters later in the day, said he went to dinner with friends Wednesday night and, after dinner, dismissed his driver and headed home. The superintendent said he felt fine as he left the restaurant but began to feel ill as he got close to home, so he pulled over “out of an abundance of caution.”
“Should I have had a driver with me last night? Yes, I should have,” Johnson said Thursday. “But I had already worked a full day, and so did he. Because of different issues going on, and he has a young family … I let him go home.”
Johnson admitted he fell asleep as he sat behind the wheel.
The officers, as well as responding firefighters, confirmed the superintendent was OK to continue home, department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told the Sun-Times. Johnson said Tuesday that he felt better at that point, so he did so.
Johnson blamed the “medical episode” on his failure to take a new blood pressure medication but said that in a bid for “total transparency,” he had ordered the department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs to launch an investigation into the incident.
“As I’ve said before, every officer -- regardless of rank -- must uphold themselves to the highest of standards. That includes me,” Johnson said.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot admitted Friday, however, that there was perhaps more to the situation than Johnson let on at his news conference.
Lightfoot said in an interview with the Sun-Times that Johnson told her he had been drinking at dinner Wednesday night before trying to drive himself home.
Fran Spielman, city hall reporter for the Sun-Times, asked Lightfoot twice if she had asked Johnson if he’d been drinking.
“I didn’t ask him that question specifically. He revealed to me that he’d had a couple of drinks with dinner,” Lightfoot said the second time Spielman broached the subject.
When asked if she thought Johnson should have been driving under those circumstances, Lightfoot declined to answer outright, citing the ongoing investigation.
“He’s a grown man. He had a couple of drinks at dinner, is what he told me,” Lightfoot said.
“But he shouldn’t be driving if he did,” Spielman countered.
“I can’t say that and I don’t think you can say that,” Lightfoot responded. “But no matter what, I think we’ve got to let the investigation play itself out.”
Watch Mayor Lori Lightfoot discuss the incident with Superintendent Eddie Johnson below, courtesy of the Sun-Times.
No field sobriety test was performed on Johnson by the officers who responded to the scene, a group that included a sergeant, a lieutenant and a commander, Spielman said during her interview of Lightfoot.
Johnson addressed the lack of a breath test Thursday when asked about it by a reporter. The superintendent said it is within a police officer’s discretion to administer the test if the officer feels there are grounds for it.
“They don’t just do that just because,” Johnson said. “If someone looks impaired or intoxicated, or if (the officers) smell alcohol, or cannabis, for that matter, then they will conduct that.”
He did not mention to reporters that he’d been drinking at dinner, according to footage of the news conference from WGN-TV and other media outlets.
When a reporter asked Johnson if he believed the officers had made an error in not administering the breath test, he said he did not.
“Somebody being asleep in the car doesn’t mean they’re impaired in any way,” Johnson said.
He ended the news conference as reporters continued to call out questions.
Watch the news conference with Superintendent Eddie Johnson below.
Lightfoot said in Friday’s interview that she would wait for the outcome of the internal investigation before determining if the incident was handled properly by responding officers or if Johnson, who was sworn in as superintendent in 2016 by her predecessor, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, will face disciplinary action.
Lightfoot said everyone in the department, “whether it’s the superintendent or a beat patrol officer, has to abide by the rules.” She said Johnson made the right decision in calling for an investigation, which she said will “play itself out.”
“I know what the superintendent told me, which is that he was having some medical issues this week, he was changing medication, he didn’t feel well, he pulled off to the side,” Lightfoot said. “IAD will sort out the rest of it.”
When asked if she “(bought) his story,” Lightfoot said she had no reason to doubt what the superintendent told her. She pointed out his medical history, which includes a kidney transplant in 2017.
“I know myself, when I’ve taken medication, sometimes it has side effects,” Lightfoot said. “I know from my parents. So, I take him at his word. The investigation will sort out the details.”
Johnson told reporters he visited his cardiologist two days in a row last week for follow-up appointments regarding a blood clot he was treated for over the summer.
“When I visited him on Tuesday, he adjusted my medication,” the superintendent said. “It’s painful to admit this, but when he adjusted my medication, I took the old medication out (of a weekly pill case) but I failed to put the new medication in. So, (the doctor) wasn’t too happy with me today when he found out I hadn’t taken it.”
Johnson said he visited his neurologist following the early morning episode, where tests showed his blood pressure was high. The superintendent said that was when he realized he’d forgotten to add his new medication to his pill case.
“Should I do better with that medication? There’s a couple people not too happy with me about that because that’s the same thing that happened before,” Johnson said. “So the blood pressure medication is something I have to do better with.”
Johnson’s kidney transplant in August 2017 was due to glomerulonephritis, an inflammation of the filters in the kidneys, which the Sun-Times reported was diagnosed in Johnson about 35 years ago after he had applied to the Chicago Police Academy.
The condition, which the Chicago Tribune reported eventually left Johnson’s kidneys functioning at less than 10 percent capacity, was only publicly disclosed when Johnson almost fainted in January 2017 during a public appearance.
Johnson referenced that prior spell while discussing Thursday’s episode with reporters. During last week’s news conference, he described the feeling he had while driving earlier that morning as being similar to how he had felt in 2017, when he became ill as he stood next to Emanuel and other police officials at a news conference.
The Tribune reported two years ago that Johnson also blamed that incident on blood pressure medication, saying he had taken the prescription on an empty stomach. He also disclosed his kidney condition at that time, however.
Johnson received a kidney transplant from his then-25-year-old son, Daniel, later that year. Daniel Johnson is now a Chicago police officer like his father.
Lightfoot, who took office as mayor in May, had already been weighing the future of the police superintendent she inherited from Emanuel, who the Sun-Times reported rejected the Police Board’s three finalists for the job in 2016 in favor of the relatively-unknown Johnson. Lightfoot was the president of the board at the time, the newspaper said.
Lightfoot earlier this year said she would evaluate Johnson’s performance once the summer, which typically sees an uptick in gang violence in the city, was over, the Sun-Times reported. She admitted Friday that the larger conversation about Johnson’s job has not yet taken place.
Spielman on Friday asked Lightfoot if Thursday’s incident would factor into her decision on whether to keep Johnson, who the reporter wrote “wants desperately” to keep his job until April, when he becomes fully vested in his superintendent’s pension. Johnson’s current salary is $260,044.
“I don’t want to speculate like that. I want to give him respect,” Lightfoot told Spielman. “We will see what the circumstances are. He called me up, let me know about it ahead of time and there’s an investigation going on. We’ll see where the facts take us.”
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