Lightfoot declined to detail what prompted her decision Monday “out of deference to his wife and children,” but did attribute Johnson’s dismissal to misconduct surrounding an Oct. 17 incident in which police officers found the superintendent passed out in his car at a stop sign.
While Johnson initially blamed the episode on a change in his blood pressure medication, Lightfoot said an internal investigation revealed there was more to the story.
“Mr. Johnson was intentionally dishonest with me and communicated a narrative replete with false statements regarding material aspects of the incident that happened in the early morning hours of October 17,” the mayor said in a statement Monday. “Had I known all the facts at the time, I would have relieved him of his duties as superintendent then and there.”
WGN reports department leaders weren’t given any advance notice of the superintendent’s dismissal. Former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck will serve as interim superintendent.
Lightfoot used Johnson’s firing to call for broad change at the Chicago Police Department and condemned the “old Chicago way” of Johnson’s conduct.
“Perhaps in years past, someone in Mr. Johnson’s circumstances would have been allowed to simply retire. Doing so today in these circumstances would have been inconsistent with who I am and with the kind of principled leadership I want to bring to the city,” she said.
“The old Chicago way must give way to the new reality,” she continued. “Ethical leadership, integrity, accountability, legitimacy, and yes, honesty, must be the hallmarks of city government. There must be no mistake about the message I’m sending today.”
The firing comes just weeks before Johnson’s planned retirement at the end of the year. He announced his retirement last month after serving more than 30 years on the force, nearly four of which he was Chicago’s top cop.
Johnson told reporters during his retirement announcement that he was making the decision to step down in order to spend more time with family, and not because of the inspector general’s investigation.
“Like too many children in Chicago, I experienced the trauma of gun violence firsthand as a child. ... I also saw how those who were sworn to protect our city instead relied on prejudice and intimidation,” Johnson said Nov. 7. “I could have easily learned to hate this city. But my family taught us to love it, and they supported us.”
Johnson’s tenure as Chicago’s police superintendent was marked by a handful of high-profile incidents. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him superintendent in 2016 after firing Garry McCarthy over released dash-cam footage of the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was shot 16 times by a white police officer.
Johnson oversaw the police department during Officer Jason Van Dyke’s criminal trial in McDonald’s death and called for the firing of several officers involved in covering up the killing. Four officers were ultimately fired for the cover-up.
Johnson reentered the national spotlight in 2019 after actor Jussie Smollett claimed he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in Chicago, only to be later accused of having fabricated the incident.
Johnson also drew the ire of President Donald Trump this year when he boycotted Trump’s remarks at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Sanjana Karanth contributed reporting.