Despite reservations that they were setting a concerning precedent, aldermen on the Council’s Public Safety Committee overwhelmingly approved a one-time exemption to city law, giving Mayor Emanuel the authority to appoint interim Police Supt. Eddie Johnson to a permanent post. They then spent more than two hours vetting him before unanimously recommending his appointment.

Attendance: Chairman Ariel Reboyras (30), Joe Moreno (1), Brian Hopkins (2), Pat Dowell (3), Leslie Hairston (5), Rod Sawyer (6), Gregory Michell (7), Anthony Beale (9), Sue Sadlowski Garza (10) Patrick Daley Thompson (11), George Cardenas (12), Ed Burke (14), Raymond Lopez (15), Toni Foulkes (16), David Moore (17), Derek Curtis (18), Matt O’Shea (19), Willie Cochran (20), Rick Munoz (22), Danny Solis (25), Roberto Maldonado (26), Walter Burnett (27), Jason Ervin (28), Chris Taliaferro (29), Scott Waguespack (32), Deb Mell (33), Carrie Austin (34), Emma Mitts (37), Nick Sposato (38), Marge Laurino (39), Anthony Napolitano (41), Tom Tunney (44), John Arena (45), Ameya Pawar (47) Harry Osterman (48), Deb Silverstein (50)

The ordinance the Public Safety Committee approved would temporarily suspend the Police Board’s role in the police superintendent search process, so the Mayor could immediately appoint interim Police Supt. Johnson to the post without having to assemble a new search.

According to the city’s Chief Assistant Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine, the ordinance, if approved by the full City Council today, would take effect immediately. After a month, the municipal code would revert back to the status quo, putting the authority of searching and vetting for a new police superintendent back in the hands of the Police Board.  

But several aldermen expressed that they were essentially setting precedent by giving the Mayor the ability to change the rules whenever it suits his needs.

“I don’t think this was transparent. Everything was thrown out the window. And we did everything we wanted to do anyway,” Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10) said, adding that “rules were made to be followed,” not “tweaked.”

Nearly all of those aldermen who took issue to changing the law said it was the process, not the individual, they had issue with, explaining they, too, think Johnson is the best man to lead the department, especially at a time when crime rates have spiked and morale among rank and file is at an all-time low.

To address those concerns about precedent, Levine told aldermen that it was an “extraordinary time,” and this law would not “set a trend.”  

“What’s the purpose of amending this order? Are we saving money? Shortening the process?” Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29), a former police officer, asked Levine, expressing confusion over the legal implications of keeping Johnson as an interim until proper protocol is followed. In response, Levine said it wasn’t “ideal” to keep the position occupied on an interim basis for an indefinite period of time.

He also said it was “conceivable” that the appointment of Johnson to the permanent position without changing the law would be perceived as “not legally proper.” But he dismissed concerns that possible legal action could be taken against the city, and said this was just a matter of making sure “all the legal i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.”

Only one alderman, Patrick Daley Thompson (11), voted against the law change and pushed back harder than anyone else on the council. “What is the urgency, and why can’t we follow that process?” he asked. He said Johnson did not go through the same vetting as the candidates who submitted applications and were interviewed by the Police Board.

Levine said interim Police Supt. Johnson went through “the same level of scrutiny and review” as the rest of the Police Board finalists, but couldn’t name who specifically conducted that vetting.

Several aldermen who were strongly in favor of the change argued it was an opportunity to finally get the search over with and suggested they use this meeting to vet Johnson. Committee Vice Chair Willie Cochran (20) called it was a “unique opportunity.”

Others said they were tired of the “charade” over the police search and wanted to get someone in the post and move on before crime gets worse.

“This is a unique situation and it requires unique ideas,” Ald. Nick Sposato (38) said, echoing a common phrase used by proponents of changing the law. “We need to stop the charade here, we don’t need to go on and act like we’re doing another search. The mayor has who he wants, the council’s happy with him. We need to move forward, get somebody in there.”

“The reason we need somebody to take over this department right now is because overtime is running amok, crime is running amok, the Police Department morale is down, and we need someone to get ahold of this ship and turn it around,” Ald. Anthony Beale (9) said. “And we don’t have another three or four months to do that.”

But as the meeting was laid out, aldermen couldn’t vet or ask Johnson questions until they approved the law change. That’s because Chairman Ariel Reboyras (30) chose to hold separate votes on each item–the amendment to the municipal code and the appointment of Johnson to the superintendent position. One couldn’t move forward until the other was approved, which Ald. Jason Ervin (28) said didn’t make sense. “Why not have that conversation first?” he asked.

When aldermen were finally given the opportunity to question Johnson, police overtime was the most common issue brought up. Aldermen urged him to get it under control, complaining that year after year, during every budget season, former Police Supt. Garry McCarthy promised to rein in overtime spending, only to bill more than the year before.

Yesterday’s meeting was also Johnson’s first opportunity to outline his goals for the department, even if most of them have yet to be worked out.

Among those plans include increasing foot and bike patrols and police presence at schools, and working on a legislative agenda in Springfield that would include cracking down on straw purchasing of guns and stronger sentencing for people found with an illegal gun.