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Editorial: Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson's quiet leadership lesson

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Published in Op Eds

For the Chicago Police Department, 2018 had been a rough year that couldn't end fast enough. Cmdr. Paul Bauer was shot to death in February as he pursued a suspect in the Loop. Officer Samuel Jimenez died in a November hospital shooting. There had been a number of suicides.

Then came the evening rush hour of Dec. 17. Two officers from the Far South Side Calumet District, both new on the job and both fathers, were hit by a Metra train and killed while chasing a man after a report of gunfire.

The deaths of Officers Eduardo Marmolejo, 36, and Conrad Gary, 31, were a sickening blow to the department. The Calumet District already had experienced more than its share of loss. Marmolejo and Gary were the fourth and fifth officers in the district to die in 2018, two others by suicide and one of an apparent heart attack.

A few days ago, in a story by the Tribune's Madeline Buckley, a new detail emerged from that awful evening that speaks to the shared sacrifice of first responders. It also offers an example, amid heartbreak, of what leadership looks like:

Superintendent Eddie Johnson and other top brass had been the ones to reclaim the young officers' remains from the Metra embankment, sparing other officers the anguish of the task.

"That was just a bad scene, and the superintendent and all the command staff went up there recovering the bodies of the officers, so that their own officers would not have to see that," said Sgt. Cindy Guerra, the department's director of internal communications.

The public is typically spared the explicit, upsetting reality of a scene like that one. Police are not. Yet this wasn't something the senior staff wanted to put their officers through.

 

Their stepping up in the moment created an opportunity to lead in another way that may soon benefit even more officers, and perhaps save lives. After the accident, Johnson and others opened up to police counselors about the gruesome scene at the train tracks as a way of processing the trauma. This ultimately inspired the creation of a video encouraging employees to seek department mental health counseling if they are struggling with emotional issues. The message of the video, which features high-ranking officers sharing their stories, is that asking for assistance is important, and won't end a career.

CPD knows it needs to offer more emotional support to officers, who do stressful and dangerous work. The city has a small number of counselors for a department of more than 13,000. Caring for officers is an important aspect of police reform.

Johnson's case study in leadership is a reminder that the police mandate to "serve and protect" applies not just to safeguarding the public but to fellow officers too.

(c)2019 Chicago Tribune

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