On Thursday, Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson appeared before a roomful of reporters and cameras, ready to provide details of an ugly, pointless incident: how TV actor Jussie Smollett allegedly staged a fake hate crime for the benefit of his own career. Behind him stood an arc of Chicago Police Department detectives who had worked the case.
First, though, Johnson had to get something off his chest: “As I look into the crowd, I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.” Johnson was professional in his demeanor, yet justifiably livid that his Police Department wasted three weeks investigating a shocking report of racist and homophobic violence that police now say was a hoax.
Police say Smollett wanted to give his career a boost, so he hired two brothers he knew in order to stage a fake attack one early January morning in the Streeterville neighborhood. One theatrical element: hanging a noose around Smollett’s neck. Somehow, Smollett allegedly figured, the incident would generate headlines and sympathy, leading to a pay raise. So the actor, who appears on the Chicago-filmed show “Empire,” filed a police report claiming two unknown assailants attacked him, shouted slurs and asserted that “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump. Smollett paid the brothers $3,500, Johnson said, with a promise of $500 later.
Cities aren’t living beings, but if there are rare moments that bind a community in shared emotions, Chicagoans are feeling what Johnson was expressing: dismay and anger at Smollett’s alleged transgression.
Because of the manpower CPD deployed to uncover a publicity stunt.
Because of the possibility the next report of a hate crime somewhere in the country might not be taken seriously.
Because of Smollett’s callous disregard for America’s painful struggle with racism. “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?” Johnson wondered.
The intersection of race, crime and policing is so fraught in Chicago that Johnson surprised us by speaking so bluntly. Gun violence is endemic to impoverished minority neighborhoods. Those are the same communities where too many homicide cases go unsolved and where many residents feel alienated by CPD’s troubling history of abuse. Johnson could have kept to the script by only discussing Smollett, but he noted instead how people in those neighborhoods were again being sidelined so he could answer media questions about a Hollywood actor’s alleged fraud.
Police time and attention were not directly shifted from homicide and shooting investigations to the Smollett case, he insisted, but “those are resources and time spent that we’ll never get back.” That includes time taken for an obligatory news conference.
Smollett turned himself in to police early Thursday to appear for a bond hearing on a felony charge that accuses him of filing a false police report. And as Johnson appropriately asserted, Smollett needs to apologize for dragging Chicago through this needless scandal.
We continue to hope Smollett explains what he did and why. We also hope that arc of detectives who stood behind Johnson — the cops who learned that the hate crime riveting America allegedly was a hoax — quickly return to solving real crimes, with real victims.