By Jason Meisner
A former Chicago police commander who earned praise for overseeing big reductions in violence in the Englewood community pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing more than $360,000 in Social Security payments intended for his mother that he continued to collect after her death 25 years ago.
In all, Kenneth Johnson admitted to bilking the Social Security Administration out of $363,064 from the time of his mother’s death in May 1994 to November 2017, when the scheme was uncovered, according to his plea agreement with prosecutors.
Preliminary guidelines call for Johnson to be sentenced to up to about two years in prison for the felony conviction on one count of theft of government funds. U.S. District Judge Manish Shah set sentencing for Sept. 11.
Dressed in a gray suit and wearing eyeglasses, Johnson, 55, kept his hands clasped behind his back in court as Shah asked him if he understood his legal rights and the possible penalties he faces.
When the judge asked him how he wanted to proceed, Johnson replied softly, “I want to plead guilty, your honor.” According to his plea agreement, Johnson had a joint bank account with his mother in which she received monthly electronic deposits from Social Security.
But Johnson failed to notify the government of his mother’s death, instead continuing to collect the deposits and use them for his own benefit for more than 23 years, according to the agreement.
The 32-year Police Department veteran retired in August, three months before he was charged by the U.S. attorney’s office. His police pay then was $169,500 a year.
Johnson’s attorney, Michael Clancy, said in an emailed statement after court that Johnson “took responsibility for mistakes made after the death of his mother that he has regretted and lived with for a number of years.”
“He apologizes to the City of Chicago and the citizens he faithfully served and hopes this does not diminish the good work he was honored to be part of in the community,” the statement read.
Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at the time charges were filed that he was “shocked and very disappointed” to learn of Cmdr. Johnson’s alleged crime.
“I knew Cmdr. Johnson well from his efforts to reduce violence in Englewood, but if proven, these allegations erode the public’s trust and tarnish his service to Chicago,” the superintendent said in November.
Johnson’s efforts as Englewood’s police commander were heavily touted by the superintendent, who often spoke of the district’s reductions in shootings and homicides during public appearances. In 2017, the superintendent noted how nonfatal shootings in the district were at their lowest levels in years.
“Today, and I never thought I’d say this after being a cop for nearly 30 years, Englewood is leading the city in violence reductions this year,” the superintendent said in a speech at a City Club of Chicago luncheon.
Police officials have credited some of the improvement in Englewood to a Strategic Decision Support Center that allows district personnel to, among other things, analyze real-time crime data to predict where shootings will occur and use gun detection technology to help officers respond more quickly to those incidents.
During an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year, Kenneth Johnson, who became a Chicago cop in 1986 and took over as Englewood’s commander in 2016, also credited some of the district’s violence reduction at that point to inroads that officers had made with anti-violence outreach workers and citizens in the communities who long distrusted the police.
But he acknowledged that fully winning over the community would take a lot more time.
“This trust, it’s not an easily won thing,” he told a Tribune reporter at police headquarters, flanked by his twin brother, Kevin Johnson, who was promoted in August to deputy chief. “Trust is easily broken and very difficult to win.”
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