Johnnie Johnson Jr. was Birmingham’s second African-American police officer. In 1991, he became the city’s first black police chief and instituted community-policing policies that brought down crime and improved relationships between cops and communities. Today, with many politicians claiming the community approach is “soft on crime,” Johnson worries that hard-won progress will roll back even further.
By Lanier Isom | Photographs by Rob Culpepper
As a young boy, Johnnie Johnson Jr. fled down alleys and hid behind bushes whenever he spied a policeman. But one day, as he waited for the school bus, a policeman stopped his patrol car, and Johnson decided to stay put. The white officer rolled down his window and said, “Come here, son.”
Johnson froze. Should he do as the officer said, or run like hell? Johnson walked over to the patrol car. The officer motioned for him to get in. He said he would give Johnson a ride to school. Watching the streets flash by through the police car windows, listening to the officer encourage him to do well in school, Johnson felt the power of the officer's helping hand. He never forgot that moment.
The second oldest of six children, Johnson grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1950s in a neighborhood called Evergreen Bottom. His family lived in a shotgun duplex where they cooked on a coal stove, warmed up by the fireplace, and washed clothes with homemade lye soap and a washboard. Johnson’s mother, the oldest of 17 children, worked as a maid for a white family. His father drove trucks, worked on the docks, and repaired shoes before he became disabled with back trouble. Lack of access to good medical care was part of the reason his father died at the age of 49.
“If he'd gotten sick now, he would have lived,” Johnson says today.
Raising her son during the Jim Crow era, Johnson's mother told him he wouldn’t keep a good job if he refused to say "yes, ma’am" or "no, ma’am" to everyone, even those who thought him inferior. If he wanted to be somebody, Johnson believed he had to go north, like his older brother, who moved to Cleveland to live with Johnson’s grandmother when Johnson was around 10 years old.
Johnson learned early to be industrious. When the Alabama Packing plant closed, he slammed a sledgehammer into the concrete surrounding the shuttered facility and wrenched the embedded rebar from the broken slabs, so he could sell the twisted steel to scrap-metal dealers. Birmingham, after all, was an industrial city. Founded in 1871, Birmingham was home to the three key ingredients for making steel. Veins of coal, iron ore, and limestone threaded deeply into the rugged terrain surrounding Jones Valley. Inherent in Birmingham's rough-and-tumble beginnings was a deep racial divide between poor whites and blacks pitted against each other by the captains of the steel industry. Harper's journalist George Leighton dubbed Birmingham the city of "perpetual promise" when he chronicled its history in 1937. It had also been dubbed "the murder capital of the world" early on, owing to rampant lawlessness in the booming manufacturing town.
When Johnson was a young man, being industrious by selling scrap metal was one thing; being ambitious for more was another. During Johnson's senior year at Parker High School, his teacher asked about college. He told her he wasn't college material. What's college material? she wanted to know.
"I don't know, but I'm not it," he told her. After graduation, he took a job as a busboy at "Birmingham's Most Modern Hotel," the Redmont downtown. Not long after, he took a better-paying job changing tires at Sears for $45 a week. One day, when Johnson was changing a lady's tire, he noticed she needed a new inner tube. He went inside the store, found an inner tube, and handed it to the salesman to write up. Later, he was reprimanded for stepping out of place, even though his managers, feeling the pressure of social change, had promised him he'd be their first black salesman.
Years later, when Johnson became Birmingham’s first African-American chief of police, he was invited to speak to retired Sears employees. There, he ran into his former boss. He couldn't help himself, so he shook his old boss’ hand and told him: "It's the same little guy, the same little black guy that didn't have sense enough to sell an inner tube.”
In 1963, the same year the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls, Johnson volunteered for the Civil Defense. Under the cover of night, he kept watch over buildings, churches, and homes in black neighborhoods. By then, black communities had been terrorized by so many racially motivated bombings that the city had become known as "Bombingham."
One year later, when Johnson received his badge for completing his Civil Defense training, he learned about a police reserve class being formed. He felt called to the work and signed up. After a month of training, Inspector William Haley asked Johnson if he wanted to become a Birmingham policeman.
Only one year before Johnson took the test, two qualified black applicants had gone to the courthouse to take the same test. One was turned away for being too short; the other failed. Both men possessed college and graduate degrees, while most Birmingham policemen had high-school diplomas at best, and many, not even that. For decades, black leaders had fought for integration in Birmingham Police Department, but their demands gained momentum in 1963 after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference descended upon Birmingham, where “Bull” Connor, the unapologetic white-supremacist commissioner of public safety, oversaw the fire and police departments.
When protesters marched during the Children's Crusade, Connor’s police beat men, women, and children with batons, pummeled them with high-pressure fire hoses, and commanded police dogs to attack indiscriminately.
Against this backdrop, Birmingham began seriously looking into hiring black policemen. By the time Johnson took the test, battle lines had been redrawn from barring black applicants outright to the more insidious, invisible discriminatory testing methods.
After taking the test and not hearing about the results, Johnson took a job as a dock worker at Baggett Transportation — it paid well, $1.20 an hour. There, he washed out refrigerated trucks that hauled vegetables and meat. He also became part of a group bringing the Teamsters union to Baggett, despite the threat of being fired.
One morning, one of the guys in his police reserve class asked Johnson whether he was going to be a teamster or a police officer. Puzzled, Johnson then discovered his name had been published in The Birmingham News.
He had passed the test.
Johnson later went to the Thuss Clinic for his physical. Passing it would make him Birmingham’s second black policeman. In the waiting room, he met the first one, LeRoy Stover, who had been hired the day before. By that point, Johnson had gotten his weight down to 198, but the white doctor knocked off two more pounds, just in case, to make sure he'd pass the physical. To this day, Johnson can only guess why the doctor did this: "Maybe he wanted to see me make it. Maybe it was his way of putting his hand in the pot of social change."
Tall, fit, and able to bench press 300 pounds, Johnson was only 23, married with two young kids, when he walked into his first roll call at City Hall on March 31, 1966. Most officers refused to meet his gaze; others glared at the intruder. His heart raced. Johnson had dealt with his fair share of white folks before, but he never dreamed he’d be standing as a recruit in a police force that for many years had been, for all intents and purposes, an arm of the Klan. He scanned the sea of white officers in blue. He wondered who was more dangerous, the criminals on the street or his fellow officers.
LeRoy Stover, hired one day before Johnson, writes in his book, “Birmingham’s First Black in Blue,” that on his first day, he was issued a gun and a badge and escorted in an unmarked police car to City Hall. A noisy crowd lined the street. Stover was ushered in a basement door in the back of City Hall to avoid the press and the thugs who gathered to protest his hiring. A Birmingham Post-Herald reporter acknowledged that this day represented a “big ‘first’” for Birmingham and reported that for the 33-year-old Selma native, “the day’s routine was pretty much the same as the first day in the life of any rookie police officer, getting all the preliminary instructions and uniform.” But when Stover walked into roll call, he encountered a hostile reception, officers repeating the N-word until they were finally told to quiet down and listen for roll call.
Although the officers weren’t as blatantly hostile on Johnson’s first day, both men soon ran into similar problems with a particular officer. This officer almost crushed Stover’s leg with the car door when he jerked the patrol car forward before Stover could get in. Other thinly veiled aggressions followed. Stover later learned the man was indeed a Klansman — and that the police sergeant had intentionally placed him with Stover in an effort to run off Birmingham’s first black cop.
The same officer acted the same way with Johnson, gunning his patrol car down Crestwood Boulevard as if on a suicide mission. Johnson braced himself each time. That’s all he could do. There was no seatbelt. If that fool was trying to kill Johnson, he’d have to kill himself in the process. He refused to let Johnson use the walkie-talkie or write on the clipboard. Soon he stopped talking to Johnson. He was a "demon."
One day, a white officer commented, “I heard they put the silent treatment on your ass.” Johnson nodded his head. The officer asked him if he knew why, then told him, “They want you to say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir.’” When Johnson asked him, “Do you want me to say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ to you?” The officer shook his head. “No. Your badge is big as mine,” he said.
Johnson says other officers also treated him with respect, but they were unable to defy the prevailing social code of the 1960s Deep South and show their support within the fraternal order. Not long after he joined the force, Johnson was driving home, dog-tired, after his shift. He maneuvered his green Chevrolet down 8th Avenue West near Legion Field. He hummed a gospel tune, a new one he’d practiced the Sunday before with the men’s choir at the Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church, the same church he had attended from childhood. He thanked God he’d made it through another shift, another day.
Up ahead and on the side of the road, an older woman waited for the bus in the pouring rain. She reminded him a little of his auntie. Johnson stopped humming. No Bluebird bus in sight. The windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the downpour. He swung his car in front of the uncovered bus stop.
Dripping wet and without an umbrella, the drenched woman jumped in the front seat without even looking to see who was driving the car.
She shook the soggy newspaper she’d tried to protect herself with. The headlines about Vietnam and civil rights protests melted together. She shut the door, smoothed her wet skirt, and looked over at Johnson.
Her eyes widened. A black man in Birmingham dressed in blue. A police officer? She might as well have seen Jesus Christ. She wiped her hands again and placed her weathered hand on Johnson’s arm. She shook her head, smiled, patted his arm, and said: “Boy, I put you in that uniform.”
Johnson scanned his rearview mirror and slowly pulled his car into the incoming traffic. He nodded his head, merging into traffic.
“Yes, ma’am, you sure did,” he said. He knew she, along with many other unknown men, women, and children, had marched in the streets for change.
That fall, Johnson, Stover, and Robert Boswell attended the Police Academy four days during the week and worked the day shift on Fridays. One year after being hired, Johnson was given the assignment of traffic cop on Fourth Avenue, a black business district teeming with shoppers and shopkeepers. Wearing his white cap, navy pea coat, and tooling around on his three-wheeled scooter, he became a well-known fixture on the street. He wrote so many tickets, a guy told him, "You'd give your mama a ticket." The first time he gave a white jaywalker a ticket, the whole block went into "suspended animation." On his beat, “I had made a lot of friends down there, but some people didn't care for me, because I wrote plenty of tickets. They knew that I didn't play when I was there.”
On duty, he learned quickly that "a good policeman can hold a baby in one arm and a crook in the other and not change his expression." Always being tested, he concluded that an unflappable demeanor was his only guarantee of success and survival in the wake of generations of white hate. When the instructor at the Academy demonstrated how to retrieve a nightstick if someone grabbed it, he called on Johnson to volunteer for the demonstration. They wrestled for 15 minutes, Johnson clearly winning. This time, though, Johnson chose to step back. "That was a fight I didn't need to win. He needed to show he was the boss."
As an officer, he was fighting two fights: one mental and the other physical. He had to stay in shape in both mind and body.
“I wasn’t going to let anybody master me," Johnson says, noting that his greatest resource then and now was his faith and his favorite gospel song "I'm Still Here."
Heartaches, I've had my share of heartaches, but I'm still here
Trouble, I've seen my share of trouble, but I'm still here
Bruises, I've taken lumps and bruises, but I'm still here
Loneliness, I've had my share of loneliness, but I'm still here
Johnson stayed on the force. He made a point early on to tolerate abuse from no one. Nor did he tolerate officers being abusive to others. Police corruption existed, but being black, he wasn’t privy to shady dealings. He kept his nose clean, spent time with his family, and continued to teach Sunday School and sing in the choir. He didn't drink or fraternize with officers outside work.
Chief Jamie Moore, the first chief Johnson served under, talked about Johnson in an interview with Dr. Horace Huntley at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute not long before he died in 2002.
"I had an inspector at that time right under me, and he went out to check Johnnie Johnson,” Moore said. “He said he never checked anybody that had any better record than Johnnie Johnson did.”
A couple of years after being hired, when Johnson was still a traffic cop, two officers shot a man on a nearby street. People gathered in anger ready to attack the officers. Because Johnson, a familiar figure, was nearby, he defused the situation, reasoned with the crowd, and helped keep his fellow officers from getting hurt.
“Maybe I'm tuning my own fork,” he says. “But I stood between those officers and the crowd. I was able to keep the people off of them. I was able to tone them down. My intent was to keep them alive.”
Today, they call that kind of action “community policing.”
And in the community-policing equation, Johnson believes the police officer’s part is to get to know the people of the community. Officers need to visit people on their porches or out on the sidewalks when there’s not a shooting, a robbery, or a drug bust.
“Twelve to 15 percent of your time, you're arresting criminals,” Johnson says. “What are you doing with that other 85 to 88 percent? You have to be making friends. Because you are not always putting folks in jail. You are there trying to assist people. To help them start their cars. Help them push their cars. To help them get their cat out of the tree.
“If you have abandoned them, if you have mistreated them, if you’ve driven them out, then when you call for help, they’ll all say, ‘Well, too bad. Handle it.’”
Three years after his hiring, Johnson was assigned to “community relations,” a job where he felt he was charged with making “a bad department look good.” Johnson remembers a morning when he and another officer went together on a school visit. Johnson’s pants were always pressed, his shoes and badge shined. He even polished his bullets. When they met the class, one of the students walked up to the other officer and asked why his badge didn’t look like Johnson’s. For Johnson, something as simple and seemingly insignificant as a polished badge reflected a deeper difference of sensibilities about policing philosophy.
In 1969, complaints from the black community about police brutality had resulted in the formation of the Community Affairs Committee. Then, in 1970, Johnson became the BPD’s first black sergeant. By that time, 14 black officers were on the force. As sergeant, Johnson was assigned to the department handling complaints from the African-American community.
When Johnson learned from a black officer about a white officer’s use of excessive force in a black neighborhood, Johnson deliberated the best way to handle the situation. He worried about protecting the black officer, who had broken an unspoken code of silence by telling Johnson. But Johnson decided to inform the Captain, and the offending officer was let go.
“The officer was brutal. He was just brutal out there,” Johnson says. “They had stopped this guy on Arkadelphia Road, and he just beat him. I learned how really to be a supervisor working in those conditions right there.”
In 1971, 34 complaints of excessive force were issued, but the number dropped to 27 the following year, according to a Birmingham News article.
By 1978, when Chief Jim Parsons left office, City Councilman Richard Arrington acknowledged improvements in the department, but commented in a Birmingham News article that more blacks needed to be hired, blacks within the department needed better treatment, and charges of mistreatment from the community needed to be handled better. The following year, Arrington became the city's first African-American mayor after the political fallout from the shooting of an unarmed black woman, Bonita Carter, by a white policeman.
Then and still today, Johnson says, “What I have found with racial issues is that black folks, not white folks, want to deal with racial issues. We need to openly discuss and talk about what the differences are."
By then, Stover, Johnson, and Boswell, the third black police officer hired, had become “three peas in pod.” How did they survive being a minority on the force?
“Well, I really think it was that closeness that we had, and we just leaned on each other,” Johnson says. He had first met Stover in high school, but reconnected after both joined the force. He didn't usually work with Stover, but sometimes during the first couple of years, they were in the same car or rode bicycles on the Southside beat, pedaling and talking. Johnson met Boswell at the Police Academy the fall of his first year. All three often studied together.
As sergeant, Johnson attended national conferences and learned more about policing strategies. He began to network and became a founding member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
“There were plenty of black officers that did not want to become a member, because it had the word ‘black’ in it,” Johnson says. “And they didn't want their white friends to know they were associated with an organization that was black.”
In 1981, along with LeRoy Stover and John Fisher, Johnson became one of the BPD’s first black lieutenants, but first he had to confront department politics at play. Not long after, when Johnson received his performance evaluation, the supervisor had given him an 84.7. An 85 was required to take the exam to become a lieutenant.
“That’s normally not a bad score, but he knew that I was up to take the lieutenant test so I just went to Captain Wallace Chilcote,” Johnson says. “And I said, ‘Captain, this is my performance evaluation. I’m not telling you what to do with this. I just want you to review it and compare it with the other supervisors, and you tell me whether or not it’s fair.’” When Johnson got it back, Captain Wally had moved his score up to 85.
One of Johnson’s first moves as chief was to promote Wally into a job as his administrative assistant.
In 1991, when he was attending a NOBLE meeting, his wife Brenda called to tell him BPD Chief Arthur Deutsch, a former New York police officer who was hired in 1981, had stepped down. By that point, Johnson was deputy chief and had become Mayor Arrington's administrative assistant. Brenda told him the chief had been indicted, along with three others, for tampering with the mayor's daughter's arrest records. Johnson cut the trip short. When he returned, the mayor walked in his office. He asked if Johnson wanted to be chief. As always, Johnson talked to Brenda, then accepted the position as acting chief.
One year later, he was sworn in as chief of police, the same year Rodney King made headlines after being beaten by Los Angeles police officers.
In Johnson's vision of community policing, a chief must be “touchable.” This stood in stark contrast to former Chief Deutsch’s philosophy.
“I tried to be the very best chief that this city ever had,” Johnson says. “I did things that this city never had a police chief do before. Never." During his seven-year tenure, he “actualized” as opposed to simply “giving voice” to the idea of community policing in his department, an approach he compares to the benefits of taking cod liver oil: “Cod liver oil isn’t a cure, but it will make you healthier.”
Johnson walked every public housing unit in the city, knocking on doors throughout neighborhoods with precinct captains and housing managers in tow. He invited citizens and the media to quarterly staff meetings at local community centers, lifting the veil of police secrecy. He and his officers became ambassadors who provided resources for solving a neighborhood's particular problems. They continued coaching baseball and basketball to underprivileged youth through the Police Athletic Teams started in 1970, and established new programs such as Project Safe to address domestic violence. He held anti-violence marches and crime-free weekends. He even started a police choir and assigned ambassadors to community projects, such as fundraising for the United Way.
As a result, Birmingham residents began changing their view of the BPD.
“It went from ‘I don't know’ to ‘he went over there’ or ‘check that house over there,’” Johnson remembers. “We cannot wait to become their friends when there is an issue. You do that prior to the issue, so when the issue pops up, ‘Hey, that is Officer So-and-So there. He is all right.’ We wanted them to know that you might not know every police officer, but the one you do know, is all right. That was the whole process.”
Inside the department, Johnson also tried to teach his officers new ways of looking at their interactions with the public.
“I always told my officers, ‘Look. This person did not run your red light. That's the city's red light,’” Johnson says. “So, you're writing them a ticket, that's just for the city's violation, not yours. It was not an affront to you. They violate the law, not my law.”
Johnson believes such attitude shifts help law-abiding citizens see officers as helpers, not threats.
“When people see that you're doing your job, they're not going to interfere with you doing your job,” he says. “They just don't want you abusing people.”
During Johnson's tenure, crime dropped from the all-time highs that came earlier. But as the 20th century came to a close, funding dried up, the war on drugs ramped up, departments became more militarized, and a “broken windows” philosophy — where police departments aggressively pursue low-level crimes — became more common. Even though crime fell during the last four years of Johnson’s stint as chief, the mayor and a group of white businessmen hired an outside consulting firm, led by the controversial New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, to evaluate the police department.
They recommended an overhaul, and despite Johnson’s progress, Mayor Arrington replaced him in 1998 with Mike Coppage, a chief who believed Johnson’s brand of community policing was soft on crime.
After leaving his position as chief in 1998, Johnson worked a short time in the mayor's office before being appointed to the Alabama State Pardons and Parole Board. He later served briefly as police chief of two small municipalities outside Birmingham, ran for Sheriff, and even sold cars before retiring.
Today, he's still involved with the community as a deacon in his church. He still serves on the Community Affairs Committee that was formed in 1969. He's also an expert witness on cases of police brutality.
Fifty years ago, Birmingham was known throughout the world for its police brutality. But things have changed a bit. A statue of a policeman and a police dog attacking a protester stands as a constant reminder of the ills of the 1960s in Kelly Ingram Park, directly across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church. Today, the Birmingham Police Department comprises 912 police officers, and roughly half of them are African-American.
Over the past 30 years, the heart of this old steel city has become a thriving medical and banking center, and a hotspot for foodies. The revitalization of downtown, gutted by years of white flight, has sparked a new vitality in the city center.
Nevertheless, education, public transportation, and poverty woes still haunt Birmingham, a situation exacerbated by self-serving politicians, Johnson says.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice chose Birmingham as one of six cities participating in a pilot program to create a National Playbook for Community Policing. And Johnson still believes that his approach to community policing is critical.
"We still don't know how to live with one another," Johnson says.
When communities are divided, unnecessary tragedies occur, Johnson says, and he points to the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, as just one example.
In response to that situation, Johnson believes the mayor should have appointed a public safety director to reconcile the differences between the public and police and established different policies.
“Some things you have to legislate,” he says. “Officers have to understand these are the rules, and this is how it will be done.” As he told his officers, “I'm not telling you not to arrest criminals. I am telling you that you have to treat people like they're somebody." He also says the Ferguson mayor and police chief weren’t outspoken enough on behalf of the community, emphasizing that when a citizen is killed, a police chief must reach out to the family and must tell the community, “We don't advocate this.”
A key question for Johnson is the kind of relationship an officer builds with the neighborhood he or she polices.
“How can an officer work a neighborhood and not know its citizens?” Johnson asks. “You might not know everybody, but you ought to know most of everybody. If you been in that neighborhood four or five years, they ought to know who you are.
“If you're a practitioner of community policing, whether an officer had ever worked that neighborhood or not, the relationship should have been established between the police and the community, regardless of who's working this neighborhood,” he continues. “Anything that happens thereafter is going to be tempered with what we already know about each other.”
When he was chief, Johnson says he made a point to ask his officers, “What happens if you are flat on your back, and not another blue suit around? Do you want somebody to come help you? The community will help you if they are your friend. Don't make enemies of the people who might have to come help you. When you make friends, it's a lot easier to enforce the law.” Police officers are not just dealing with criminals. More often than not, they’re dealing with people who don't believe in them. Ultimately, a police officer’s job is to make believers out of them, Johnson says.
In the case of Eric Garner, who died at the hands of New York police who put him in a chokehold when they arrested him, Johnson says the NYPD sergeant should have told the officers to stop when Garner couldn’t breathe.
“With four officers there, the sergeant should have said, ‘Let's get his hands behind him, handcuff him, let's get him up,’” Johnson says. “When you do that, you make a world of difference. Had somebody acted, they probably could have saved this guy's life."
In the early days of community policing, Johnson remembers questioning people who said its goal was to bring the public and the police department “back together.”
"You can't bring them back together because they never were together,” Johnson contends. “The black community and policemen have always been separate. You're not trying to rebirth; you're trying to birth.” But without the effort required to bring forth new understandings between communities of color and their police forces, “What happened in Ferguson could very well happen anywhere in this country,” Johnson says. “That's why everybody needs to wake up. That's why the president (Barack Obama) said this is a national problem, not just a local problem in Ferguson. There have got to be some changes systematically all over this country.”
Now, more than ever, when horrific violence and mass shootings seem almost commonplace, Johnson believes trust between law enforcement and citizens must be fostered through community policing.
“How easy is it to hurt someone if you assume you know their story, if you think they are less than?” Johnson asks. “It’s similar to what’s going on with the Muslims. If you don’t see them as real folks, if you reduce them all to terrorists, that gives you license to mistreat.”
Today, Johnson believes, elected officials and civic leaders across the country must embrace community policing as an integral philosophy. They must change policies and procedures to forge a new relationship between the police and the policed. Without that, Johnson says, black communities could find themselves right back where they were 50 years ago.
Lanier Isom is working on a book about Johnnie Johnson’s experiences integrating the Birmingham Police Department and rising through the ranks to become the city’s first African-American police chief.