The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, by a white Ferguson police officer will be studied by researchers and historians for decades to come. So will the role of peacemaker and peacekeeper played by Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson.
Gov. Jay Nixon tapped Johnson to take over after protests and police response seemed on the verge of escalating out of control. Johnson immediately earned a hashtag on social media, as reporters -- and everyone else -- scrambled to learn more about him. While we have yet to interview Johnson, we did talk with people who know him and with people in the Ferguson community.
The basics: Johnson, 51, is African American and now lives in Florissant. He grew up and went to school in north St. Louis County. He is a graduate of Riverview Gardens High School and earned a criminal justice degree from St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley.
Before becoming a household name, Johnson was already well known in state law enforcement.
He has commanded Troop C of the Missouri Highway Patrol since October 2002. Troop C covers 11 counties in east central Missouri: Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Perry, Pike, St. Charles, St. Francois, St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve, Warren and Washington. The troop has 147 uniformed officers, the largest contingent in the state, and is supported by 136 uniformed civilians and 21 civilian employees.
But it is on the streets of Ferguson that the national spotlight found him.
Johnson can’t do it alone
Since the shooting on Aug. 9, demonstrators have held vigil across the street from the police department in downtown Ferguson. While nearby news crews shelter from the hot sun under portable canopies, a dozen demonstrators make do with a sliver of shade from a little tree planted along the sidewalk -- and water and ice dropped off by people supporting their cause.
Rickey Canamore started coming to this spot on South Florissant Road earlier this week, preferring its peacefulness to what he calls “the confusion” across town on West Florissant near the apartment complex where Brown died. There, large demonstrations have on some nights turned violent.
“I think it was time we took a stand and aired our frustrations, but I believe there’s a better way to do it than violence,’’ Canamore said Thursday afternoon. “And I think what we’re doing here -- a peaceful demonstration -- I think that’s the way to go about it.’’
Canamore says he's is in it for the long haul -- until charges are filed against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. “Something has got to be done,’’ he said.
His hand-lettered poster -- “Hands Up Don’t Shoot RIP Big Mike” -- echoes the rallying cry that has spread far from Ferguson. The cause has become bigger than Mike Brown, he says.
Canamore believes the atmosphere has gotten better since Johnson took charge, but he noted that violence and looting still took place under his command.
“From what I’ve seen, I think the people respect him and seem to be glad he took charge. Capt. Johnson cannot do it by himself. It’s going to take us. We have to do it. We have to take a stand,” Canamore said.
It’s a message that Johnson himself has said frequently -- and one that he repeated again in a press conference after Thursday night’s demonstration. Johnson noted that the sweltering temperatures, which reached the mid-90s, had not heated up the streets. He credited both the community and the police for the calm night that saw seven arrests, mostly for failure to disperse.
“The change is related to a lot of hard work by the citizens of this community, the citizens of the state, and the men and women of law enforcement who have been out here in a dedicated effort to make this community safe,” Johnson said.
"This Is My Neighborhood"
Dan Isom, retired chief of police for the city of St. Louis, knows Johnson personally and says the captain has proven leadership abilities that were developed during his years with the Highway Patrol.
“He was thrust into the national spotlight really overnight and asked to take on the command of a situation that was fraught with so many different challenges and complexities to it. Political, social, criminal. So many different things that he had to consider, manage and juggle -- all in the national spotlight,’’ he said.
Isom, a professor in the criminology and criminal justice department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Johnson was simply being “who he is.”
“I think the best quality that he brought to the table was a command presence. A presence that showed that he was in charge,’’ Isom said. “He also brought along with that. some sensitivity and honesty. And he also showed some courage in taking a much softer approach than most probably would agree with. I think he had a whole lot to deal with overnight.”
Johnson has had to walk the line between Ferguson’s peaceful days and sometimes riotous nights.
By day, he has been a compassionate leader, connecting with residents and walking with demonstrators. At a rally for Brown Sunday afternoon at Greater Grace Church a uniformed Johnson spoke emotionally, using no notes.
“I wear this uniform and I should stand up here and say that I’m sorry,” he told Brown’s family.
“This is my neighborhood,” he continued. “You are my family. You are my friends. And I am you. And I will stand to protect you. I will protect your right to protest.”
He also referenced his own family. "When this is over,’’ he told the crowd. “I am going to go in my son's room. My black son who wears his pants sagging. Wears his hat cocked to the side. Got tattoos on his arms. But that's my baby."
At night, Johnson has served as the peacekeeper. When demonstrations have taken a violent turn, police under his command used tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse the crowd. Early Tuesday morning -- after a night of clashes and 31 arrests -- Johnson said the response was necessary.
“We can’t have this,’’ he told the media. “We do not want any citizen hurt. We do not want any officer hurt. When you’re shooting into apartment complexes and children are laying in bed in apartment complexes and bullets are flying through the air -- the old saying on the streets is a bullet has no name. We do not want to lose another life in this community.”
That Was Not A Gang Sign
As a seasoned law-enforcement officer, Johnson has occasionally been mentioned in local press items, most often involving public safety campaigns. Last summer, for example, he was quoted in local news briefs alerting St. Louis County residents that his troopers would be conducting sobriety checkpoints in cooperation with local law enforcement.
Now he makes headlines daily.
Several days after he took charge in Ferguson, The Nation asked “Is Ferguson’s Ron Johnson The New Captain America?”
But there have also been criticisms:
* Ed Delmore, the police chief of Gulf Shores, Ala., posted a letter on lawoffice.com critical of Johnson’s approach in Ferguson. The letter quickly went viral. Delmore is a former police chief of Fairview Heights and police officer in Collinsville.
* Pictures of Johnson in Ferguson posing with fraternity brothers also went viral when some mistook the fraternity hand signal as “flashing gang signs.”
Johnson is a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi – one of the nine historically black Greek fraternities and sororities known as the Divine Nine. He was initiated in spring 1983, and his photo appears with other distinguished alumni on the website of Beta Nu Chapter in St. Louis.
Isom says Johnson is a family man -- honest and upright. “He’s somebody you can trust and depend on. All those qualities that he’s demonstrated in the national spotlight.”
Johnson’s wife, Lori, is an UMSL graduate, and businesswoman who mentors young girls. They have a son and daughter, both in their 20s.
His daughter wrote about the Johnson family after winning a leadership award at the University of Kansas. She said this of her father: “I have been able to watch him continue to achieve greatness and promotions my whole life. His leadership and advice have set a foundation and a standard for the ways that I interact with and lead others.”
Johnson spoke of his wife's worries after Tuesday night's demonstration. When questioned by a reporter about the use of pepper spray by police, he replied, “When I got home last night at 3:30 in the morning, my wife was up. The lights were on. When I walked through the door, I knew that I was in trouble. She didn't say, ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘Why didn't you have your vest on?’ And when I left today, and I got here, the first text I had on my phone is, ‘You promised.’ And a promise means that I am going to come home. And these men and women are going to come home.”
Johnson has firsthand experience of such loss. Since taking command of Troop C in 2002, three troopers have died while performing their duty, according to a history on the Missouri Highway Patrol’s website. Two troopers died in traffic crashes, including one that occurred on Christmas Day 2009.
It Will Take A Village
Although Johnson has became a prominent figure in Ferguson, Isom points out that at some point the Missouri Highway Patrol’s presence will be diminished and will return to normal duties.
It's really the community’s job that is far from over, Isom said.
He noted that he's attended meetings where people have begun to consider ways to improve the relationship between Ferguson police and residents in the neighborhood where Brown was killed.
“But the other suggestion was, ‘Let’s not simply look at this as a police issue.’ People could be frustrated based upon their circumstances in life. Just to put resources into helping the police and not resources into lifting up the people in the community makes the police department’s job very challenging,’’ Isom said.
A lack of attention to social and economic concerns can make it difficult for police, he said, adding that he wasn’t making excuses for police officers.
“The reality is, if your basic needs are taken care of -- you have a job, you have a nice house, you have food to eat, your kids can go to a quality school -- you don’t really have cause to have problems with the police.’’
Beth Thompson, who owns the Cose Dolci Bakery in Ferguson, agrees that the community has a long road ahead. She believes people are aware that there needs to be “more reaching out so that everybody can move forward.”
Thompson, too, commended Johnson’s efforts to bring peace. She says the Ferguson she knows is accepting and tolerant – unlike the picture currently being painted. Like other residents, she pointed to the community’s response after two recent tornadoes.
“If any community can make it happen, it’s Ferguson,’’ she said.
About Capt. Ron Johnson:
* Joined the Missouri Highway Patrol on Dec. 11, 1987. Attended the patrol’s Law Enforcement Academy and was assigned to Troop C. Promoted to corporal in 1995 and to sergeant in 1997. In 1999, he was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to Troop A, Lee’s Summit, Mo.
* In 2007, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt appointed Johnson, then 43, to the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (Post). The 11-member commission governs basic and continuing education for law enforcement and is responsible for police officer licenses for the state.
* Graduate of the Northwestern University Traffic Institute School of Police Staff and Command and the FBI National Academy.
* Certified in police instruction and the development of assessment center exercises.
* Member of the Metropolitan Chiefs and Sheriffs Association.
* Johnson’s father in-law, Charles McCrary, was a deputy chief for the St. Louis Police Department.