When Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson was a kid, he and some of his buddies got into some mischief.
They were throwing snowballs at passing cars and then ran off to hide. Then, the police officer who patrolled Johnson’s neighborhood caught them.
“So, we put the snowballs behind our backs,” Johnson recalled.
“Were you guys the ones throwing snowballs?” Johnson said the officer asked.
“We all said ‘no,’ even though we had the snowballs behind our backs,” Johnson said.
The officer told the boys that if he caught the kids throwing snowballs, he was going to arrest them.
“What a good policeman,” Johnson said. “He didn’t arrest us, even though he could have. And that created a bond between us and him. When we’d see him, we’d have a respect for him. Those are the kinds of things that policemen need to do.”
Strengthening ties between law enforcement and the community was the major theme Johnson stressed during his second visit to Riverview Gardens High since mass protests erupted in Ferguson in August. Now, Johnson said he plans to meet with law enforcement agencies and educators to encourage police officers to visit area high schools.
“So we're making ourselves available to students, and getting to know students in our community," Johnson said.
He said police officers developing deeper relationships with schools can also inspire young people of color to pursue careers in law enforcement
Johnson, a Riverview Gardens alum, told students that as an African American he’s been stopped by police for no apparent reason. And he too has had "the talk" with his daughter and son about the need to be cautious when interacting with the police.
“I don’t want my kids to have to have that conversation with my grandkids,” Johnson said.
Johnson discussed concerns that some police departments in small municipalities issue an excessive number of tickets to drive up revenue.
“We need to make sure that we’re not giving individuals 18 tickets at one time because who can pay those tickets?”
Johnson added that residents shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions of a police officer if they are pulled over.
“We as a community feel that no one cares,” said senior Gregory Morris. “For him to come here and visit our schools, it’s making a difference.”
Junior Donovan Davis agreed.
“He came to listen to our story and not just to judge us,” Davis said. “He just wanted to listen to us and hear our side of the story. So that it’s something he can process and be active in our community.”
Many students in the Riverview Gardens School District live close to where demonstrations sprung up along West Florissant. The Canfield Green Apartment complex where Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9. is within the district's boundaries.
When asked by a student if he worries about what would happen if Wilson is not indicted by a grand jury, Johnson responded: “I’m going to tell you that I do. People ask me if I’m getting more sleep and I’m not.”
After answering questions from students, Johnson said he’s taking it one day at a time and did not want to label what he thought the community response might look like.
“In the end, I know that we will do everything we can to maintain public safety.”
Junior Diamond Smith had lots of questions for Johnson, and she wondered what it’s been like working in law enforcement over the past two months.
“Aren’t you mad that people have a really bad outlook on you all because of this situation?” she asked.
“I’m not mad, I’m disappointed,” Johnson replied.
He said some media coverage portrays African Americans as has having a universal dislike of police. That, he said, is unfair and untrue.
“What is true is that we’ve got some work to do,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who wore blue jeans and a collared shirt with a Riverview Gardens logo, said he wanted students to seem him as a person, not just a police officer.
“I want to wake up to the day that trust is there again,” Johnson told students.
Johnson was chosen by Gov. Nixon to lead the unified response by law enforcement when mass protests sprang up in Ferguson in August. Security around protest areas is now under the command of St. Louis County Police.