FERGUSON, Mo. — In the days since Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson took charge of a volatile situation that threatened to turn ugly, tragic or both, his calm-yet-commanding presence has captured international attention.
But when it comes to keeping the peace in the St. Louis suburb where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old, Johnson knows his neighbors’ opinions are what matter most.
“The people of our community need to hear what I’m saying,” Johnson, who is black, said at the start of one daily media briefing, urging residents standing behind an enormous media contingent to come closer to the podium. “They’ve got questions, and I invited them here.”
The 27-year patrol veteran, who oversees nearly 150 troopers patrolling 11 counties in eastern Missouri, grew up down the road from the neighborhood where Michael Brown was killed Aug. 9. He still lives nearby, in the neighboring town of Florissant. He was placed in charge of Ferguson security by Col. Ron Repogle, the Highway Patrol superintendent, after Gov. Jay Nixon revoked county police oversight Thursday.
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Johnson’s impact was immediate. After five nights of volatile and violent protests marked by looting, arson and the use of tear gas on demonstrators by county and local police, Johnson ordered his officers to abandon the body armor and gas masks and instead ensure the public’s right to peaceably assemble.
Things escalated again Friday night, after Ferguson police released the name of the officer who shot Brown along with video they said showed Brown robbing a store shortly before he was killed.
But as looters broke into several businesses, some throwing rocks and other objects at officers, police backed off, a move Johnson said was designed to ease tension. No arrests were made and no one was severely hurt.
From the start, Johnson, 51, walked alongside protesters, past the barbecue joint and neighborhood taverns he knew by name, stopping for hugs, handshakes and encouragement.
He spoke sincerely and empathetically with young black men who described routine racial profiling based on their clothing, hairstyles and demeanor. Their complaints were familiar: His own son, in his 20s, is often judged because of his tattoos, Johnson said.
Most of all, he listened.
He listened as resident after resident voiced angry and emotional concerns about law-enforcement tactics. He made plain his frustration with the local authorities. And he pleaded with a city to maintain the order that on Thursday night allowed the air to be filled with honking horns and cigarette smoke, not cries of pain and plumes of tear gas.
“We have to make sure that we don’t burn down our own house, that we don’t go down there and vandalize our own buildings,” Johnson said. “We can stand on the sidewalk, and we can talk about our issues; we can talk about what we want and what we need and a conversation that needs to happen, we can make that happen. What I don’t want is us to go down and burn our own neighborhood. That does not prove a point.”
In an interview, Johnson said his policing strategy had its origins not far from here, where he spent his childhood.
“I was raised about treating people with respect,” he said. “I think both of my parents demanded that. They did that to people, so that’s where it starts. I grew up at a time where you said ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir.’ And I find myself talking to 16-year-old kids and 17-year-old kids and when I say ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir,’ they kind of look at me in a strange way, so sometimes I have to catch myself.”
Johnson, whose uncle was a police officer, said he admired law-enforcement officials from an early age. But it was in college whena black state trooper stopped the young Johnson for speeding, that he decided he wanted to join the Highway Patrol.
“The black trooper that stopped me looked so good in that uniform and had so much pride,” Johnson recalled. “And then I knew that I wanted that.”
Robin Moore-Chambers, a diversity trainer and counseling professor at Lindenwood University who lives in nearby Dellwood, said Johnson “has made himself accessible, from a place of peace and understanding. He’s listening to everybody. He will take you seriously. He’s appealing to their humanity. He knows they need to be heard.”
Protesters and politicians credit him with almost entirely defusing the nightly violence and giving the community a sense that it can recover from the trauma that has swept Ferguson.
“The best resource that I could bring to this situation in Ferguson, Missouri, is Capt. Ron Johnson, and I think you’ve seen the tremendous job he’s already done,” said Repogle, his commander.
Complaints about the police response began almost immediately after Brown’s shooting, when authorities decided to use dogs for crowd control, a tactic that for some evoked civil-rights protests from a half-century ago.
The county police had taken over at the request of the smaller city, leading the investigation of Brown’s shooting and the subsequent attempts to keep the peace until the state stepped in.
Johnson joined the Highway Patrol in 1987, earning a promotion to corporal in 1995 and to sergeant two years later. He spent three years on the other side of the state after a promotion to lieutenant in 1999 before returning to the St. Louis region as commanding officer in 2002. The patrol said he holds a criminal-justice degree and has attended various training programs, including the FBI National Academy.
Law enforcement runs in the family. St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Johnson’s father-in-law was a deputy police chief for the city department.
While Johnson’s role has been largely welcomed, not everyone is satisfied. Some residents asked if he was simply a figurehead, noting Johnson was not aware Ferguson’s police chief would release the surveillance footage of Brown, part of what led to the renewed unrest Friday. Johnson assured them that “We’re all in this together.
“We all want justice. We all want answers. I’ve got a big dog in this fight. When the media is gone … Ron Johnson is still going to be here.”