The governor of Missouri was the first person to speak at the news conference Friday morning. But as has been the case since Capt. Ronald S. Johnson of the state Highway Patrol entered the drama of race, violence and trust swirling in this St. Louis suburb, the veteran trooper dominated it.
Johnson, a burly and plain-spoken Missouri native, cited the Bible, preached tolerance and simultaneously represented both law and order and the fear and anger of seething residents. He turned a news conference into a town-hall meeting, waded into the crowd and seemed to listen as much as he spoke while he stood at the lectern, the governor by his side, to discuss the fallout from the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
Johnson 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.”
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Since Johnson, who is black and grew up in the area, was assigned Thursday to coordinate security operations here after nights of violent unrest, he has become the public face of law enforcement and, in an unexpected twist, the demonstrators being policed.
Instead of sitting at the command post erected in a shopping center parking lot, he has walked the streets, hugging and greeting residents, and he has banished military-style weaponry in an effort that worked, at least Thursday night, to defuse the volatile situation that had seemed ready to deteriorate even further.
In his deep, unwavering voice, Johnson, 51, has asked people to draw near and tell their stories, and his large hands have clasped countless others. But amid all of that, perhaps what resonated most was when, within hours of his appointment, he walked alongside protesters, including some who marched toward a convenience store that had been largely destroyed early this week.
By Friday morning, he stood again at the store and invited residents to join his scheduled news conference with Gov. Jay Nixon, who has been criticized for his slow response to the turmoil.
“They have questions, and they’ve got concerns,” Johnson said after he tried, unsuccessfully, to speak to a man without a swarm of reporters watching. “I can’t know them if I’m up there, and they’re down here.”
And so the residents came, held back at first behind yellow police tape until Johnson urged them to join the crowd near the lectern. He began answering questions and recounting conversations, including one with his daughter after he returned home early Friday. They talked about the story of Jesus Christ and an apostle, Peter, walking on water.
“She said, ‘When Peter got scared, Jesus picked him up and said, ‘Have faith,’” Johnson said. “And I’m telling you today, we need to be just like Peter because I know we’re scared.”
The crowd cheered.
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 when, as a student near here, a black state trooper stopped the young Johnson for speeding, and 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.”
The captain and his wife live in the St. Louis metropolitan area and have a son and a daughter.
Johnson joined the Highway Patrol in 1987, state officials said, and began his career in the same troop he now commands, which spans 11 counties in eastern Missouri. He was assigned for a brief time to a troop near Kansas City before he returned to this region. He served on the agency’s SWAT team and developed a reputation as an empathetic trooper who reached through the ranks to develop relationships.
“If a retiree passes away, he makes sure we send troopers to that retiree, whether it be a trooper that passed away or a driver examiner or a motor vehicle specialist or a radio operator, a spouse of one of those, he watches the whole operation,” said Capt. Norman A. Murphy, an academy classmate of Johnson’s who now commands the Highway Patrol’s Gaming Division. “When he talks about respect, that’s the highest thing. He really takes care of his people.”
Despite the captain’s sudden positive appearance in the limelight, he has faced tough questions, including some from residents who were frustrated that he was not consulted before Chief Thomas Jackson of the Ferguson police released the identity of the officer who fatally shot Brown.
“This is all figurehead stuff,” one black man complained to Johnson on Friday morning. The captain stared straight toward the man from the lectern. “I can tell you that’s not the case,” he replied.