Incoming Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson said his love of public service was sparked by the 1970's Robert Fuller drama “Emergency!”
“Johnny and Roy didn’t do anything without me knowing about it in prime time. It’s not any more complicated than that. In Boy Scouts, I was the guy who carried the first aid gear on every camping trip.”
It’s that mentality that the former paramedic, firefighter, and Upper Darby police captain looks to bring to his new position in Delaware’s capital.
While central Delaware and the nearby Philadelphia suburbs might not seem to have a lot in common, Chief Johnson said that might be misleading.
“It was like somebody said why don’t we provide an opportunity for you that has the same cultural opportunities, neighborhood make-up where you can drive into one neighborhood and get one experience and drive to the next and get another one/ They all have the same concerns. They all want to see safe neighborhoods, and the best we can do at keeping them safe with the crime rate the lowest it can be while also providing service. It’s not having to shift too much from what I’ve grown accustomed to. The stars have delivered me, and it’s a good feeling. It’s a distinct advantage.”
When Chief Johnson takes his post sometime in February, he’ll inherit the lead role in a city that has seen a wave of gun violence and drug arrests in the past three weeks.
“I’ve not been specifically briefed on those, because...it’s not time for that for me, yet. I have been following it from afar, and I was very encouraged to see how responsive the department was. It might have seemed, in some eyes, it took a little while for definitive action, but if you understand policing and if you understand some of the challenges you face when you go out and take bold action to send a message to people who would bring violence or harm to a community, that takes a little bit of planning and preparation, and I was very interested and excited to hear about the response from the Dover P.D. and the agencies they collaborated with. If anyone thinks they can be successful in solving a crime problem with one agency or all by themselves, they’re sadly mistaken. The ability to work with other entities and law enforcement agencies, I’m all about that. Once I get a little more in the center of the stream and see what exact issues are in play so I can complement that, we’ll do that.”
When it comes to communication, Chief Johnson said he’s willing to listen to anyone who has suggestions to help his department in any area.
“I’m going to get some pretty good guidance on who I can connect with quickly, and who I can connect with easily and make the most progress in the least amount of time. Everyone who has a passion like my own to make sure the Dover Police Department and the greater Dover community is successful, I’m going to have time for them. We might not get it in the first or second week, but in short order we’ll have the conversations, we’ll have the breakfast meetings and cups of coffee at whatever people’s favorite place is, and we’re going to get to know each other. Through the power of the existing talent, people, community, and culture that’s already here and already working very well, my job is to not screw that up, and also try to find a way to bump it up a notch.”
One resume that the search committee pointed out at Monday’s city council meeting that consented to Chief Johnson’s choice was his background running training program’s at the Upper Darby Police Department.
“Training is good for proficiency. Training is good for risk-management reasons. Training is good to make sure the service that is demanded is the service that’s delivered. Sometimes that’s education, sometimes that’s of a more practical nature. The trick is to find the balance between training and education and marrying that up with mission-specific things that might be going on from day-to-day. Find that balance, and let motivated individuals move up to their potential, and don’t hold them back too much on doing good things.”
But first Chief Johnson has to win over his new force. Dover has had a history of hiring new police chiefs, internally, but they went outside the state this time, and Johnson is aware that will be an early factor in his tenure.
“I absolutely, actually know how they feel. The same thing happened in my agency. We had traditionally hired from within for years and years, and we had an outside hire in 2005. When there are unknowns, when there’s a gentleman coming in and he’s handed a great deal of power, responsibility, and authority over their group, that can cause some anxiety and concern. They don’t know me. They will get to know me very quickly. They will know that I’ve experienced the same thing they’re experiencing now, and as long as we all continue to be the pros we know that I know we are, the Dover Police Department’s reputation precedes it. The quality of the individuals among its employees is right up there. I have absolutely no apprehensions, we’re going to do what we do, and then we’re going to suddenly discover that any concerns that one side had about the other, that’s going to fall from the wayside very quickly, I suspect.”
As for the kid who loved “Emergency!” after 24 years in Upper Darby, Chief Johnson said policing has proven to be his right life choice.
“There’s been a running joke in my family that T.J. doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. That has mainly to do with my love for all things public safety. I began as a volunteer firefighter in the early ‘80s, and that evolved into emergency medical technician, I worked as a professional paramedic before I was appointed to the police department. I love the service, I love being there and being that guy for people’s biggest life challenges. If you’re calling 911, that’s my work number, but that’s normal in the life of the average, everyday person. If I can be the person to deliver the service in that tense moment, that’s professional satisfaction for me, and I really did find my home in policing.”