Captain Ronald Johnson: The Police Officer Thrust in the Limelight

The Missouri Highway Patrol officer has received national attention after being placed in charge of the law enforcement response in Ferguson.

Posted: 08/18/2014 09:49 AM EDT

REPORTING FROM FERGUSON, MISSOURI

When Captain Ronald S. Johnson was introduced Sunday afternoon at a rally at a huge church just miles from where Michael Brown was killed, he was greeted with thunderous applause and a prolonged standing ovation from hundreds of people.

In less than one week, Johnson has become a nationally recognized figure in the aftermath of the killing of the unarmed 18-year-old in this St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. After being tapped by the Missouri governor to command the security operation in the aftermath of several chaotic nights, Johnson has attracted attention for his plain-spoken talk about the importance of the community to be heard.

“This is my neighborhood,” Johnson said to the cheering audience. “You are my family, friends. And I am you. I will stand to protect you, to protect your right to protest.”

Johnson continued: “The last 24 hours have been tough for me. I did an interview last night and the reporter said, 'Something is wrong, your tone has changed. Are you tired or is something bothering you?' I said my heart is heavy. Last night I met members of Michael Brown’s family. They brought tears to my eyes.”

Johnson has become one of the best known figures to emerge from the thorny and controversial events playing themselves out with unpredictable drama each day here. On Saturday, for example, his image appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

But keeping the peace in Ferguson has proven a painful and difficult task with a continued strong police presence in the aftermath of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon imposing a state of emergency and midnight curfew in Ferguson. Apart from one violence-free night since Michael Brown was shot more than a week ago, there have been episodes of unrest on a nightly basis.

“When the governor first gave me this opportunity, there was a lot of fear,” Johnson said, speaking with BET.com. “But the first time I stepped out into the crowd and saw the people, it became truly an honor. And that’s what it’s been ever since – just an honor.”

He continued: “Watching the events change and the attitudes change has truly been an honor. We’ve had some bumps in the road. But it’s getting better. We know there will be some time to see change and get that healing process going.”

In many ways, Johnson, who is 51 and was raised in Ferguson, grew up in a typical suburban, middle-class African-American household. He was raised in a home where his father worked in campus security for St. Louis University and a mother who worked as a chemical receiving clerk. Johnson wanted to be a police officer from the time he was a child.

Soon after graduating from Florissant Valley College, he joined the Missouri Highway Patrol in 1987. He rose quickly through the ranks and was made a captain on the force in 2002. He now lives in Florissant, adjacent to Ferguson, with his wife. He has a son and daughter, both in their 20s.

In the midst of this challenging environment, the question is how will Johnson and his fellow law enforcement officials move forward and bring calm to the community.

“We have to continue talking, continue to have an understanding and continue reaching out and just listening,” he said. “We want people to express their opinion, but we have to listen.”

Despite the attention he has received, he said he is under no illusions that the media coverage of him necessarily converts into popularity.

“Some of the people I encounter are angry,” he said. “Some of the people don’t want me there. They tell me that I’m just a speaker face, just a box. But I will continue to come back. But at the end of the day, my integrity will still be there.”

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BET Networks will air a one-hour news special called Justice for Ferguson: The Michael Brown Story, hosted by Marc Lamont Hill and Keke Palmer, on Michael Brown's death and the aftermath in Ferguson, Missouri. Stay tuned to BET.com/michaelbrown for more information.

Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan

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(Photo: Jonathan Hicks/BET)

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