By Polly Keary, Editor
Twenty-eight years ago, the phone rang twice, and the second call changed Derrel Johnson’s life.
He’d been a wild young man, even though he knew he liked the idea of being a cop ever since he got to ride along in his brother-in-law’s command car as a teen.
But 30 found him working two jobs, married with two kids and a third on the way. Tired of milking cows and landscaping for a living, he confessed his dream of being a police officer to Lynn, his wife of nine years.
When he got home the next day, Lynn handed him the application for the police force and told him she’d made an appointment for him to talk to the police chief.
“The rest is up to you,” she told him.
He filled out the application and went and saw the chief, but wasn’t sure it would work out. He knew Boeing might offer him a job, too, and that would be more money.
So when the phone rang, and Boeing offered him a good job, he took it. But when he put the phone in the cradle, it rang again. It was Police Chief John Hovde, offering him a job as a reserve officer. There was no question, he said, of which job to take.
“He knows everyone”
Johnson will retire at the end of the month, and to this day he is glad he turned down the money at Boeing and took the job as a police officer and, in that, he is not alone. By all accounts, Johnson became one of the most respected officers ever to serve in Monroe, and his retirement will mark the end of an era for the community.
Johnson came to like the idea of police work in part because of how the officers he knew treated him as a young person.
“I got to watch some of the officers when I was young, and I remembered the interest they took in me as a youth,” said Johnson Friday at the Monroe Police Department, a bit reluctant about getting attention from the newspaper, but clearly enjoying the memory of the beginning of it all. “I wanted to live and work in the community. I had the belief that you could make a difference. And I wanted to be part of it.”
Hovde wanted to see how Johnson did as a reserve officer before putting him on full-time, so he sent Johnson to the reserve academy in early 1986. Johnson worked weekends and took all the training he could, making sure that police work really was what he wanted to do.
Two years later, he was sure. He tested, passed, and was first on the list to get hired.
Many police officers are motivated to seek the career from a desire to lock up bad guys, but that wasn’t all that interested Johnson. His roots in the community ran deep. His family emigrated from Sweden in 1917 and settled in the Wagner area. His father had been the area’s first Fuller Brush man. He grew up in the Park Place neighborhood, played basketball in high school, and graduated in 1973.
“Because he grew up here he knows everybody, and everybody knows him,” said coworker Deb Willis, spokesperson for the police department. “He’s probably the best community officer we have. He’s well known for checking on elderly people. He knows where they live and stops in to make sure they are okay. It’s not required of an officer, but because he has a heart for the community, he takes it on himself to do those things.”
Knowing everyone made Johnson the right guy for the hard jobs, too.
“There’s nights when I have to go to someone’s house and tell someone that their child isn’t coming home,” he said. “But I’ve learned that it’s better if I’m the one that walks in the door. At least it’s someone they know.”
Johnson was sensitive to people down on their luck, too.
“Derrel is a true community police officer,” said Chief Tim Quenzer at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, where he recognized Johnson for his service. “When someone needed food, gas, etc., he provided out of his own pocket…He made it a point of showing up at our schools to interact with our young people.”
The values Johnson learned from his father served him well, Johnson said.
“My dad taught me a long time ago when you are called to do something, you do it,” he said. “And always be honest, even to your own demise. Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
Johnson also respected the dignity even of the people he was arresting and their families.
“You still have to treat them with the utmost respect. They are in a crisis; you have to treat them with respect and dignity, and leave them with a little bit of pride even if you have to arrest them,” he said. “You have to be firm, consistent and fair.”
Police work can be tough on a person, but Johnson found strength in his church. That’s what led him to work with long-serving nun Sister Barbara, who had been acting as a police chaplain for some time, to expand the chaplain program. Today there are seven chaplains involved.
Johnson also held the role of field training officer for 22 years, meaning he trained or supervised every officer currently working in Monroe, with the exception of one. And he stayed involved in the community, organizing the Monroe Fair Days Parade every year. Last year, he was named its Grand Marshall.
“It’s been really good”
He’s loved his career as a police officer but it’s time to step away, he said.
His last day, he will invite former officer Chuck Myers to ride with him; Myers rode with him on his first day.
“He had a lot of guts and a lot of common sense and it left an incredible impression on me as a young man,” said Johnson. “He’s still working for the county and the jail. He told me, ‘Young man, I’ll be working long after you’re retired.’ And I called him and reminded him he said that, and I told him, ‘You’re a man of your word.’ And I said, ‘I want you to come ride with me my last day.’ And he was stunned.”
After that Johnson plans to recover from late nights and bad food and the heavy weight of a gun belt screwing up his back. He’s going to take some time and build his health up, and he’s going to train his new puppy, Buddy, and volunteer through his church and fix stuff up around the house.
“I’m going to spend time in Montana with a friend of mine and go and do whatever I please,” he said with a smile.
But, he said, he is grateful for the time he has worked in a good community, and for the department he’s helped to shape.
“It’s been really good,” he said. “I hope every officer here can walk away with the same feeling I have. I hope every officer can have this satisfaction.”