The Incredible Shrinking Police Commissioner
Sylvester Johnson came up through the ranks, one of the most highly decorated officers ever to head this city's police department. But he's the anti-Timoney, with a weak public persona, little political backing, and no clue how to work the media. When you're trying to run a troubled 7,000-member paramilitary force, is it enough to let your work speak for itself?
By Noel Weyrich
Here's how Sylvester Johnson remembers it.
It is March 1998, and John Timoney has just hit town as the new police commissioner. He needs a first deputy to run the police department day to day, and senior commanders are jockeying hard for the job, pulling on their political strings, putting the squeeze on the new top cop to advance them. Timoney calls in Johnson, the deputy commissioner for narcotics, who hasn't been lobbying anyone.
"You know what?" Timoney says to him. "I don't know you. But what I do know is that I got letters from all kinds of politicians. Not one of them was for you. Then I met with the Black Clergy. They mentioned you. But they told me not to make you."
Politicians, including the Black Clergy, have always had a lot of pull inside Philadelphia's police department, but Timoney doesn't need them— he already has the job. What he needs is a capable and credible second-in-command. The neighborhood leaders want Johnson because he's been fighting the drug trade alongside them. The police union thinks he's fair and honest. The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency— they all say Johnson's the guy. The FBI tells Timoney that Johnson is the only member of the department it trusts. Johnson himself knows that Timoney needs him— he's the one who can work with minority neighborhoods, where most violent crimes take place. The perfect, hands-on number-two man.
And so on April 9th, 1998, garrulous and theatrical John Timoney introduced quiet, unprepossessing Sylvester Johnson as the department's only three-star deputy commissioner, first among equals on Timoney's command staff. Before that day, most of the public had never heard of Sylvester Johnson. By the time Timoney left town less than four years later, Johnson— who had spent nearly 40 years in a department scarred by corruption and brutality scandals, race riots and rampages; who had risen through the ranks as if through the eye of a hurricane— had become his natural successor.
Johnson is a practicing Muslim, someone dismissive of politicians and ill at ease with public speaking, so he was nonetheless an unusual pick. Timoney always basked in the media's glow, courting public favor, projecting with that flat shovel of a face that he was a guy who was going places and we were lucky to hold him while we could.
At age 61, Johnson is the Un-Timoney— quiet, impassive, oval-faced. An investigator. A listener. A sphinx. He's a private person determined to come up with his own answers, which is what attracted him to the controversial Nation of Islam sect in the mid-'60s. As a young Philadelphia cop, he came to terms with the racism in the department— and his own place in it— through Islam's rigorous attention to self-discipline and responsibility.
Johnson is, literally and figuratively, self-driven. Every Philadelphia police commissioner in recent memory has had a regular driver, a cop to play Sancho Panza, ride shotgun with the boss and rack up untold hours of overtime as Car One idles at the curb. Johnson, though, is so much a loner that he prefers to drive solo. "I don't have to make small talk," he explains as he steers Car One down 8th Street toward the Roundhouse. He drives slowly and carefully, with a wary eye on the street, as if he's still a lowly cop on patrol.
Johnson often seems blind to how his go-it-alone style might undercut his ability to lead (his derisive nickname among disgruntled cops is "Stevie Wonder"; Timoney's was "Broadway Tim"), and in the past year, the commissioner has been buffeted by one public-relations disaster after another: having his photograph taken with the Mayor and an ex-convict who, it turned out, still had two open drug cases pending; the discovery of the infamous City Hall bug; his outraged reaction to an independent report critical of police discipline; the Mayor holding a press conference to explain why Johnson's second in command got a gun permit after failing a background check.
Each time, Sylvester Johnson has reacted with clumsy defensiveness or shrugged off the problem entirely. To Johnson, police work is about the work. It's the only job, he says, where you can save a life, take a life, or give your life. What people say about it comes second. He took this job, his last job, not to burnish his image, but to set right some things in a perennially troubled department he's belonged to for four decades.
Now, as Johnson meanders down 8th Street, questions about him are looming larger— whether he can effectively lead his department, yes, but also just how long a police commissioner who avoids playing the perception game can survive. Since he's gotten this far without massaging the media, he's not about to start now. But he's hardly oblivious to the media's power. "Every police chief," he says, "is just one headline away from losing his job."
First, The Bug.
In mid-November, nine days after John Street's landslide at the polls, Johnson, mulling his slowly fading status as the man who discovered The Bug, has plenty to say about it.
It didn't help appearances that among the handful of FBI agents sent to retrieve the bug in John Street's office was Johnson's own son, Mark, a 14-year veteran with the bureau. "They're trying to say that my son told me where the device is at, and that's how I found it. Well, I'm not getting myself locked up, or my son arrested!" Johnson has a habit of abandoning good grammar to underline his point. "I mean, if they lock up Street, they lock him up! I ain't got nothin' to do with that! I mean, neither one of us had anything to gain. I'm not going to risk 39 years in the department, and him 14 years with the FBI."
Sylvester Johnson doesn't care for politics, and you suspect he doesn't care for most politicians, which is why the media storm over the FBI bug couldn't have found a more unlikely mark. His sole source of clout— hard work and talent aside— has been his upright reputation as a duty-bound straight shooter. Integrity is the one quality nobody has ever denied him. And now it's a subject of front-page speculation.
Yet Johnson's indifferent attitude toward politicians is what got him saddled with the mayor's-office detail in the first place, back when he was a lieutenant in 1986. Then-commissioner Kevin Tucker, a reformer brought in to clean up after the previous year's MOVE inferno, assigned him to head Mayor Goode's personal police detail, over Johnson's objections.
On Johnson's first day at City Hall, a deputy mayor asked him to go gas up his city car. Johnson ignored him. The next day there was an angry note on Johnson's desk, in red ink, demanding that the car be fueled and ready to roll by three that afternoon.
"He kinda pissed me off," Johnson smirks. "So I go in to him and say, 'Look, I ain't never gonna gas your car, not at three o'clock, not at four o'clock. Never. You gas your own car.'" By then, Johnson had also ordered his men to stop delivering packages for the mayor's chief of staff.
Tucker, a Secret Service veteran, was aware that dignitaries often need to be notified that cops are their protectors, not their servants. He told Johnson, "You've been there four days and I've got nine complaints against you. They don't want you there. But as long as you're there and I'm getting complaints, you're doing the right thing."
Both mayors since Goode— Rendell and then Street— asked that Johnson continue to supervise the mayor's office security, even as his primary assignments over the years took him to the Headquarters Investigative Unit, where he developed the department's first hostage response protocols; to a two-year stint heading the local FBI joint task force on police corruption; and finally to the commissioner's office. Over all those years, Johnson claims, he came to have the mayor's office occasionally swept for listening devices.
And thus the discovery of the bug. It made international headlines, as a global media indulged its worst suspicions about the Bush White House and its political scheming. Once Street started playing the victim of a Republican plot, suspicions arose as to just why Johnson happened to sweep the Mayor's office on the morning of October 7th.
Even police regulars who admire and are devoted to Johnson assume he's not telling everything he knows. Some think Street's people caught wind of the investigation and asked Johnson to sweep the office. Others suspect someone noticed that a ceiling panel had been fooled with and alerted Johnson to what might be a Katz campaign dirty trick. In either case, the assumption is that Johnson has been loyally covering for someone in the Mayor's office ever since. Johnson looks pained and annoyed at the idea: "I won't lie to you. I'll either tell you the truth, or I'll say nothing."
A Jill Porter column in the Daily News on Election Day claimed that Johnson had told members of the police brass as early as 2001 that the FBI was looking at possible corruption in the Mayor's office. Johnson denies that, too, and none of the "reliable sources" Porter cited have ever spoken on the record.
Johnson blames Porter's columns on disgruntled enemies of his within the command ranks, current and retired. But his refusal to say when past sweeps were done, or which outside agencies did them, as he claims, have left a haze of disbelief about him even at the FBI, whose investigation was blown by the bug's discovery.
For Johnson, there is a blunt irony: The mayor's detail was recognition of his integrity, and now it has put that integrity in doubt.
Though Safe Streets, his campaign to fight open-air drug markets, has been by far Johnson's best-known initiative, he has also authored a crafty series of inside moves to strengthen his hold on the department: reorganizing units to get more cops on the street, putting city politicians on notice that their advice on transfers and assignments isn't welcome, and calling off the department's relentless fights with the police union over discipline and dismissals.
Yet it was Safe Streets that yielded the first in a series of clumsily handled PR disasters last year. In July, Johnson and the Mayor showed up at a street fair put on by a rehabilitated drug dealer who credited Safe Streets with getting him to turn his sales talents to the production of custom t-shirts. Days later, it came to light that the man still had pending drug charges on his record, and rumors flew that his North Philly t-shirt shop doubled as a front for dealing drugs. The newspapers protested, the radio talk shows howled, and the Fraternal Order of Police complained in the name of troop morale. The Mayor, in a tough reelection fight, admitted he'd made a mistake. Sylvester Johnson didn't.
Cops called in to the radio shows, angry that the headstrong Johnson refused to admit an error. "What do we say to ex-offenders— that you're not part of society?" Johnson asks now. "Especially in the African-American community, how can you say that when your friend, your family member, gets in trouble? All of a sudden you can't talk to him?"
Johnson likely felt he stood to lose much more than he would have gained by apologizing. Philadelphia has thousands of ex-offender citizens, and Johnson may be the first police commissioner ever to court them as allies. Bilal Qayyum, a city commerce department official, says he'll never forget the time last year that he and Johnson put on a crime-prevention event at Graterford Prison. As the two walked the length of Graterford's extensive cellblocks toward the auditorium, prisoners descended on them both— with words of praise for Johnson.
"They were running up— 'Oh, Commissioner Johnson, we're so glad to see you. You're doing such a great job.' It just blew my mind," says Qayyum, who in his spare time helps run an anti-crime group called Men United for a Better Philadelphia. "They were sincere; it wasn't no B.S. Guys were going up to him telling him how they think Safe Streets is great. They were like, 'I'm in prison, I did wrong, but hey, my wife can come out, my kids can come out and play now.'"
It's all part of what Johnson invokes as his "holistic" strategy for fighting the drug trade. There aren't enough prison cells to hold all of Philadelphia's drug dealers. But if the cops can chase them off one corner for a while, the neighbors, including ex-cons and their families, can come together and work to keep them away. It remains an unproven theory, though Johnson is proud to say that other cities are studying it.
"Ex-offenders have gone to street corners with me," Johnson says. "They tell the kids, 'Get off these corners. I was like you five years ago— what did it get me? Five years in Graterford.'" Johnson also tours the schools with ex-cons, hoping to scare kids straight with horror stories about drug addiction and prison life.
To Johnson's mind, any cop who would whine about the photo op's effect on morale is probably a slacker with a bad attitude— a "bum," in Philly cop parlance. "I've been against drugs longer than anyone in this department," he says. "If the police officers don't support me on this, then they've never supported me in the first place, and I don't really care."
Johnson's early history with the department was marked by the fine line that often runs between cops and criminals. One of his first postings, in 1965, at the tender age of 22, was in the elite Highway Patrol, a tactical unit that invaded high-crime areas with policing methods that were a civil libertarian's worst nightmare. Minorities were subjected to constant harassment on the streets. "Suspicious" black motorists were stopped and frisked. Bar patrons along West Philly's Columbia Avenue were routinely rousted and searched for guns and drugs.
Johnson had been with the department just a year. The previous summer, three days of race riots had raged on Columbia Avenue, leaving one dead, hundreds injured, dozens of white-owned shops burned to the ground, and the police department desperate to integrate its ranks. Johnson, a three-year Navy vet, had come home to Philadelphia to start a family with his new bride, Cynthia. (Their three grown sons are now all in law enforcement.) The fourth of five kids raised in West Oak Lane, Johnson was a prime prospect for the police academy.
Racism in the department was rampant. "They'd say at roll call, 'Be on the lookout for two niggers,'" Johnson remembers. "I would speak out, and eventually they would stop doing it around me. They would never beat anybody around me. But you'd go down the street and see Highway Patrol with people lined up, searching them. I fell right into it. I was doing it also, going out there to make arrests."
Though he played the loyal soldier, Johnson felt increasingly troubled. He turned inward and started attending his local Nation of Islam mosque. "A lot of what I heard, I was in tune with," he says. "It was about racism and police brutality."
After a talk with a sympathetic captain, Johnson got himself shifted to motorcycle duty downtown, away from the tactical work that disturbed him. But taking up with the black separatist Nation of Islam posed a new set of problems for the young cop. The Nation was notorious for recruiting in prisons, and many members were well-known felons. Johnson was probably the first black Muslim in the Philadelphia police department, and he learned quickly that blacks and whites alike were wary of him because of it.
Soon after his promotion to homicide detective, Johnson says, he came in to work one day "and they were having a meeting— about me. They didn't trust me. They didn't want to work with me. From then on, blacks didn't speak to me, whites didn't speak to me. Police didn't trust me because I was Muslim, and Muslims didn't trust me because I was a police officer."
The situation was so isolating, he says, that "at one time, early on, I got to the point where if you were a non-Muslim, we wouldn't talk to each other. I got nothing to say to you, you got nothing to say to me. And until you took on the religion of Islam, I thought that you were mentally dead. I know how that sounds, it's like brainwashing, but that's just the way it was."
He finally confided to a mosque leader that he was planning to quit the department. "He said, 'As long as you know who and what you are, what other people think doesn't matter,'" Johnson remembers. Those words, which kept him in the department 35 years ago, have guided him up through the ranks ever since. "No one controls Sylvester Johnson," says Butch Buchanico, a retired lieutenant who now runs security for the Eagles. "He's right down the line, and he expects everyone to be that way."
In those early years, Johnson distinguished himself rapidly with his work ethic and heroism. In 1972, he shot two armed stickup men during an off-duty visit to a convenience store and was awarded the department's highest honor, the Medal of Valor. In 1973, he was named the city's policeman of the year. As a homicide detective, he developed his patient interviewing skills and a habit of changing into casual clothes to help root out reluctant witnesses near crime scenes. As a hostage negotiator, he once approached the front door of a delusional man who was threatening to kill his son and convinced him it was safe to come out because, yes, he'd brought the spaceship the man was waiting for.
And yet his faith continues to be a source of occasional trouble for him. Some likely believe he is a follower of Louis Farrakhan, though Johnson became a mainstream Sunni Muslim long ago, during the schism that gave Farrakhan leadership of the Nation of Islam. He's certain that a rival turned the Black Clergy against him when he was in the running for police commissioner because he's a Muslim. Just last year, a Baptist church in West Philly decided to un-invite Johnson and Qayyum from speaking about drugs and violence once the deacons learned the two are Muslims. And while it may seem ironic that Johnson is likely to go to court over his demand that a female Muslim patrol officer not wear a head scarf on duty, he says, "It has nothing to do with religion. We're a paramilitary organization, and you can't wear whatever you want."
There's nothing in the Koran about headscarves, Johnson says. He looks tired as he tries to explain, as he's explained before, that Islam really has little to do with outward appearances. Moreover, there's nothing special to the claim of being a Muslim. "We've had Muslims, especially in Philadelphia, that were terrible," he says. The Junior Black Mafia were all Muslims. Johnson mentions Imam Shamsud-din Ali, a leader of the city's largest mosque, a Street campaign contributor, and now a focus of an FBI fraud investigation related to the municipal-corruption probe. "He's a bad person," Johnson says, in a lowered voice. "He's always been a bad person. Just because he's a minister and a Muslim doesn't make him a good person."
Spend enough time with Sylvester Johnson, and you realize he is, temperamentally, heart and soul, a hostage negotiator. Though he'd never claim such a thing, he tends to face problems with the quiet determination, the self-effacing public posture and the cutthroat certainty instilled by his years of hostage-negotiation training.
Johnson says you should never lie in a hostage negotiation, and you can't build trust with people by falsely pretending to share their perceptions. When he teaches police classes in hostage negotiation, he often quizzes students on the appropriate response to a delusional guy who asks if you can see the little green man sitting next to him.
"Most say, 'Tell him yes,'" Johnson grins. "So what if the guy says to you, 'Oh yeah? Well, what's the little green man doing now?' Then what do you do?" The right answer is to grant the man some dignity: "You say, 'No, I don't see the little green man. So you have to tell me. What's he doing now?'"
That's the Johnson method: Get the job done but leave everyone's dignity intact. People he's supervised say they've never seen him yell or swear. The worst you might get is an angry look. At a recent meeting to discuss upcoming union negotiations, Johnson sat quietly while his deputies regaled city labor officials about concessions they might extract from the police union. Later, Johnson confided, "They're crazy. They've been trying to get that stuff from the FOP for years." But he let them have their say.
It's an unusual, kid-glove approach for a top-down paramilitary organization, but no one seriously claims any other method has paid off reliably in the past. And besides, what is the Philadelphia police department if not a hostage— to city politics, to the criminal class, to its labor union and to its own deadening inertia?
In the face of all that, the only meaningful legacy any commissioner can leave is remaking the top command in his own image. Johnson has already appointed two deputy commissioners who share his management style— both of them women, one of them black. There may be two more openings in the offing, which, assuming he sticks around long enough to fill them, could put Johnson's people in charge of the department for the next 20 years. In the shorter term, his reorganization plans are sure to push a lot of cops in cozy indoor postings (derisively nicknamed "The Sweater Gang") back out on the streets. And as if to close the circle from 1965, Johnson has shaken up the proud Highway Patrol, giving all its ticket-writing duties to the Traffic division, freeing the unit to be a pure tactical force.
Factions, old loyalties, favors— if John Timoney had a blind spot, Johnson says, it was the faith he put in a small coterie of people around him while making personnel decisions. One close department observer says that because Johnson lacks Timoney's inner circle of drinking buddies, you never know whose information he's relying on, or who to suck up to; your only choice is to do your job well or risk getting shown up. Civil service rules make police jobs so secure that Johnson is the first to admit some of his commanders are terrible— and that all he can do is put the best, hardest workers in the front lines, where the job requires initiative, and hide the bad ones behind desks, where they won't hurt anyone.
During all his time in Philadelphia, Timoney chafed at playing the cards he'd been dealt. He never got used to the idea that under Pennsylvania law, unless he is convicted of a crime, a fired cop is entitled to petition an arbitrator to be returned to the force— and almost always wins. When he wasn't raging against the arbitration system, Timoney was bragging about how he'd beaten it; he told this magazine, in 1999, that he had taken away the guns and badges of police officers suspected, but acquitted, of corruption, and had them "going nuts doing paperwork." He boasted, "There's more than one way to skin a cop." But two years later, after a costly legal battle and hours of depositions before an arbitrator, the three officers had their guns returned; they're back on patrol today. And in Timoney's wake came two lawsuit payouts, totaling almost $1 million, for police officers who successfully sued his regime for trampling their civil rights with unjust discipline. Two more costly cases are dragging through the courts.
Johnson's tack is to submit to the inevitable. Officers acquitted of crimes are now returned to the force almost immediately. Bob Eddis, president of theFOP, speaks glowingly of how two brothers who were acquitted of charges in a South Jersey bar fight were readmitted to the force within days of the dismissal of the charges against them: "It was right before the holidays, and I was able to tell them that their salaries, their health benefits, were secure." Under Johnson's predecessors, the FOP would have had to fight through the arbitration system for 18 months or longer. "And then," Eddis is fond of pointing out, "you get back two bitter employees."
But Johnson's discipline policies also opened him up to the latest public-relations disaster, in which he publicly assailed a report by the court-appointed head of the department's Integrity and Accountability Office, Ellen Ceisler, flaying her for inaccuracies, only to discover within a day that his staff had provided him with a rough draft, and not the full, corrected report.
As with the drug-dealer photo op, poor preparation wasn't the worst of it. There was Johnson on the front page of the Inquirer and on TV news, bitterly denouncing the report as an attack on his department and insisting that discipline policies have never been fairer or more reasonable. Johnson can speak at length about the Stockholm Syndrome, when hostages bond with their captors. Negotiators, trained to be empathetic, can fall victim to the syndrome, too, and become captives of the situation. That afternoon, with Bob Eddis at his side, Johnson looked like a captive of the FOP.
Every mayor, every police commissioner
, handles crime statistics the same way— takes credit when murders go down, blames society when they go up. Under Timoney, homicides plummeted in his first two years, then went back up a little. They dropped again under Johnson in 2002, only to spike upward 20 percent last year. Johnson, predictably, blames the economy.
But homicides are a tricky barometer. Jack Greene, dean of the criminal justice school at Northeastern University and a former Temple professor who studied the Philadelphia police force, calls them "events that shape the characterization of the department but are sometimes like lightning strikes." We often don't know why rates go up, or what to do about it; up to half of murders happen indoors, among family and friends. Greene says a better measure of department effectiveness comes through looking at crime in public view— for example, aggravated assault and auto theft, both of which have declined steadily in Philadelphia for years.
The objective measure of success for Safe Streets is that confiscations of guns and drugs are at all-time highs, as are seizures of drug-related cash and vehicles. Search warrants are way up, too, because part of the Safe Streets strategy is to push drug dealers off the corners and back indoors, where it's easier for police to trap them with the goods. Yet public cynicism over Safe Streets remains, especially in more stable neighborhoods that still suffer from occasional waves of muggings and break-ins.
The FOP's Bob Eddis claims police relations in tough neighborhoods have never been better, thanks to Safe Streets. "If you're looking for instant gratification, it's not there," says Eddis. "If you're looking for long-term community policing, to resolve the drug problem and take it to the next level, it's the place to start."
And still it seems as though every other month or so, Johnson has to take another embarrassing turn in the TV news camera lights. In late February, Mayor Street— along with a silent Johnson— held a news conference putting deputy police commissioner Robert J. Mitchell on leave because he had obtained a department-issued gun permit, even after failing a state police background check. Though Johnson had, the day before, announced he'd seized the gun permit, the Mayor felt compelled to get in on the action, and did so with a statement that was a little too close for comfort to "one headline away from losing your job." Asked if he lacked confidence in Johnson, Street answered, "When there is an issue of integrity involving the number one and number two cops in the city ... it may be appropriate for the mayor to be involved." Street later insisted that his confidence in Johnson rates a "nine" on a scale of one to 10, but what mayor could admit to anything less without making a change?
Though hardly anybody knows it, technically Sylvester Johnson retired last October, in order to comply with the rules of an early-retirement city pension plan he'd signed up for. The city rehired him immediately as a new employee, which cost him about two years' worth of accumulated sick, vacation and comp time— adding up to nearly $300,000 in lost wages. "It was not a wise financial decision," he says with a smile. Johnson's current salary is $140,000, but if he quit tomorrow, he'd receive a yearly pension of nearly $100,000 for doing nothing. In effect, Sylvester Johnson is working long days and nights for the difference— less than the take-home pay of an average patrol officer.
Back in early 2002, when Mayor Street couldn't quite decide whether to remove the "interim" from his title, Johnson and his wife had already started building their dream retirement home in Bear, Delaware, back on the Delmarva Peninsula, where he'd been born almost 60 years earlier. Last year they sold their old West Oak Lane home and moved to the Korman Suites near the airport.
reporter, looking for a gotcha! piece nailing the commissioner over where he really lives, has already been down to Bear, handing out his business cards to the neighbors.
Sylvester Johnson, typically, says he couldn't care less.
"I've barely slept there 10 nights since we built it a year and a half ago," he says. "The Inquirer can keep right on looking for me." #