On March 30, the eve of his retirement, South Precinct Maj. K.D. Johnson couldn't stop the hugs from coming. And the requests to pose for photos were so many, everyone lost count.
Johnson, 48, was being celebrated by the community he served for 28 years, and dozens of residents, neighborhood leaders, and elected officials came out to a community barbecue at the South Precinct to thank him and wish him well.
“I think when you can leave at the top of your game, that’s any man’s dream,” Johnson said between the hugs and photo opportunities.
Amid the goodbyes, Johnson said he is leaving contented with his career in the county of his birth.
Johnson said as a rookie at the South Precinct in 1991, he never thought that he would become a major.
When he did so in April 2015, he worked to make his tenure counted.
Among the numerous outreach programs he spearheaded at the precinct that bookended his career are a monthly “Coffee With a Cop” program, where he and other police officers meet the public to discuss local issues; and “Movie With the Major,” a regular free film screening for kids and seniors.
Johnson has also organized “Midnight Basketball” events to help curb teen crime, conducted street cleanups, hosted public safety forums, and established a free children’s library in the South Precinct lobby.
In his three years leading the precinct, these efforts – along with holiday turkey and toy drives – helped earn him the reputation for building a strong, trusting relationship between South DeKalb police officers and residents.
As he transitions into civilian life, Johnson, who lives in East Lake, says he will continue to be involved in the initiatives he implemented.
“You’ll see me,” he said. “We started a lot of things here, so I will continue to do that.”
His retirement – considered by many to be a huge loss to the community – comes nine months after an eight-hour suspension without pay for authorizing a civilian volunteer to use DeKalb Police letterhead to solicit donations for a 2017 Spring Break camp for at-risk kids.
But on March 30, all that was behind him. Surrounded by friends and supporters, Johnson stood proud, his smile wide.
He called the moment “bittersweet.”
“We had some people that wanted to see us fail,” he said. “We had people that put some land mines out, but I’m a child of God, and we made it. So, to my critics, who criticize what we did but didn’t step up, it’s your turn.”
Many of the well-wishers at the retirement bash, sponsored by the Korean Growers Association of DeKalb, had worked alongside Johnson to benefit the community. They had strong praise for him and the positive impact he had on the neighborhood.
Former DeKalb School Board member Zepora Roberts was among those celebrating Johnson, and she said what he did means a lot.
“His involvement in the community has been so important for us to see,” said Roberts, who has lived near the South Precinct on H.F. Shepherd Drive for more than 40 years.
Jerry Jackson, a member of Reform DeKalb who has lived off Flat Shoals Road for 20 years, said Johnson exemplified good community policing.
“He’s been a really good precinct commander, a great officer for DeKalb,” Jackson said. “He made a lot of friends over here.”
As commander, Johnson led the South Precinct Community Outreach Group, created in August 2015, to attack the socioeconomic factors behind some of South DeKalb’s violent crime hotspots.
He said the most rewarding aspect of that work is seeing people grow to trust the police.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “It’s not over. But we’ve made a start and one of my top priorities is to make sure that we continue what we’ve done.”
Johnson has high hopes that his replacement, Maj. D.L. Jordan, will continue the good work.
“We had a lot of conversations and he knows he can call me 24/7,” Johnson said. “We’re good friends and I’m here to help him succeed.”
Jordan spent several weeks at South Precinct transitioning into the role before Johnson’s departure.
In a March 15 post on the precinct’s Facebook page, the new commander acknowledged Johnson’s help.
“I want to publicly thank you for not only passing me the baton, but more importantly assisting me with a smooth transition,” he said. “I'm excited for the privilege to lead the great men and women of South Precinct.”
The community-centric policing adopted by Johnson during his tenure is known as 21st Century Policing, which grew out of Barack Obama’s presidency and was implemented by Dr. Cedric Alexander, the county’s former police chief and public safety director.
Alexander promoted Johnson three times in three years – first as commander of the department’s gang unit, then to captain, and finally to major as precinct commander.
He remembers him well.
“I had to think really hard as to who had the ability to go into a very diverse, high-call-volume precinct,” Alexander said this week. “Johnson is very charismatic and has a willingness and a real genuineness and a love for community.”
Alexander said Johnson proved “beyond a shadow of a doubt” he was the right person for the job.
“I have a great deal of respect for his leadership and compassion, but more importantly, I have a great deal of respect for his true love for policing and for community,” said Alexander, who became deputy mayor of Rochester after leaving DeKalb County. “He’s done an incredible job and his retirement is a huge loss to the public safety community at large.”
District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson, who represents the area covered by the South Precinct, said the major was able to bridge the gap between community, schools and the police especially during a time of great hostility towards police.
“We needed that type of presence to keep the calm, to be able to connect and to help us move forward at the same time,” he said.
Carrie Bush, who lives off Clifton Springs Road, said as the South Precinct's major, Johnson restored public faith in the local police and that under his leadership she grew to know that if she called, somebody’s going to come.
“It’s sad to see him go, but I’m happy that he’s reached this point,” she said.
Retired DeKalb Maj. Jeff Cato, a former colleague and a friend of Maj. Johnson, knows how hard it is to police areas where law enforcement is considered the enemy.
“A lot of blacks in our community are afraid of the cops and they don’t trust them, so therefore they don’t give a lot of information to them,” Cato said. “When you get into the community like Major Johnson did, the people trust you and they provide information and that helps.”
He said Johnson’s obvious passion for community was the key to his success.
“That’s all he would talk about – the kids, the seniors. He was really devoted to the people,” he said.
DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon, whose Super District 6 also includes the South Precinct, said it's difficult to sum up what Maj. Johnson has meant to south DeKalb County.
“He’s been so hands-on with helping this community,” she said. “He’ll be really deeply missed.”