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Johnson retires as Bemidji police chief

Bemidji Police Chief Gerald Johnson will retire this week, capping off a 32-year career in law enforcement. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

While seeking employment, Gerald Johnson had one goal: to land a police position in a town with a four-year college.

He found that in Bemidji, and in doing so, found his home.

Johnson joined the Bemidji Police Department as a patrol officer on July 9, 1979.

Now, three decades later, he will retire from the department as police chief, capping off a 32-year in law enforcement.

"I'll miss the cops, the people you work with every day," he said recently.

Johnson, who grew up in Circle Pines, Minn., noted that law enforcement has to work with a lot of other agencies and people, such as social services, the courts, attorneys.

"I'll miss the people," he said.

The public is invited for cake and coffee in Johnson's honor from 2-4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, at City Hall. Later that day, there will be an open house with hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar from 6-9 p.m. at the American Legion Club downtown.

He was beginning to think about retirement five years ago. But then Bruce Preece, the director of public safety, resigned six weeks after the city placed had him on involuntary paid administrative leave.

The police chief position was open.

"(Being police chief) was something I always wanted to do," Johnson said. "That always had been a goal."

For six months, Johnson served as interim director of public safety but supported the separation of the police and fire departments. The two departments had been brought together under the Department of Public Safety, but were again separated.

Dick Sathers, who was named fire chief at that point, was thrilled with the decision - and Johnson's support.

"Not just me but also the other 47 people in the Fire Department," Sathers said.

Sathers, who also has worked as a dispatcher for more than 30 years and is a former police officer, said Johnson will be missed.

Changes occurred

The Bemidji Police Department and policing in general have undergone significant changes throughout Johnson's tenure.

In 1984, there were 17 licensed police officers on staff. Now there are 29, and in 2012, there will be 31. The department during Johnson's career went from having three squad cars with two-man teams to now having at one time six officers in six squads.

Technology has been a key factor in the changes. Officers now have cell phones and can easily communicate with each other. But back then, the department had portable radios but they could not use them for daily assignments; they were only used for special events. Officers could not take them with them in their vehicles.

In 1979, most of the officers came into their jobs from off the street, having taken a test and a training course before putting on the uniform. It was rare to have a two-year-degree.

"Today you can't be a police officer in Minnesota without a two-year degree and (completion of) a skill program," Johnson said.

Johnson himself has an associate's degree in law enforcement from Alexandria Area Technical Institute and a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Bemidji State University. He also was in the U.S. Army's Military Police from 1974 to 1977 in Germany.

Crime itself has changed throughout the years. As technology has changed, so has some of the crime. Now, there are cyber crimes, computer crimes, financial crimes, identity theft and more counterfeiting, thanks in part to better computers and printers.

But while there is more crime now than before, Johnson said he did not think it was getting more brutal.

"I don't think it is any more violent," he said. "We still have violent crime, but I think it is more (than before)."

He noted that in 1979, there were three bars in town that had bands all night long. More alcohol consumption means more police work.

And that remains the case today, he said.

"The No. 1 abused substance is still alcohol," he said. "That hasn't changed."

Whereas area residents might drive past Target and remember when it was the Beltrami County Fairgrounds or can drive past the vacant lot on 15th Street and recall the old Bemidji High School, Johnson sees histories elsewhere.

He drives past homes and recalls which one had a bad domestic or which ones had suicides. A particular house was the site of a murder-suicide.

"There are a lot of cases I remember," Johnson said. "More so, though, it's the victims you remember."

Particularly, the death investigations - whether homicides or suicides or accidents - have stayed with him

"You're still dealing with families," he said.

Johnson was a patrol officer from 1979 until 1981, when he was promoted to detective. He was promoted to sergeant in 1987 and in December 1992 he became the detective sergeant for the department, a position he held for 14 years before he was named chief.

"Investigations have always been my favorite (aspect of the job),"Johnson said. "Investigations are more in depth when it comes to police work."

And, in Bemidji, there were opportunities to probe a wide range of crimes.

"We did everything from petty thefts to homicides," he said.

Of course, back when he started, investigations were done much differently. There were no child protection teams, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension did not have a lab nearby, there were no BCA crime scene investigators.

"We did everything," said Johnson, who spent 19 years in investigations "Back then we would develop our own black-and-white photographs."

The Police Department used to be composed of 31 full-time officers but went down one officer in August 2009 and then downsized again in 2010.

For all of this year, the department has maintained a staff of 29.

But the Bemidji City Council earlier this year approved a budget for 2012 with a full-time police staff of 31.

"I think we have support from the city manager - and the council showed support to the Police Department by recommending a budget with 31 officers for 2012," he said. "It's a step in the right direction."

Johnson, 56, said he going to take his time enjoying his retirement before deciding what is next for him.

He and his wife, Cindy, live in Bemidji and are expecting their first grandchild in November. He has three children, a son who is a senior at BHS; a son in St. Louis; and a daughter in Texas.

One of his first adventures will be a solo bike trip from Bemidji to St. Louis to visit his older son. Johnson, an avid cyclist, figures it will take around 11 days.

"My goal has always been to leave healthy," he said, "not because I was injured or not able to do the job."