How Putting a Ferguson Native In Charge Calmed the City's Nerves

Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

After days of unrest in Ferguson, following the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon finally stepped in and promised a "change in tone" under new leadership. By replacing the St. Louis County Police Department with the Missouri State Highway Patrol — led by Capt. Ron Johnson — he seems to have delivered on that promise. 

Johnson is both a Ferguson native and, like the majority of the city's population, black. St. Louis Public Radio reports that Johnson marched with protesters to the burned and looted QuikTrip on Thursday and said, "I am a black man with black sons." Compare that to images of the mostly white officers of the St. Louis County police in heavily armored camo gear. 

"This is my community, these are my friends, this is my family, and I’m making new friends tonight," Johnson said. "We're all a part of this together." According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Johnson has been part of the Highway Patrol since 1987. He currently leads 147 uniformed officers and 157 civilian employees in Troop C, covering the 11 counties in the St. Louis area. St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told the Post-Dispatch he'd worked with Johnson "for many years, even before I was chief ...You couldn’t have a better partner for the region. He’s smart, he’s professional, he comes from the area."

And the leadership change hasn't just been about improved press — with Johnson there's been a complete change in the way the protests have been handled. "You can stay out here all night," he said, according to SLPR. "The only thing that I ask is that you pull back a little bit so that our family members, and our friends can travel up and down West Florissant. They can come by, yell out the window, blow their horn and give you support, but you've got to move back on the sidewalk."

As The Washington Post noted, Johnson also promised not to blockade streets, to set up a media staging center, and to let people protest at any time of day. All the military-grade gear was gone. One resident told The New York Times the Thursday night protests were calmer “because they’re not tear gassing us tonight.”

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