Ronald Johnson: There were times when I thought I was too busy to pray, before Ferguson. But in my darkest moments, I never was too busy, no matter how long those days were.
John Fuller: During his darkest days, he would lock the door, go to the restroom, and cry and pray. And in those moments when he felt the weakest, his faith in God kept him pressing forward. Five years ago, Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Police was appointed by the governor to be in charge of security in Ferguson, MO. And at that time, the whole country was fixated on the rioting and the violence and just the unpredictable situation there in the wake of police-involved shooting, which tragically resulted in the death of Michael Brown. You’re going to hear more from this man on Focus on the Family today. Your host is Focus president Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, the events of August 2014 are burned into most of our memories as buildings burned and stores were looted, and shots rang out in the night and tear gas was deployed in the streets. That always captures the attention of the news. And we had it 24/7. We were seeing what was going on in this little suburb of St. Louis called Ferguson. It was an awful time in our country’s most recent history. And Captain Ron Johnson was thrust right into the middle of it all. So he did all that he knew to do, rely on his training, pray and ask God for help. And we’re going to hear this incredible story of faith and courage in the midst of some really terrible circumstances.
John: Captain Johnson has written a book called 13 Days in Ferguson, which really captures his experiences during those two weeks of upheaval. And he’s a retired 30-year veteran police officer, now the founder of Lodestone Solution Group and develops and inspires leaders. And he and his wife, Lori, have been married for 30 years.
Jim: Ron, welcome to the program.
Ronald Johnson: Thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim: It’s such an honor. And we don’t get a chance often to talk to people who have gone through such amazing circumstances and then reflect on it, you know, what was learned, what went wrong, what could we do better, so I’m grateful that you’re here today. You know, going back five years ago and hearing it in your own words is probably the best place for the listeners to start. What do you remember about the police incident in Ferguson? What was your first impression of what was going on?
Ronald: You know, when it first happened, and especially when I first stepped out onto the streets of Ferguson, I had fear, really the first time in my life, as a law enforcement… that I really experienced fear.
Jim: And were you – you were a state trooper. Give us your role at the time as – as you were in Ferguson. What was your assignment?
Ronald: Well, I was – I was a troop commander for the past 15 years in St. Louis, over a troop of about 300 employees. And so, that was my daily job. And so, after the shooting that occurred in Ferguson, I was there to assist the local police department from a state vantage point on helping with resources.
Jim: Yeah, let’s – for most people, we don’t experience instant life and death decisions. Police officers, first responders – you do. You’re trained to do it. But help us understand, as a 30-year veteran of the police force, how quickly life and death decisions are made and what that environment is like.
Ronald: It does happen rather quickly. You know, I served on our SWAT team for about 10 years. And you do have to make these decisions in a split moment. But a part of you has to have this vision to see past what’s in front of you and see the person and see the incident and try to go through all the different ways you can to bring it to a calm and bring it to a peaceful end.
Jim: For those it may not recall what was happening, described that day. What happened to Michael Brown? What was the officer doing? What were the circumstances for those that may not remember, or may not have heard, if that is possible?
Ronald: Well, there had been a report of a young man who’d taken some cigarillos, which is a form of a cigar, from a convenience store in the community. Then two young men were seen walking down the street, in the middle of the street. An officer approached the two young men and asked them to get out of the middle of the street, is how the encounter started.
Ronald: Later, within that encounter, the officer realized that this might be the young man who had taken the cigarillos from the convenience mart. And then there had been an encounter, had been a struggle. The officer fired shots, and the young man end up dying from his injuries.
Jim: When you look at that incident, just – just on its face, as a police officer, first and foremost, what were your impressions? Was it handled correctly? Was – I mean, that’s a tough situation for both people. But, what were your impressions of what went right and what went wrong?
Ronald: Well, I think, you know, initially there’re always a lot of questions. And it’s always unfair to second guess when you don’t know all the facts. So initially, all the facts were not there. And so, no one really knew all the facts. And there were two different sides coming out, two different stories.
Ronald: And so, initially, I don’t think I really had an impression. I think for me, at that moment, I knew that someone had lost their life. And that was someone’s son, someone’s friend. And so, that was my initial reaction to the incident.
Jim: Yeah, the hours afterward, many things started to transpire. This became a national rallying cry for police injustice, racial tension, all of it. I mean, put that in your own words. What were those hours after this encounter like? What did the police department do? What were the protesters showing up? And they – from what I understand, protesters showed up from all over the country, if I’ve got that right. I mean, it wasn’t just there in Ferguson. It probably started there. But what did the mix of – of protesters – what were they like? What was their point? And what were the police doing about it?
Ronald: You know, we had people from all across the world, not just the country. We had people from outside the U.S. that actually came to Ferguson.
Jim: Even outside the U.S.?
Ronald: Yes, and so very emotional. After the shooting, the young man actually laid on the streets of Ferguson for over four hours.
Jim: Now, why was that? I mean, was there a reason? Was there any rationale? Is that – describe that for us that don’t work in that area. What is typical? And why was this an outlier?
Ronald: Well, a reason was given. But I think that there is no reason that was good enough to have someone lay on the streets four hours.
Ronald: And that was something as law enforcement – we should have done a better job. And when I say we, it wasn’t actually my department, but I wore that uniform. And so, it’s always easy to buy into what’s good, and then when mistakes are made, to separate yourself. And so, I never do that. But after the shooting, there was a large crowd. There was gunfire in the air. And in St. Louis, EMS will not transport a deceased body. And so, we had to call a private service in.
Ronald: And it was a husband and wife who owned the business. And with the gunfire, they were told not to get out of their car, until they could provide safety for them. And then this time kept going by and kept going by. And so, the young man laid in the street just covered up with a sheet. His mother was there. And the crowds grew and grew in anger, as people put this out on social media.
Ronald: And so there was a lot of pain. And I think a lot of people felt that no one should be treated that way and that shouldn’t happen. And so did I. And I think even as law enforcement, even the ones that made the decision to lay him there, once they thought about it, yes, we should have done something different.
Jim: Right, so the hindsight was there. But in the present moment, they were thinking safety and not thinking of the harm it was doing to leave Michael’s body out on the street. I mean, again – such tough, difficult decisions. And you know, in this case a couple hours – four hours – but you know, you regret those decisions. I’m sure the police department regrets those decisions.
Ronald: You do. You know, and I – for me, during that time and hearing about that – ’cause I was traveling from out of town, and I was just getting reports from my office, but I began to think about if that with my son and how I would feel. And I began to start feel that pain and started getting emotional myself picturing that.
Jim: Ron, let me – let me ask you this – and these are comments that I’ve heard, and I remember from the time when that was happening. Some would suggest – and I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I want to hear your answer. And when we talk about racial tension, this is where we need honest conversation, where we can all have courage to say what we’re perceiving, without being misunderstood. So, I say that in this spirit, because some at the time, they were talking about this incident in the context of a young man who was disrespectful. The officer had said, “Get up on the curb. Don’t walk in the middle of the street.” He turned on him, seemingly. And then, a physical altercation occurred. And some would say this young man didn’t want to or didn’t understand obeying authority is really important. and you got to do what they say.
How do you respond to that comment for people that are outside the area, that just see this as kind of a young man who didn’t know how to respect authority? I doubt those people making those comments would suggest that it was, therefore, right then for him to lose his life, that’s ridiculous, but how do you respond to that idea that all of us have to know how to respond to instruction and authority when we’re told to do something?
Ronald: Yes, we all do have to be able to follow instructions when we’re asked to. But it’s always easy to judge when we’re not in that moment and we’re not there. We also have to understand there are a lot of things that our young people face in our country.
Jim: Speak to the emotion of that. I really want to hear it, What’s that tension like? What are they responding to? What are they upset about? What – where’s that anger coming from?
Ronald: Well, I think there’s this sense, especially in some of our urban communities, of a lack of respect that goes both ways. And then it becomes that anger, it becomes that – you’re embattled on your decision making. And so, sometimes when we’re confronting individuals, it’s not necessarily they hate us as a person, but it’s the institution that we stand for.
Ronald: And so, I think that there’s a lot that goes into that. You know, not being there that day, it’s hard to know that. But I think respect goes both ways. I think it’s about conversation. And I would say the conversation can’t start in the midst of chaos. Conversation can’t start in the heat of the moment. And we can’t respect each other when we haven’t communicated beforehand, before incidents.
Jim: Well, and one of the – I asked that question not to lead the discussion. But a friend of mine, African American friend told me, “Jim, the problem was not that flashpoint. It was the history of the racism from the police department in the past.” And I – I don’t know if that’s fair, either, but that was his comment – that that was an expression of several symptomatic things that were going on, that this was a kind of, ingrained attitude within the Ferguson Police Department. But, you’re from there. I mean, tell me. Is that even accurate? Was there trouble there already?
Ronald: Yes. There was not a good relationship with law enforcement and community. You know, Ferguson – they say there’s two sides of Ferguson. There’s a side that’s more diverse and a side that’s more African American.
Ronald: The side that’s more African American, the citizens would say that their only encounters with the police was when something negative was happening.
Ronald: A lot of them said that they couldn’t name one place – they couldn’t name who the chief was. And so, there is not a relationship, and there’s not a sense of respect. And – and so, I think that – I think your friend is absolutely right.
Ronald: You know, that was the tipping point. The…
Ronald: The water in the pot finally boiled out.
Jim: Yeah, which is why, when we look at it as a national news story, we see just this incident. We don’t get the whole picture of what was going on and why the frustration was there, so I appreciate that insight.
John: So, there was some real pent-up emotion and some – some issues underlying what happened, but, if I recall correctly, it deteriorated really rapidly, right?
John: I mean, this was not just a few people hanging out. I mean, if you’ve got gunshots and – and a growing mob, there’s something else going on here.
Ronald: Yes. The following day, on Sunday, things just really skyrocketed. That Saturday, there were large crowds, but the next day, it just really evolved.
John: In what ways?
Ronald: More gunshots. There was a building, a local gas station, where they thought that this incident that occurred and thought they were the ones that reported the theft. It was burned to the ground. And then there was looting. A lot of stores were looted, and so it really took a – a dangerous turn.
Jim: In the midst of all that, you had a fellow trooper say something that really wounded you. What was that?
Ronald: It was a friend of mine, and – and we had been friends and shared moments at different events together with our wives. And we’re in the midst of the crowd, and he says, “We need to leave.” And I said, “No, we need to stay.” And he talked about – “Well, you’re comfortable. These people respect you, and – and you’re comfortable, but the rest of us, we need to move out.” And the way that he said “these people…”
Ronald: …really troubled me. And I think that people were there because they were hurt, and I think what you were saying to me is that, “Basically, you’re one of them…”
Ronald: “…And I’m not.” And that’s not the way that I view policing…
Ronald: …And that’s not the way that I thought he viewed me.
Jim: Well, it’s kind of the core issue, isn’t it? I mean, that’s the issue – I mean, them and us rather than we.
Ronald: You’re exactly right. You know, we talked at the beginning about the book that I wrote. And whenever I sign that book and autograph that book for people, I put, “I am you.” And I put that in every book, no matter who you are…
Ronald: …Because I think, in essence, we’re all a part of each other in some way, and there’s things that we share, no matter what our color and our gender and our beliefs.
Jim: And Ron, that – that gets to the core issue of your faith, because we haven’t mentioned the intricate nature of your faith and how that began to play into this moment in your life. I mean, you weren’t isolated. I’m sure you were praying more than ever. But what role did your faith play? I mean, what happened after that encounter? From what I understand in the book, you went into a restroom and just began to cry.
Ronald: I did. You know, the first day when I found out that I was going to be assigned at this – as a security commander, I walked down the streets of West Florissant. And as I got halfway down, these ladies came out, and they said, “Can we pray for you?” And I’m thinking, in the midst of all this chaos – you know, people throwing rocks, people yelling things and screaming, “Police, get off the street” – these women wanted to pray for me.
Ronald: And so I said, “Yes,” and they huddled around me. And for that moment, I didn’t hear any bottles being thrown. I didn’t hear any names being thrown out. It was just a – a sense of peace.
Ronald: And at that moment, I knew that my faith would carry me and – and guide me through.
Jim: Yeah. That is so good. I mean, and what a great example for all of us to follow not only when we’re in the midst of trouble, but when we’re just waking up and going through our day – to rely on the Lord to guide us through that day. It seems like we, as believers in Christ – we really lean into the Lord when we’re in trouble – right? – when we don’t know what to do – kind of where you were at…
Jim: …In that moment. You mentioned being assigned the – the commander of security. I – I’m not sure what that meant, as I was reading through. You still had a Ferguson police chief, and then the governor, without really talking to you ahead of time, or any of his staff talking to you – you heard him mention your name on television. Is that right?
Ronald: No. Actually, we – there’s a Ferguson police chief, but then there’s a – an area police chief of a larger police department. And he actually took over. Chief Jon Belmar, St. Louis County, actually took over command…
Ronald: …of the whole incident for the first five days. Then the governor, five days later, decided he was going to have a news conference, and so he wanted everybody there. He wanted all the law enforcement leaders there. A lot of the politicians were there. Religious leaders were there. And so, I was told to attend by my boss, and I asked my boss, “What’s going on?” He goes, “Well, I don’t know, but the governor is coming to town and said he’s – wants to talk and – and – and give his views and opinions.” And so, we get there, and the governor comes into a room, and he’s talking to all the law enforcement, politicians. Then he steps back, and he says, “I’m going to make a change immediately.” And he says, “Effective right now, Captain Ron Johnson’s in charge of – head of security for the Ferguson incident.”
Jim: And, you didn’t even know he knew your name, right? I mean…
Ronald: Uh, no.
Jim: How did – how did – OK. What were your emotions like at that point when you’re going, “Wait a minute”?
Ronald: Well, at that moment, I’m thinking, “Why? Why me?”
Jim: (Laughter) That’s an amazing story.
John: Yeah. Why not somebody else? Yes.
Jim: I mean, when you think of leadership, which – you know, your book and what you do now is kind of helping leaders, right?
Ronald: Right. You know – and so, for me, at the moment, I kept saying, “Why me?” But then I said, “That’s not a question for you to ask.”
Jim: Oh, interesting. Huh.
Ronald: The question is that – this is a blessing that you’ve been given, and God gives you no more than you can bear. And you just have to continue to walk with that.
Ronald: And so that’s why I decided to walk down the streets of Ferguson – because that’s all that I knew, because I didn’t have a plan when I got in front of the podium. They said, “What is your plan?” And I wanted to say, “Well, I just found out 15 minutes ago that I was in charge.”
Jim: I admire your courage. I mean, I’m just sitting here as a leader myself, thinking, “Wow, that is amazing.” And you had to respond. Did you then come to the microphones? Did they invite you to come speak?
Ronald: I did, as a matter of fact.
Jim: (Laughter) Without a speech? Without anything…
Ronald: Well, the governor’s staff had written an initial speech for me.
John: That was thoughtful of them.
Jim: Yeah (laughter). Here you go (laughter).
Ronald: What they didn’t do for the – when I came up to the podium the second time, after the governor spoke again, they didn’t give me a sheet to answer the questions I was gonna be asked…
Ronald: …by the media.
Jim: That’s tough.
John: Yeah. Well, we’re hearing right from the heart of a man who was in the middle of a lot of chaos and had to really lean on the Lord. He captures these experiences so well in his book, 13 Days in Ferguson. We’re talking to Captain Ronald Johnson on Focus on the Family and call us so we can send a copy of this book to you. It’s 800, the letter A, and the word family, or stop by the website, focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: Ron, I want to step back a little bit. Your dad was a police officer.
Jim: Tell me about your relationship with him. And was he the reason that you wanted to become a police officer?
Ronald: Yes. My dad was a police officer at a local university in St. Louis, and I always admired him – so what he stood for and, when he put that uniform on, the pride that he had when he walked out the door. But, when he would come home, and the stories I would hear him talk to my mom about wasn’t about people that he arrested. It was about people he helped.
Jim: Uh-huh. Wow.
Ronald: And so I always valued that.
Jim: Yeah. And – and you moved to a predominantly white neighborhood, I think, sometime in your childhood, and you encountered, you know, people that weren’t too friendly to your family. What was that like?
Ronald: It was different. You know, I grew up in a community that was predominately African American. In St. Louis city. And then we moved, when I was about 9 or 10, to community where were the only African American family on our street.
Ronald: And so, it was a new environment for us, but it was also a new environment for our new neighbors.
Ronald: And so, it became challenging, and I think that, for us, a lot of our neighbors – things that they had seen on TV, or things they had heard about African Americans, was their belief about African Americans.
Jim: Yeah. And you had some neighbors running over your lawn and…
Jim: …terrible things, yes.
Ronald: They’d drive over our yard at night and spin their cars. And then one night, someone hit the fire hydrant. And our whole family’s in our home, and the police are there. And, we walk out, but nobody knocked on our door. Until my mother went to turn on the water, it’s just – the water is not working.
Ronald: And then, she heard some noise outside, but the police or no one knocked on our door…
Ronald: …To tell us what had happened.
Jim: And your dad’s a police officer at this point, right?
Jim: Why, that’s amazing. I don’t quite understand that. What – how did you manage that? How old were you, and how did you process that?
Ronald: It was difficult. You know, my dad had been injured in a car accident, but he went out there, and he stood as a strong man, even though he walked with his cane. But he went out there in the midst of this crowd. And – and some were calling him names, but he went out there, and he just stood tall and never reacted and – and brought the situation to a calm.
Ronald: But it was a scary time for us…
Ronald: …because I could look at the fear on my mom’s eyes as we all stood looking at – peering out the window to see if our dad was going to be OK, but also trying to figure out what happened.
Jim: And you were called names, right? I mean, you experienced that straightforward…
Jim: …At that time. I mean, I – I didn’t grow up in that kind of environment, so – meaning I was in a multi-racial situation in – in California. But I don’t recall a lot of that going on. I mean, it sounds odd. Maybe I missed it. I was a boy. But man, that’s got to sting. How does – what does that do to your dignity when people, not knowing you, treat you so poorly?
Ronald: Well, it hurts, because, you know, for us, in our home, we had never talked about that, because we had never experienced it.
Ronald: And so, for the first time now, as kids, we’re bringing that to our parents. And, “Hey, what does this mean? I don’t know what it means, but it hurts. The tone – I’ve never heard that tone.” But I think, for the kids – after I got older, kids that were saying that really didn’t know what it meant, either.
Ronald: Someone had told them these are the names that you say. And because I think hate is something that’s taught, and so, I think that, you know, someone had told them those names, and so they thought these are the names that I should say. But later on, we would become friends.
Jim: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I – it’s taught. You’re right. We demonstrate it around dinner tables, or conversation about current events and things like that. And that’s one reason we wanted to do this show with you, because it’s an important topic. I mean, when you look at our country and where we’re at, this is kind of the underlying issue, the racial tension, the racial divide. And I’m just grateful that you’ve put this into a story. Let’s come back. There’s so much more to talk about. I want to get on with that. You’re thrust into this role. But again, describe for me as commander, did the police chief of Ferguson, or the other gentleman that was given authority, kind of the wider police authority, did he report to you? Or did you report to him? Or what was the – the mechanism there? Who made the decisions on the ground to – to tear gas and to do other things, because I know you had to make some of those tough calls?
Ronald: Well, you know, initially, I reported to him.
Ronald: But then after the governor put me in charge, in essence, he was supposed to report to me. But I needed his partnership…
Ronald: …And I needed his support. Until this day we’re friends. And when we see each other we embrace.
Jim: Well, and that – Ron, that’s one of the core things. And we’re gonna have you come back tomorrow, and we’re going to continue this discussion, because I want to get into the night and those events that occurred over the next 13 days, and some of those decisions you needed to make, the way the community responded to you,
But, as we end today, I think one of the core things to hear from you is, you know, making those controversial decisions. Let’s at least talk about one. When the marchers were marching, you decided to march with them, as an officer. You talk about the tension a moment ago within your command structure and the police either rallying around your leadership or pulling back. Marching with the marchers, I can only imagine what they were feeling and what they were trying to understand about what you were demonstrating. What are you doing, Ron? Tell us about that moment and the decision to march and how all the factions responded to that decision.
Ronald: Well, you know, the decision to march – I think too often, when we have this divide between law enforcement and community, it’s because community believes that we don’t see their faces and we don’t hear their voices.
Jim: So, is this nighttime? Is it daytime?
Ronald: It’s daytime.
Jim: OK, it’s daytime. How many people are marching? Thousands?
Ronald: There’s hundreds…
Ronald: …There’s hundreds of people marching. And as we marked – marched down the street, more people start to get into the march.
Jim: Right, and here you are in uniform, and you go up to whom and say, “I’m going to march with you”? I mean, what did they – how did they respond to you?
Ronald: Well, I go up to a pastor that I knew, her name is Pastor Traci Blackmon, and I knew her, and I knew our kids and our kids are friends. And I walk up to her, and she congratulates me on being assigned as commander.
Jim: (Laughter) Oh, man. Thanks a lot.
Ronald: And so, she says, “Why are you here?” And I said, “Well, I’m here to march with you.” She was leading the march. And she says, “I’d rather you not.” And then I laughed, because I’m thinking she’s joking, we’re friends. But when I walked up to her, I called her Traci. And then she said, “I’m serious, I’d rather you not.” And then I looked at her, because at that moment, that’s all that I had.
Ronald: I had no plan, but I knew I wanted to walk down the street. I wanted to see the people. I wanted to understand everything that they were going through and everything that they felt. And so, I looked at her with tears in my eyes, and I called her Pastor Blackmon. And I said, “I need to march for me.” And I said, “I’ll march in the back. If you’d let me march, I’ll march in the back. And when we get by the crowds, I’ll veer off. But I need to start this march.” And then she looked at me and said, “No, you can march, but you have to march in the front with me.”
Jim: Did she ever express to you why she hesitated? What was the concern? Was it just being an officer, what you represented as a police officer, not a friend?
Ronald: You know, I never asked. But I – but I answered that to myself. And I said to myself that initially, when I had shock when I was put in charge, but by the time – an hour later, by the time I got to that march, I was feeling pretty good about Ron Johnson, that I was somebody special.
Ronald: And I think that that answer – when no – was God humbling me, that you’re nobody special. I’ve given you a task. And so, that is why I believe she said, “No.” So I answered that for myself.
Jim: Wow, Ron, I mean, what – that’s inspiring. And, what a place to end. But we’re going to come back next time, continue the discussion. And I want to get into those days, events and what took place. Can we do that?
Ronald: Yes, we can.
Jim: Let’s do it. Boy, I hope you’re feeling and hearing an incredible testimony of a man who is humbly trying to do the assignment given to him. And, you know, in this kind of situation where it is packed with racial contention and the events of Ferguson, that’s headline news, but I think the Lord calls each and every one of us at different times in our life in a very similar way to be faithful to the call. Don’t ask why – I love that, Ron – don’t ask why. Just do it. Just start walking with Me. And, we can apply this to our lives in so many ways.
Closing Voice Track:
John: Well, we want to encourage you to get a copy of Captain Johnson’s book, 13 Days in Ferguson. Donate when you get in touch. We’ll send a copy of that to you, as our way of saying thank you for joining our support team. And you can do that by calling 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY, 800-232-6459. Or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Well, on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back. We’ll continue the conversation with Captain Johnson and once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.