The Incredible Shrinking Police Commissioner

by longformphilly

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Noel Weyrich | Philadelphia Magazine | April 2004

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.”

Writer bio: Noel Weyrich, a native of Jersey City and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote for local and national publications for more than 20 years. He currently ghostwrites and edits business books.

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