Smith taps colonel to fill in as acting Baltimore County police chief

The Baltimore Sun

It's a short list.

Police pilot and White Marsh patrolman -- those are about the only positions James W. Johnson hasn't held in the Baltimore County Police Department.

Johnson, who was named acting chief of the agency yesterday, started as a cadet in the 911 center in 1979.

He rose through the ranks, working patrol in Essex, commander of patrol divisions on the west side of the county, and most recently serving as colonel in charge of the Operations Bureau, overseeing the patrol and investigative divisions.

The 49-year-old veteran was tapped by Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. to fill the vacancy created by the departure of Chief Terrence B. Sheridan, who was named yesterday as the superintendent of the Maryland State Police.

"Colonel Johnson will do an excellent job of succeeding his mentor, Chief Sheridan," Smith said. "He was a major player in developing the public safety plan that has been so effective in Baltimore County."

Smith hopes the word "acting" is soon removed from Johnson's title. Rather than conduct a national search to fill the vacancy, Smith said he felt he could promote from within the department.

"I wasn't looking for any cultural change," the county executive said.

The County Council must confirm Johnson's appointment, but several members said they don't foresee any objections to Smith's choice.

"We have a great farm system," said Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, comparing the department's training to professional baseball's minor leagues. "I think he's a great choice. He's the kind of person who is accessible, open-minded and a hard worker."

The salary for police chief is an estimated $195,000 -- about $27,000 more than Johnson's salary as a colonel, according to county officials.

Cole B. Weston, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing the county's officers, called Johnson a "good appointment."

"He's worked his way up and proven to be a solid leader," Weston said, adding that the union hopes he'll still be able to offer a fresh perspective.

Johnson attended the news conference yesterday at state police headquarters in Pikesville where Sheridan's appointment was announced by Gov. Martin O'Malley, and was introduced by Smith as the new county chief.

"My goal is continue the vision we've established," Johnson said, adding that partnerships with community and business leaders would remain important and that commanders will continue to be "held responsible for crime reduction."

Since taking over as commander of the Operations Bureau in April 2006, Johnson said some crimes, notably robberies, have declined.

Johnson, an Essex-Middle River native, began his career as an officer in the Essex precinct in 1979. He served as a corporal and sergeant in the North Point precinct, and as a lieutenant in the Woodlawn and Wilkens precincts, before returning to Essex as a captain in 1992.

Sheridan had considered Johnson for the job of running the county police academy. But when Essex community leaders complained about the possibility of losing Johnson, Sheridan named him to head the precinct.

"Working Essex, where we have lots of problems, wasn't a job for ... Johnson. It was his life," a neighborhood association leader said in a 1996 editorial about him in The Sun. "If he went, we would have felt kind of helpless."

Johnson founded a nonprofit corporation to establish a community center at an impoverished apartment complex in Essex that offered child care, medical aid, financial counseling and policing.

Although Johnson was supportive of programs such as citizens on patrol, he was quoted in another 1996 Sun article praising Sheridan's shift to prioritizing enforcement over community policing.

"The morale at my station has never been better," Johnson, then a captain, was quoted as saying. "The officers realize that [Sheridan] is focused on law enforcement, and that's what they want to do. We allowed community policing to become our focus when it should only be part of our focus."

In 1999, Johnson was named commander of the Internal Affairs division, which investigates complaints and allegations of wrongdoing by officers.

In 2003, he was promoted to colonel, first serving as head of the agency's personnel bureau.

Two years ago, Johnson headed a committee set up to study legislation mandating video surveillance of shopping center parking areas, after the fatal shooting of a private school educator in a parking garage at Towson's mall.

Smith said he has had his eye on Johnson for several years as a possible successor to Sheridan, who the county executive guessed might eventually be lured away by another department.

Col. James W. Johnson

Age: 49

Education: Kenwood HighSchool, 1976; Associate's degree from CCBC-Essex, 1978, Bachelor of Science, in Criminal Justice, University of Baltimore, 1998; Master's degree in Applied Behavioral Science, Johns Hopkins University, 2000.

Experience: Started as police cadet, January, 1979. Served as patrolman in Essex precinct, October 1979 through December, 1984. Served as corporal and sergeant in North Point precinct, 1984 to December 1996. Assigned to Traffic Division's DWI Task Force until October 1988. Served as a lieutenant in the Wilkens and Woodlawn precincts until 1991, when he was promoted to captain of the Technical Services division. Promoted to captain of patrol division in Essex precinct in February 1992. Became commander of Internal Affairs Section in October 1999. Promoted to major in charge of Western Patrol Division in March 2000. Served as Colonel, heading the Human Resources Bureau, from June, 2003 to April 2006 when he began commanding the Operations Bureau.

Personal: The Essex-Middle River native is in the processing of relocating from Fallston to Eastern Baltimore County. He is married, with two children: a 17-year-old daughter and a 25-year-old son who is in the U.S. Coast Guard.

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