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Here’s to a different kind of cop

Paso's Jim Johnson didn't set any arrest records


For a time, it seemed as though Jim Johnson’s death might slip under the radar, with barely a nod from the masses and the obligatory half-inch notice in the local daily.
But Johnson’s passing July 7, at age 71, serves as a reminder of an era that has faded—right along with the light in the eyes of this retired San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputy.
A word or two seems appropriate in his memory, because Johnson was virtually the last of a forgotten breed—a kindly beat cop who just happened to drive instead of walk. For two decades, he was the sheriff’s main man in the then-moribund North County, patrolling with an assortment of partners across a huge expanse of territory. He was not just content, he was happy, he often said, to work this particular assignment, one that his more ambitious uniformed compatriots were anxious to escape in the interest of their career’s upward mobility.
His were personal qualities that endeared Johnson to ordinary people in the community, but not to some of his peers in the sheriff’s department who figured he was too soft, too reluctant to make an arrest. And thus he was to become a bit of a pariah.
Anyone who has lived as many years as Johnson prowled the North County protecting and serving can readily deduce that herein lay for him a professional quandary. After all, how better to measure the quality of the cop than to tally the quantity of his busts?
Johnson’s usual mode of operation did not result in spectacular arrest records or departmental awards. He was rarely singled out as being particularly productive when it came to generating work for the jailers.
He was the kind of cop who apparently is no longer welcome in our modern, no-nonsense society. He was more prone to conversing than he was to cuffing. He later would opine that he had a big area to patrol that did not lend itself to frequent sojourns to the San Luis Obispo jail. And some situations, he believed, needed to be resolved without an arrest.
Undersheriff Steve Bolts, one former partner who rose to become Pat Hedges’ No. 2 man, says Johnson was “an icon.�
That’s modern-speak for “dinosaur,� an inference I understand only too well. There are not many contemporary cops who still believe that talking is a better way than force to solve a neighborhood problem. It is a reflection of this era, of course, so different now, so much more violent. Johnson’s way was neither right all the time, nor wrong all the time. It was just dissimilar to the ways of many of his comrades in arms. And it probably wouldn’t work in today’s multi-cultural, multi-criminal universe.
Bolts says that Johnson remains “somewhat controversial� around the sheriff’s offices because of the retired deputy’s apparent aversion to the cuff-’em-and-stuff-’em philosophy.
“There are a few guys in the department who thought he was a ‘speed bump,’� Bolts added, meaning that Johnson was perceived to slow down the careers of more aggressive deputies, those who instinctively knew that numbers in the arrest column were like stripes on the arm, money in the bank.
Scott Thompson, now a detective with the sheriff’s department, remembers “lots of coffee stops� with the ruddy-faced, red-haired colleague he still calls “J.P.�
“I wanted to go out and make arrests,� Thompson said. “That’s why I joined the department, to bust the bad guys. But J.P. had his routine.�
In his waning years and in declining health, Johnson would speed around town in his battered brown sedan, eyes straight ahead. He would help his lady friend and housemate, Pat French, open her Pine Street Saloon mornings. In his signature denim shirt and blue jeans held aloft by colorful suspenders, he would pour a cup of coffee and then recall, sometimes at length, his experiences policing during a kinder, more gentle time. He knew that other cops disagreed with his style of policing, but he didn’t mind. Circumstances were changing around him as he hung up his shield, and he figured it was the right time for him to be departing.
“He was probably too nice to be a cop,� French said. “But to this day, there are folks who remember him so warmly. He helped so many people. Some of those he didn’t put in jail went on to make something of themselves, and thanked him for it.�
It’s strange that sometimes those very qualities that endear a person to some irritate others. But Jim Johnson was my kind of cop—a cop of the people. ∆
Paso Robles’ Daniel Blackburn had his entire criminal record expunged. He can be reached at djblackburn@charter.net.

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