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From Cell Block to Detroit Police Board

From Cell Block to Detroit Police Board

Former inmate Raphael Johnson has been appointed by Mayor Dave Bing to be a member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, pending City Council approval. (File photo by WILLIAM ARCHIE/Detroit Free Press)

Detroit Free Press via YellowBrix

July 21, 2010

DETROIT – Locked in a segregated prison cell eight years ago, Raphael B. Johnson never thought that someday he’d help run the same police department that arrested him. Then again, maybe he did. Self-confidence is one thing Johnson never lacked.

An unyielding belief in himself sustained him through 12 years of prison — six in solitary confinement — where he did 1,000 pushups a day and steeled his mind by reading more than 1,300 books.

Johnson — if confirmed by the City Council — will become the first ex-offender to serve on the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners. The job includes regulating disciplinary procedures, establishing policies, approving budgets and promotions, reviewing and reducing a backlog of hundreds of citizens’ complaints, and helping the department comply with the federal consent decree.

Appointing Johnson, 35, to a five-year term on the Police Commission is one of Mayor Dave Bing’s smartest moves. City Council, which has finally shown an interest in helping ex-offenders find productive lives, should approve it.

Johnson would replace Mohamed Okdie, whose term expired this month.

By charter, the five-member Police Commission is supposed to represent the community’s diverse interests. Detroit has tens of thousands of ex-offenders and parolees. Up to now, they’ve had no real voice on the board. Johnson will represent and inspire the dispossessed and dangerously disconnected. His appointment will improve police/community relations — even with those still in prison.

“It’s going to help bridge the gap between prisoners and law enforcement,” Shannon Keys, 38, an inmate at Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit, told me Wednesday. “A lot of guys in here don’t talk to the police — period. This will give the police some credibility when they’re protecting the community.”

Paroled six years ago, Johnson has since graduated from college, published his autobiography, started a business, become a husband and father, and landed a regular spot on the national talk show “Maury,” where he confronts troubled teens. Last year, Johnson ran for City Council and even advanced to the general election. He continues to work with parolees and ex-offenders, patrol Detroit’s streets with other volunteers, and speak to men inside Michigan’s prisons.

Johnson wants the Police Commission to become more modern and responsive. He’d like to create an online data base for citizens’ complaints and get professional development training for officers who have numerous complaints against them. Citizens also need to learn how to file complaints and deal with police officers, Johnson said.

He has a good relationship with Chief Warren Evans and has worked with Evans’ officers on neighborhood safety.

“I’m going to be fair and honest with everyone, because that’s what I would want, too,” Johnson told me. “I fear the wrath of a higher power.”

Johnson’s life represents an extraordinary journey. It’s another example of why we shouldn’t give up on people.

In his own words, Johnson was a 17-year-old punk who couldn’t control his anger when he shot and killed 40-year-old Johnny Havard in 1992. Johnson, who had been an honor student and captain of the University of Detroit High School football team, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 8 to 25 years.

With a message of self-help, self-respect and redemption, Johnson transformed himself and inspired many.

“He’s one of the most focused guys I ever met,” said Keith Bennett, director of the Flip the Script program at Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, where Johnson worked for two years. “He really has an old-school work ethic.”

Johnson can never replace the life he took, but he can continue to make a difference in the lives of Detroiters. There’s no better way for him to do that now than to serve as a bridge between the community and a still distrusted police department. It’s time for Michigan prisoner No. 233075 to become Commissioner Johnson.

“Full circle, man,” he told me last week. “Full circle.”

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