FERGUSON, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) gave control of security operations in riot-riven Ferguson to Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson on Thursday.
The result? Hugs, kisses and a night of peace replaced tear gas and unrest.
“We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together,” Johnson, a Ferguson native, told reporters Thursday afternoon. “I understand the anger and fear that the citizens of Ferguson are feeling, and our officers will respect both of those.”
One immediate change under Johnson’s command: The heavy riot armor, the SWAT trucks with sniper posts, the hostile glares were gone.
Thursday night, protesters in Ferguson had a new leader: Johnson, who walked with demonstrators.
“I’m not afraid to be in this crowd,” declared Johnson, a towering African American man who wiped sweat from his brow as he pointed out neighborhood hangouts and restaurants he used to frequent.
“I grew up here, and this is currently my community and home,” he’d said earlier in the day.
Johnson, who heads the highway patrol’s troop in the region, hugged and kissed community members as they passed, slapping backs and sharing laughs.
Not only did Johnson march with the protesters, but he vowed to not blockade the street and to ensure that residents’ rights to assemble and protest were not infringed upon. Officers working crowd control, he said, were told they must take off their gas masks.
“When I see a young lady cry because of fear of this uniform, that’s a problem,” he said. “We’ve got to solve that.”
Johnson is a 27-year veteran of the highway patrol and currently oversees Troop C, which covers 11 counties including St. Louis.
“I’ve worked with him for many years, even before I was chief,” St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You couldn’t have a better partner for the region. He’s smart, he’s professional, he comes from the area.”
Dotson told the newspaper that Johnson’s father-in-law, Charles McCrary, had been a deputy chief for the St. Louis Police Department.
Johnson earned a degree in criminal justice from Florissant Valley Community College, according to reports, and joined the highway patrol in 1987, according to the newspaper. The Post-Dispatch reported that Johnson was promoted to corporal in 1995 and sergeant in 1997. In 2002, officials made him captain of Troop C; Johnson was 39 at the time.
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In 2007, Missouri’s then-governor, Matt Blunt (R), appointed Johnson to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission.
As of 2010, Johnson lived near Ferguson, in Florissant, Mo., according to court filings. The court records also indicate that Johnson has two children in their 20s and that his wife worked at the time as a self-employed consultant.
Julie Tate contributed to this post. Izadi reported from Washington.
[This post was originally published Thursday at 6:01 p.m. It was last updated Friday at 8:21 a.m.]