Veteran officer takes over as 39th District’s captain

Last year, Captain Verdell Johnson received his Christmas gift from the Commissioner a few days early.

In the Philadelphia Police Department, there is a long-standing holiday tradition of departmental promotions occurring shortly before Christmas. It’s a means for the department to say, in effect, “Merry Christmas” to its officers.

On Dec. 16, he was given the unofficial news. Three days later, Captain Verdell Johnson was officially notified by the department of his promotion to Commanding Officer of the 39th Police District.

Previous experience 

Captain Johnson arrived in the 39th on the heels of Captain Stephen Glenn, who was transferred to the Civil Affairs Unit, as reported by Newsworks.

The 39th Police District encompasses East Falls and sections of both Germantown and North Philadelphia, and serves more than 60,000 residents in a five-square mile patrol area, according to census data and Captain Johnson.

Johnson, a 24-year veteran of the Department, brings with him significant command experience.

Originally promoted to Captain in 2007, he served as Acting Commanding Officer of two police districts in 2010 – the 17th District in South Philadelphia, and the 14th District, headquartered in Germantown.

Prior to his transfer to the 39th, Johnson was assigned to the Accident Investigation District.

He cited his experience in the 14th District as a likely reason for his promotion to CO.

“During that time,” he explained, “I formed good relationships with the community and with the police officers [assigned there].”

More important, however, was the significant reduction in crime witnessed during his four-month tenure at the 14th.

Johnson surmised that his superiors in the PPD’s Regional Operations Command – North were pleased with his performance and had been searching for an opportunity for him to head a district.

And, with Captain Glenn being groomed for an upcoming vacancy in Civil Affairs, the opportunity presented itself.

Uncharted territory 

Captain Johnson met with Glenn on Dec. 19 to learn about the specifics of his new assignment.

“I asked him about the performance of officers,” Johnson said of the meeting, “and about the concerns of the community.”

The community concerns of the 39th District are, in a sense, split. Given the wildly divergent income levels of the population within – and, respectively, the attention given to quality of life matters versus those of basic safety and crime prevention – Captain Johnson noted that this district is unlike others he has commanded.

“In the 39th,” he said, “we have people with six-figure homes and a high income-level, and then you have people well below poverty.”

He noted that while the 14th has economically disenfranchised neighborhoods, none approach the level of the 39th’s poorest areas.

That said, Johnson is committed to equitable service in all segments of his district.

“Every citizen is entitled to policing and their concerns need to be addressed,” he declared.

Regardless of income, he continued, “everybody is entitled to a decent quality of life.”

Tackling crime in the 39th District 

Asked for the greatest challenges facing the district, Johnson identified property crime as being paramount among his concerns.

As reported by Newsworks, the 39th is experiencing a significant increase in burglaries this month.

To curb this trend, Johnson is looking for career burglars among recently released prisoners. In addition, he has assigned more officers to patrol, encouraged the thorough processing of crime scenes, and is reaching out to the community with crime-prevention bulletins.

With respect to violent crime, Johnson feels that significant progress has been made. He noted that on a recent weekend with unseasonably warm temperatures, there was not a single shooting in the entire Northwest Division of the PPD.

“The weather says, ‘there should have been a lot of violence’,” he remarked, but speculated that a mix of community involvement and aggressive policing contributed to this reduction.

From Corporal to Captain 

While Johnson is no stranger to aggressive policing tactics, his initial attraction to law enforcement was the potential it offered for helping others.

“That’s my main goal,” he said, “I like to help people.”

A graduate of the Franklin Learning Center, Johnson signed on to the PPD in 1988 after serving three years of active duty in the Marine Corps as a bulk fuel specialist.

In 1992, Johnson was involved in a highly publicized police shooting known as the “Window Washing Charlie shooting,” in which a West Philadelphia resident was shot 22 times by police after he pointed what turned out to be an empty gun at them, according to archived reports.

He considered leaving the police department, and took classes in nursing at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Johnson, now a registered nurse, said that after obtaining his nursing degree, he “got the fire back to be a police officer.”

He began taking promotional exams shortly thereafter, and went from Corporal to Captain in eight years.

Along the way, he had numerous mentors who shaped his views on what policing could – and should – be.

Foremost among them was Anthony “Tony” Johnson, a fellow police officer in – and resident of – the 18th District in West Philadelphia, who routinely demonstrated to rookie Johnson the meaning of respect on the street.

“He worked where he lived, and nobody bothered him,” recalled the Captain, adding, “that’s how much respect he had.”

Tony Johnson died in 2003 of cardiac arrest, after conducting an off-duty arrest while coaching a basketball team.

A high honor 

Having risen through the ranks, Captain Johnson said that his present assignment is among the most notable of his two decades of service with the PPD.

“Making captain was really the highlight of my career,” he said, adding, “but as a Captain, you would like to have the experience of commanding a district.”

“I’ve done it on a temporary basis,” he continued, “but I’ve never had a district on a full-time basis.”

Searching for an analogy, he devised a sporting metaphor to explain the distinction between attaining rank and having a permanent assignment.

“It’s like in basketball,” he said. “You’re on the team, but you never make a field goal.”

“I was a Captain, but I had never scored that point – now I’m scoring that point,” he said. 

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