Children’s laughter echoes off the concrete walls of the Philadelphia Police Department’s 14th District headquarters on Haines Street in Germantown. A clown blows up balloons for the district’s guests, assembled for the annual Christmas party. Toward the back of the room, Officer Calvin Johns smiles as he takes in the festivities he helped organize.
“We got Santa coming on a big fire truck to deliver presents to the kids,” Johns said as the party began on Thursday afternoon.
Johns, community relations officer at the sprawling 14th district for the past 20 years, has played a vital role as mediator, friend and confidant. As he has watched the breakdown of families, many of them living below the poverty line, Johns vowed to do something about it.
“By the time I retire, I want to accomplish something no else has done: Get the people to live together as a whole,” Johns said. “It’s a wild idea, but it’s definitely possible.”
The back story
Johns was a beat cop when he first came to the 14th in 1991. He worked the “last-out shift” from midnight to 8 a.m. He became community relations officer in 2001. His experience in both jobs leaves him convinced that the underlying problem in the district is the loss of parental authority in the home.
“The problem is that what goes on in the home spills out into the streets,” Johns said. “Parents want to blame the crime on [the police] instead of being parents. Truth is, they’d rather be friends than authority figures, and that’s where the trouble starts.”
Before putting on a badge, Johns spent more than two decades as an administrator for the Northeast Frankford chapter of the Boys and Girls Club of America, the organization that helped mentor him when he was growing up.
“He really cares deeply about people; he sees so many young people getting into trouble and wanted to be a role model for them,” said Rev. George Taylor, Johns’ longtime friend and supervisor at Boys and Girls Club. “He felt that being a police officer would allow him to be the role model he always was in the community and to change the perceptions about the police officers in the community as well.
“Young people and adults hold him in the highest respect, as do the church communities. I’m sure he’s still in the hearts of the kids that he worked with.”
An officer, mediator and mentor
In his job as a community relations officer, Johns said he tries to help solve people’s problems – everything from placing a few phone calls to help resolve disputes between neighbors to engaging the Town Watch program to help clean up blocks.
His long-standing initiatives include the Police Clergy, which provides career services for prior offenders, and Germantown’s Nuisance Task Force, which coordinates with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to address drug- and alcohol-related problems in the precinct.
“In order to do this job, you have to learn to take a slap on one side of the face and turn right around to take another,” Johns said. “The thing about me is that I don’t pull any punches; I tell it like it is and treat everyone the same.”
A busy job
As tough as he is, Johns is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer number of problems with which he’s presented.
“People think that if you help them once, you’re able to help them all the time,” he said. “I’m the only Community Relations Officer in a 16-acre precinct. I’m just one man; I can’t be a doctor, lawyer and Indian chief.”
Johns’ experience with children has taught him that the easiest way to solve problems is to nip issues in the bud. In most instances, that means starting early, instituting respect and discipline. To that end, Johns co-founded a Neighborhood Mentor Program for the 14th district, which acts as an additional outlet for children ages 6 to 18, helping to deter them from a life of crime.
“Sometimes, kids talk more easily to other adults than their parents,” Johns said. “We want to instill in them a respect for authority in general, not just for the police department.”
Under the program, officers from the 14th district are matched with its young members, with whom they spend time and form relationships. The program also has an academic component, with tutoring and other assistance programs run through the Dolores Harris Center, a community outreach organization located on Stenton Avenue.
“Calvin was instrumental in identifying community members to help mentor the kids,” said Dolores Harris, who founded the center and helped Johns establish the mentor program. “He’s a dedicated and committed officer who has a lot on his plate when it comes to the community. I really appreciate the time that he has invested in the community.”
In addition to serving as one of the program’s mentors, Johns acts as a liaison between the police officers and neighbors who volunteer.
“It’s all about helping the community,” he said. “All we want is for these kids to grow up in a safe and peaceful environment. “If everybody pitches in some time, there’s no reason that can’t happen.”
Kevin Smith and Vinny Vella are La Salle University students who write for GermantownBeat, a local student-produced news site. NewsWorks features articles from GermantownBeat on its Northwest Philadelphia community sites and contributes multimedia journalism training to the program.