Lieutenant John Johnson

Lieutenant John Johnson is by far the longest-tenured member of the Longwood University Police Department, having spent more than two decades patrolling campus. But chances are, if you refer to him as “Lieutenant Johnson” you’ll be met with a quizzical look.

“Do you mean JJ?” is the typical response.

Johnson came to Longwood in 1996 as a part-time officer after working in corrections and serving in the Navy. He became full-time in 2001 and has grown into a mentor for a younger generation of LUPD officers who serve the department.

For National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, we sat down with the veteran officer who is part of the leadership team that keeps campus safe.

How has the LUPD changed over the last 20 years?

When I first started, we were a much smaller school and a much smaller department. There were a lot of police officers who had been here for a long time and they were pretty set in their ways. To be honest, it was a pretty quiet, slow job.

As the years progressed, campus grew with off-campus housing and more students and our department grew into the more professional department we have now. It’s a very safe campus and town, and that gives us a lot of time to focus on making sure we are visible to the university community, building relationships with all kinds of student groups, and finding ways to be proactive in terms of our police work.

How do you use that experience as a mentor to younger officers, particularly those in their first law enforcement job?

I tell them that no matter where you are—town, county, city, university—it’s all police work. We’re sworn law enforcement officers of the Commonwealth like any other governmental police department in Virginia – same level of training and professionalism. Many of us have a range of prior experience in different areas of law enforcement. That comes with a lot of great power. You have the authority to warn, summons, or arrest, and whatever you choose to do is your choice. Nobody can make that choice for you. So I ask younger officers, did you use your best judgment for the offense that occurred? That reflection makes you a better officer in the future.

What makes policing at a university different than municipal police departments is we have more tools in our toolbox that we can deploy to make sure we’re responding in the best way for the overall interests of the community and public safety. In any serious matter, that involves working closely with other local police and the Commonwealth’s attorney and, if appropriate, pursuing a criminal charge. In other cases, we may be working more with the Student Conduct Office to make sure the set of rules we have here on campus are being upheld. The goal there is to respond in a way that holds students accountable for mistakes but gives them a path to learn and move forward.

When you work at a university, you come to realize quickly that you’re police first and foremost, but you also have to be able to be a mentor or educator or support staff when that’s what’s needed.

You know, we’re out on campus a lot. I tell the officers on shift—get out and walk around, make yourself seen and known to students. We drive around to the off-campus communities a lot, and yes, that’s to monitor for anything going on, but it’s also to be seen by students so they feel safe where they live.

One thing that has significantly changed police work is technology. How has that influenced LUPD?

The most obvious thing is we operate a ton of cameras—almost 500. When I started, we had two or three. Not two or three hundred, literally two or three. Almost everywhere you look now, we have a camera, which is a great help when it comes to investigating situations that are reported. Officers can’t be everywhere at once, and these cameras are an important force multiplier.

One thing I really look forward to is our regular Campus Safety Walks, where students show us where we need to invest resources like lighting and more cameras. That’s a really good thing because it’s an opportunity for a lot of them to see that we have more technological capabilities than they typically know, and for us to understand their concerns better. It makes us better officers.

Between that and body cameras and other tools available to us, we rely on technology every day to do good police work.

As a lieutenant, you’re often the senior officer on scenes. With that comes the job of not just coordinating a response but communicating what’s going on to keep campus safe.

Communication is something that has changed a lot over the years. We went from not saying much about anything to a system where we tell people much more and practice emergency communications each week. I don’t know that we’ll ever be perfect—there’s always something to improve on—but we’ve come a long, long way.

The flip side of all the technology we use is that it—particularly social media—has changed the perception game. When I first started, we had time to tell people what was going on before rumors got out of control. Now, the second anything happens, people start to make assumptions about what’s going on. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it just is what it is. Parents and community members are concerned about safety, and they want to know what’s going on. I get that, and as a parent and grandparent I really do understand it. It’s our job as law enforcement officers to send out accurate information, and sometimes getting an accurate picture of what’s going on isn’t instantaneous.

I think Longwood and Farmville are really safe places overall—I love that my granddaughter is growing up in this area and that’s a big reason. We don’t see a lot of serious crimes in the area—we’re fully prepared to respond when we do—but overall it’s the type of community I think families like to send their children.

What are some of the proudest moments of your time at Longwood so far?

Actually, the proudest moment is a personal one, and that’s learning how to go from 100 miles per hour down to 25 and still get the same results. I came from the military and a prison setting, and when I got here, I still had that same all-or-nothing mindset. It was understanding how and when to act and how to use the different resources I have available to me when I grew into a good police officer.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the position to save two lives at Longwood. Both times, there was a student threatening to harm themselves and it was up to me to talk to them so we could get them help. And both times we got them the help they needed at that moment. It’s a great feeling to be able to make that kind of difference.

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