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Episode 108: The State of Law Enforcement in Northwest Arkansas with Frank Johnson

Spread the Ozark love

IANWA - Frank Johnson (edited)

IANWA Open [0:11] It's time for another episode of I am Northwest Arkansas, the podcast covering the intersection of business, culture, entrepreneurship and life in general here in the Ozarks. Whether you are considering a move to this area, or trying to learn more about the place you call home, we've got something special for you. Here's our host, Randy Wilburn.

Randy Wilburn [0:42] Hey folks, and welcome to another episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. I'm really excited today. I'm here with Mr. Frank Johnson. Well, let's just put it this way I got connected with Frank like I get connected with a lot of people on this podcast by talking to former guests. And whenever I meet with a former guest, I always say, do you think there's somebody else you know that might be appropriate for this podcast, and I always get a lot of different names. But I had a chance to talk with Bill Schwab from the Prior Center and Bill was kind enough to share with me a couple of names of some people that he thought highly of and one of those names was Frank Johnson. Someone that has been a very close friend of Bill for many, many years. And so, I reached out to Mr. Johnson and actually asked him to do something else for me and he agreed to that. And then I said, let me push my luck and ask him to come on the podcast. So, without further ado, Mr. Frank Johnson, how are you doing today?

Frank Johnson [1:37] I’m doing well. Thank you so much for the invitation.

Randy Wilburn [1:41] So, I would love for you, as most people that listen to I am Northwest Arkansas know, one of the things I like to do is establish who I'm speaking to. And I would love for you to give the cliff note version of your superhero origin story and what makes you special? When you think of that question, though it's a tricky question because we're all special, but what makes Frank Johnson special?

Frank Johnson [2:04] Well, let's see, I think I will just tell the truth instead of letting a law linger. My mother would probably say differently, but I'm just another dude on a corner with a guitar just trying to make the best of things. And God has been good to me, he's put me in positions to do my best. So, I wouldn't say anything necessarily special, perhaps just having the opportunity to be in law enforcement in Fayetteville for as long as I did, and make so many friends like Dr. Schwab who continues to be a mentor for me. That whole sociology department back then are still close friends of mine. And a lot of what I was able to do, the accomplishments I had in law enforcement, I would credit to them for their mentorship.

Randy Wilburn [3:00] So, as you're saying you have been involved in law enforcement since ’79 or even earlier than that?

Frank Johnson [3:09] No. You don't have to go any earlier. I’m a relic but not that old. I started at the Federal Police Department as a police officer. I had a job as a dispatcher there real early and that was just really overwhelming. I knew I didn't have what it took to do that job and I was really drawn to what the patrol officers were doing. I was studying Sociology in college at the time, and there's a parallel there. And so, I took the Civil Service exam and scored high enough to be considered and started at Fayetteville PD in 1981- May I believe.

Randy Wilburn [3:56] And what was that like? I talked to a lot of people that are from this area and they say that this area has changed drastically in the last 10 or 15 years. That was a long time ago, not that long. You're not a relic, but it was a long time ago. I would assume that you've seen some major changes in this area, especially in Fayetteville?

Frank Johnson [4:19] I have, perhaps not at its core. I think at its core, the community has a culture that is very unique. But with the growth in generational changes, there are going to be some changes. I believe Fayetteville could still be a culturally diverse community that is very welcoming and has a city government for the most part that operates as efficiently as they can, and seems to be doing a pretty good job offering citizens a number of amenities that you don't see in other communities.

Randy Wilburn [4:56] Oh, absolutely. I feel very strongly about that because I'm excited about what Fayetteville has to offer. I just took my wife and kids through the new extension at the Fayetteville Public Library this weekend and that's just one example of what makes Fayetteville unique. And I mean, organizations like Experience Fayetteville and of course, the Fayetteville Government itself, do a great job of extolling the virtues of this area. It's one jewel in the crown, that is Northwest Arkansas and the other jewels being Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville; they each have their own special place. I want to ask you, though, because it would be remiss. I'm doing the math here, 1981, were there any other black police officers in Fayetteville at that time?

Frank Johnson [5:42] Yes, you're pretty good at math, right? There was a Fayetteville guy by the name of Louis Brian, and I should probably know a lot more about his story at the Fayetteville Police Department. And there was another guy, I can't remember his name offhand but Louis went on to State Police and that's a whole different story there. And like I said, I can't remember the other guy, but I'm not sure that I was necessarily the first, but I was definitely the first that stayed there for the length of time where I was promoted through the ranks and became Chief?

Randy Wilburn [6:24] What year did you become Chief?

Frank Johnson [06:27] 2004.

Randy Wilburn [6:29] And at that time, though, were you and I don't know if this is correct but somebody said you were the first black police chief in the State of Arkansas.

Frank Johnson [6:39] I'm not sure about that. It seems like I would have known that. That stuff didn’t stay on my radar too long anyway. I would have known that. I don't think so. There was a fellow in Little Rock, he was there for a while, but I'm not sure if he predated me, but I doubt it. Even today that doesn't matter anyway.

Randy Wilburn [7:03] Well, to be honest with you, I think it does to some, because people always like first, right. I've actually talked about my grandfather being the first African American newscast with ABC News, the network, which was a big deal back in 1962.

Frank Johnson [7:19] That is a big deal.

[cross-talking]

Randy Wilburn [7:29] Listen, but you know, it's funny and as we're recording this, it's February 1st, and it's the one month that's given to black history, right? I mean, of course, now, black history has become a catchphrase throughout the year. My grandfather always taught me to respect those achievements and accomplishments, because they're constantly happening, even if we don't realize it. When I heard your story, I was like, wow, whether it's true or not, you are still probably one of the first few black police chiefs in a predominantly white State so I think there is something to be said for that. And again, it's not so much you did that and nobody else could do it; there are other opportunities, and I’m sure there are other black police chiefs now, but you obviously were able to blaze a trail in that way and create opportunities for other people. And I think that's more what I'm relying on than anything else because that's what my grandfather did as the first newscaster so that's the only reason why I brought that up. Did you have a lot of interactions with some of the young people coming to this area that was coming to school at the U of A where they saw a black police officer or a black police chief and were able to talk with you and maybe learn a little bit about the area?

Frank Johnson [8:47] Occasionally, I would say that, in retrospect, I wasn't as aggressive in that type of networking as I perhaps should have been. But there would be times where I would have occasion to know some new African American couples, either because they had kids going to high school or something like that. And it wasn't always in an enforcement type of role or if they had a complaint about the police department or anything like that. Sometimes it was just because they wanted to meet me and those times were always refreshing. I just never organized any of that. I should have been more intentional about it, in retrospect. Tim Franklin who is a lieutenant now at the Fayetteville Police Department, he does that. He's what I wish I would have been during the time that I was there. He's well connected in the community and does a lot of work.

Randy Wilburn [9:44] I get it. You have work to do and there is a job when you're trying to keep the public safe on a regular basis. I think my experience here has been, not that I've had a bunch of run-ins with the law if you will. I'm using air quotes here, but I've never had any problems here and I've actually enjoyed meeting the police officers that I've got a chance to know and connect with. Honestly, it just can't always be said by a lot of African American men, and I’m just being real here. And, of course, I've given my kids the talk and a lot of people will ask what that is. And shows like Blackish have made that discussion famous about what that means to have the talk with your young man, because you don't want them to have an interaction. I grew up in a very diverse town in Teaneck, New Jersey, and my grandfather was at almost every City Council meeting, so everybody knew him. And they also knew who his grandkid was so I didn't get a lot of blowbacks but I also wasn't running around like a chicken with my head cut off either. There's something to be said about going out and trying to build and establish relationships. When we moved here, one of the first things that we did the first Christmas we were here- my wife is an amazing baker and she makes amazing chocolate chip cookies. We went to the local fire station near us because we live down on the Southside of town by the golf course. And I remember us going up to the police station with my three boys because she wanted to introduce them to everybody and she brought cookies at Christmas. And that went over really well. And I think we did that a couple of years in a row. Sometimes, like you said the word earlier, intentional, you almost have to create those opportunities to make connections, right? Because otherwise, you're really never going to run into a cop unless you get in trouble, or you know one as you grow up or as you’re out in the community. But I have several neighbors that are police officers for the Fayetteville Police Department, and I've made it a point to introduce myself to them and get to know them. I think it's those little things that we can do to make those connections that are really important. And I think a lot of police officers actually appreciate it.

Frank Johnson [11:54] I would agree 100 percent. I got a bias, it’s my old police department, but at the same time, you could go to them and say, what is it like working for Frank and if you're a taxpayer, it will be really good. If you work smartly, it would be like, what a hard ass. Anyway, the one thing that I always knew about those guys, and it's even better now, and it's exemplified with Chief Reynolds, is that they are very personable. These are guys who are raising their own families, their kids are going to the same schools as yours are, they go shopping at the same stores, they go to the same parks, and they truly have an interest in the safety of security for every citizen that’s there regardless of ethnicity, or any of that. In the end, if you really get to know them, it's even better because this is a true public servant. You can look at him, you can say, oh, he's fed, he's in shape, he looks good in his uniform, he takes good care of himself, and if things get ugly, he can handle that. But at the same time, that doesn't define who he is. He's the person who's going to talk to you and that's going to be most of Fayetteville cops. For the ones who aren't like that, Chief Reynolds has a system in place that's nationally recognized that occasionally you get those personalities that can’t deal with the job. They can’t see you without being scared to death and they get weeded out. A lot of them don't get hired, and then those who may slip through are weeded out.

Randy Wilburn [13:39] You bring up a good point. Of course, law enforcement is under a microscope right now with everything that's been going on. I think there has been a challenge there and I think we know like with anything, there's always going to be good and bad in every organization. And like you said, some of those work to get weeded out. I would just say, what are your thoughts just in general, about the state of law enforcement in this country? And, do you think that some of the recommendations that have been made, and again, I don't get political on this podcast, so I don't go with one side or the other. But I mean, just general recommendations that have been made about getting more people that are really strong in the area of social work involved with community policing, and things of that nature. Do you think that there could be some changes that could come about that would really wholesale make a police officer’s job much easier?

Frank Johnson [14:30] Yes, I do. I don't believe it’s necessarily making the police officers’ job easier. Law enforcement, at its cultural core, it's being reimagined and, if you will, and how offers and services are delivered in the most pragmatic police departments and Fayetteville happens to be one of them. And, not to get too far in the weeds, I think your listeners would be interested in knowing that as an example, there is something occurring in law enforcement now demanding a framework around evidence-based policing, where law enforcement strategies are being formulated based on sound empirically-based academic input. In many ways, that's a first for police departments and that mindset, that way of working is being weaved into community engagement strategies so you're partnering with key stakeholders in the community who want efficient public safety services. They want their children to feel safe in schools and parks and just out in public and if something goes bad, they want someone competent to investigate crime. And most citizens are so far removed from that the only time they get close to it is if they become a victim, or in the case of George Floyd, the most horrific murder that everyone saw on TV. And, that could be like, is that how my department is? Is that how Fayetteville Police Department is? Well, the answer to that is no. But it just can't be a simple no, we're not like that. It has to be we are not like that. Historically, this is the reason why and for the future this is how we improve on what we are now. And you are part of how we improve and bring the community into building with the strategies for public safety for the community. It is a great alignment to have and it’s evidence-based. It works. It’s something that Fayetteville is doing.

Randy Wilburn [16:41] I've heard that over and over again. And obviously, there have been studies done in other large police departments around the country where they are moving towards this, and they're having a lot of success. And so, I think the time has come. It's unfortunate that a lot of it was born out of some really tragic events or challenging events. I always say better late than never. And so, we are aware of things, we are aware of situations that need to be corrected or changed and people are working towards that, and it takes time to see the fruits of your labor.

Frank Johnson [17:17] I agree, and I think I have been fortunate enough to continue to provide some training to both Washington County Sheriff's Department and the Fayetteville Police Department. The Washington County Sheriff's Department is with Sheriff Helder, Tim Helder. We were both young men working together at Fayetteville Police Department. I know him and I know that he is a man of the highest integrity, and his expectations for how officers and deputies comport themselves with ethical standards of conduct. The same thing with Chief Reynolds. He was one of my students when I was an adjunct professor at the UofA Criminal Justice. So, I've known these guys. For them to have the tools that they need to fuel community engagement to improve the police department is really significant. But the calculus of that requires key stakeholders in the community to understand what the police department is. So, when they see George Floyd, Tamir Rice, the list goes on, just horrific cases. They can't look at Fayetteville through those lenses. The fact of the matter is people do. Mike and Tim are, without being defensive, fully transparent, and prepared for their departments to be accountable. But how you communicate that to citizens on the front end of nurturing that relationship is somewhat of a challenge. I like working with them on that, but the fact of the matter is, those are senior leaders, department heads in government, and the times we live in they are receptive to models of policing that a lot of jurisdictions really struggle with. They are very pragmatic.

Randy Wilburn [19:10] I don't know, Chief Reynolds. I know people that know him and speak very highly of him as you do. I do know Sheriff Helder very well. He goes to my church, and he is a member of my rotary group. I look at him as a very upstanding individual and a good sheriff. I know he got invited to come to visit the Washington County Correctional Facility, and I was really impressed. I got a chance to spend time with several of his deputies, and they gave us a tour. I mean, it's obviously a place I don't really ever want to go, but I actually took the tour and I took my kids. Actually, we took several kids on the tour just to see it because I think it's important. I am 51 so I was one of those kids, and, because it was filmed at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey I saw scared straight in school, and it scared the hell out of me. No pun intended. And so, I was like, I'm never going to set foot in prison or go to jail for any reason. And that worked. It worked for me. But I thought it was important for my kids to see that real human beings run this place and also just to understand some of the challenges that a lot of people face that cause them to end up there. Sometimes we don't ever talk about it, right. It's like a dirty little secret. It's like, oh, it's in the back there. I think it's important to have those conversations early and often. And I've done it as an African American male, I've spent a lot of time talking with my kids about it and understanding it. I think regardless of race, everybody should be talking to their kids, and having an understanding of what that entails, and what jail is all about, and all this other stuff. Because, it's not like a video game where you get out of jail free, it doesn't work that way. You need to understand that the people that work there have a job to do. And certainly, we need to be giving them as much respect as we can in the process.

Frank Johnson [21:06] Absolutely.

Randy Wilburn [21:07] This has really been educational. I'm sure we could talk at length ad nauseam about this. There are other directions, I would typically go on a podcast episode but I think you shared quite a bit. I know that that you are no longer in law enforcement, per se but you are still involved, which sounds really good. But what are your hopes for the future of law enforcement, as we see it today and where you see it in the next five to ten years? There's clearly going to be some changes that are going to take place? What would you hope to see happen?

Frank Johnson [21:43] When we were actually meeting in person to train on 21st Century Policing concepts, which is a framework for policing that was developed by the Obama Administration in 2014, it has some of the best minds in the country, working within communities across the country to find best practices that culminated in an Executive Summary to the President, and built out the framework for modern policing that I think is going to be really good for the time that we are in now. And the time that we are in now, this is what I told the folks when we were meeting in person on 21st Century Policing is that you are a cop now in the middle of a civil rights movement. And take a look back in your history, and you will see that we were operating from our paces of immorality, more than anything else. And the role that we took in policing the civil rights movement, and policing institutional racism, we have always been that thin veneer between us and them. We can no longer afford to ride the winds of our historical past. We are policing a new civil rights movement and you guys are here and you have to get it right. You have no choice. You have to get this right. And getting it right means being engaged with the community. Because you know things are going to happen. There will be a white cop that shoots an unarmed African American man, and you just can't go put all your riot gear on and {inaudible} press statements ready. That kind of stuff doesn't happen in Fayetteville. You have the community engagement, the trust, transparency, and the fact that citizens know that there's accountability with the police department, that's where establishing those relationships in the next few years is going to be critical as we police this new civil rights movement.

Randy Wilburn [23:57] I think so. And hopefully, that trickles North so it goes from Fayetteville up through Springdale and Rogers, and that's not a knock on any of those other police departments. It’s just that it has to start somewhere and everybody's got to buy into this idea that we got to do things the right way. And so, we might as well do that and bring as many people to the table as possible so not only are we ensured that our efforts aren't going to be in vain, but also to let the public know that we are with them 100 percent and we want them to be with us.

Frank Johnson [24:31] Well said.

Randy Wilburn [24:34] As someone that has been here for a very long time, what would you say to somebody considering moving here to Northwest Arkansas, regardless of race or anything like that? Just in general? What would you say to them about this area?

Frank Johnson [24:56] It's beautiful. I grew up in a little town just south of Chicago. If you look at it in Wikipedia, the first few lines start at known for gangs, violence. It's worlds apart from anything that I ever experienced. Just drive around, everything's new. And then when you look at city government, whether you like it or not, it's very diverse in its minions. You got a mayor who is so approachable and the same thing with your police chief and the government is efficient and transparent. It's beautiful. Sometimes people drive too damn fast so watch out for that.

Randy Wilburn [25:49] Those open roads and those transplants that are used to driving fast in other places.

Frank Johnson [25:55] Don't forget it's a college town. And college kids can be a real pain sometimes, but you got to love them because they make it what it is.

Randy Wilburn [26:01] And they are an economic driver of the community as well. They bring all their daddy and mother's money up from Dallas and spend it and it's all good.

Frank Johnson [26:17] I would just say come to participate, get involved, do what you can to help us keep it clean. The schools are great. I don’t know if you know, Dr. Colbert. I put him right there at the top of my list of some of the types of leaders we have in this town.

Randy Wilburn [26:45] And for those that don't know, Dr. Colbert is the Superintendent of the Fayetteville public school system. He’s really an all-around great guy. I know him personally. You're absolutely right, he's just a really good person. Last question. Where do you like to eat when you're hungry and you're not eating at home?

Frank Johnson [27:07] You mean my favorite place? Oh, that's easy. Sitting at the bar at Hugo’s, having fries and a Blue Moon burger. I haven't been there a long time. Those kids work so hard. That's my place. I can’t wait to go back.

Randy Wilburn [27:31] I feel the same way. Those fries are amazing and I miss them. They come out so perfectly crisp right out of the fryer. So, I will put a link into Hugo's in the Show Notes for this episode. So, Mr. Johnson, I really appreciate you taking the time to connect with me and to share your story with our audience. If anybody wanted to reach out or connect with you in any way, is there any way for them to do that? What would be the best way?

Frank Johnson [27:58] Just send me an email, frank.johnson@walmart.com for as long as I'm there. Of course, if you want to reach out to me, that would be fine.

Randy Wilburn [28:19] I appreciate that. And the listeners certainly do appreciate that. And we will be sure to put all this stuff in the Show Notes so folks know how to connect with you. Frank Johnson, thank you so much for joining us on I am Northwest Arkansas and you really made this conversation a joy to hear so I can't wait to share it with the rest of the world. Thank you so much.

Frank Johnson [28:38] Thank you, sir.

Randy Wilburn [28:39] Well, folks, that's another episode of the I am Northwest Arkansas podcast. To learn more about us or to read or download the Show Notes from today's episode visit, iamnorthwestarkansas.com. You can listen to this podcast and sign up for our free newsletter to keep up with us and all things NWA. Sign up today. You can also subscribe to the I am Northwest Arkansas podcast wherever you listen to it. And please consider rating and reviewing us on Apple podcasts. Our podcast comes out every Monday. I'm your host Randy Wilburn and we will see you back here next week for a new episode of The I Am Northwest Arkansas podcast. Peace.

IANWA Open [29:23] We hope you enjoyed this episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. Check us out each and every week available anywhere that great podcast can be found. For Show Notes or more information on becoming a guest, visit iamnorthwestarkansas.com. We will see you next week on I am Northwest Arkansas.


About the Show: 


We recently sat down with Frank Johnson, former Police Chief of Fayetteville. Chief Johnson has been in Northwest Arkansas for more than four decades now and is a well-known figure in the community. Frank was also the first African American Police Chief in Northwest Arkansas and maybe one of the first in the State of Arkansas* (although we could not verify that at the time of publication.)

We had a far-ranging conversation from what Community policing should be to the killing of George Floyd.  Chief Johnson also shared with us what it was like being one of the only minority patrolmen on the police force back in the early ’80s. He served in the Fayetteville Police Department alongside current Washington County Sherrif, Tim Helder.  In addition, Chief Johnson also taught classes at the University of Arkansas where one of his students was current Fayetteville Police Chief, Mike Reynolds. 

Chief Johnson shared his thoughts on what makes Northwest Arkansas a special place and was candid about the diversity in the area. All of this and more on this podcast episode. 

Important Links and Mentions on the Show*:

This episode is sponsored by*:

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