Culture & the Family , Good Government
Mike Brake | December 9, 2020
There’s a new sheriff in town
Absent a then-untimely rotator cuff injury, Oklahoma County’s new sheriff might otherwise have been playing center field for the Texas Rangers.
“I was going to be drafted,” Tommie Johnson III said, recalling his stardom on the U. S. Grant High School baseball team, and later at Eastern Oklahoma State Junior College. Even after his injury derailed a hopeful career in professional baseball, Johnson completed a degree at East Central State University in Ada in exercise management, with a goal of becoming a strength and conditioning coach.
“I never wanted to be a cop,” he recalled. “It was the last thing on my mind. Where I grew up the police were people who tried to get everyone in trouble.”
Johnson’s parents—dad Tommie Jr., a meatcutter, and mom Patricia Ann, a banker—had always encouraged him to seek his own path in life, and that even applied to his choice of political beliefs. Johnson married in college and was pondering his career path when wife Amanda said “sweetheart, we’re pregnant.”
“I knew the life of an athletic coach was very dynamic,” he said. “You’re kind of at the mercy of the head coach. I knew a friend who was an officer in the Oklahoma City Police Department and he invited me to go for a ride-along. We didn’t do anything dramatic but I saw what he did in the community. I thought, this is for me.”
In 2012 he applied for patrol positions at a number of central Oklahoma police agencies and was hired first at the University of Oklahoma campus police agency.
“I fell in love with the job,” he said. Wanting more responsibility and a wider variety of work situations—what police officers refer to as “hot calls”—he moved over to the Norman Police Department in 2015.
Johnson will leave that agency to become the sheriff of Oklahoma’s most populous county in January, having attained the rank of master officer and wearing a lifesaving award for his swift action that saved a heroin overdose victim.
“I wanted to be in a position to fight for law enforcement,” Johnson said of his decision to run for sheriff. “We had the experience in Norman of having the police department partially defunded. I love my profession and I wanted to be in a place where I could have a greater impact on it.”
But that transition was not an easy one. Johnson would face a veteran incumbent sheriff, P. D. Taylor, a third Republican hopeful, and a Democrat in the primary, runoff, and general elections. He ran second in the primary, holding frontrunner Taylor to 48 percent of the vote, then caught him and captured the Republican nomination with a 60 percent upset majority. In the general election in November, he defeated the Democrat, an Oklahoma City police supervisor with more than 20 years of experience.
Why was a young black man from south Oklahoma City running for office as a Republican?
“My folks always encouraged me to be a freethinker,” he said. “What you see as a police officer on the street gives you a unique view of life. I soon saw that my ideology put me more in line with the conservative party.”
That led Johnson to his first contact with OCPA as a member of the first J. Rufus Fears Fellowship class.
“I was looking to get in the political arena,” he said, noting that he initially thought of seeking a state legislative seat. “I needed more knowledge to be able to strengthen my conservative values.”
The Fears Fellowship provided that.
“This [Fears Fellowship] program was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of.” —Tommie Johnson III
“You need to understand the founding principles, and that is what the Fears Fellowship did. We studied the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Federalist Papers and I thought, how do I become like that? This program was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Johnson said his ultimate decision to run for sheriff allowed him to stay in law enforcement—“the best of both worlds,” he said.
He said he consulted wife Amanda and considered his two sons, Tommie IV and Kyson Lee, before making the decision. “She knows she married a very driven person,” he joked of Amanda’s acceptance of the campaign.
How will Johnson approach his new role as head of a major law enforcement agency?
“We have to change the culture,” he said, noting the need for more law enforcement patrol activities in the unincorporated areas of Oklahoma County where the sheriff and his deputies have primary jurisdiction. Expect more outreach and civic involvement as well, he said, along with a published simple budget every taxpayer can understand.
Johnson said he is not supportive of the radical goals of the Black Lives Matter pressure group, especially calls to defund local law enforcement agencies. He said law enforcement critics often have little understanding of “what we do and why we do it.” One answer to that, he promised, was frequent town hall meetings where he will take questions from citizens.
In addition, the recent creation of a jail trust to remove the operation of the county jail from the sheriff’s responsibilities frees up more funds and manpower for the primary law enforcement function.
That function will also see Sheriff Johnson getting out from behind his desk and hitting the streets with his deputies, in uniform and answering calls for help from citizens, Johnson said.
“I am still a cop,” he grinned.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.