Don Johnson's tenure at Lake Oswego Police Department based on relationships
"It's all about recognizing good ideas."
That's how Don Johnson sums up his seven years as chief of the Lake Oswego Police Department. He retires from that role on July 1, turning over the reins to Chief Dale Jorgensen, who was officially sworn in last week.
During his tenure as head of the LOPD, Johnson became well known not only for the strong public reputation of the department, but also because of his role in spearheading a series of initiatives aimed at increasing the ability of both the police and the public to rapidly and effectively respond to emergencies.
Today, every police car in Lake Oswego — and every police car in Clackamas County — is equipped with an Automated Emergency Defibrillator (AUD) unit. Officers carry injectors with naloxone, an anti-opioid drug that can be used to save a person from a life-threatening overdose. Hundreds of residents have been taught hands-only CPR.
An expert is now on call at all times to assist officers in Clackamas County if they encounter a person in the midst of a mental health crisis. And when officers respond to domestic violence calls, they can help survivors apply for emergency protective orders that take effect immediately.
All of those changes took place on Johnson's watch, and he was involved to varying degrees in implementing each of them. But he's quick to point out that he had help from numerous partners in the city, county and state Legislature, and that he didn't invent most of the ideas himself.
"If I pride myself on anything," he says, "it's recognizing others' good ideas and then giving them the ability to implement them."
Johnson has consistently sought to expand the duties and abilities of police beyond what might be considered the traditional limits of the role, and he says his view of policing was heavily influenced by his first few years in law enforcement.
He began his career as a public safety officer in Sunnyvale, Ca., in 1980. The city has a joint police and fire department, which Johnson says gave him a very expansive view of the role of first responders right from the beginning.
Sunnyvale police officers would often arrive at emergency scenes before firefighters, he says, which eventually prompted the department to install AEDs in every police car during the 1990s. Years later, Johnson pushed to install AEDs in every Lake Oswego police car for the same reason.
After his first few years in Sunnyvale, Johnson says he began to understand another feature of police work that would go on to become a major part of his leadership philosophy: the value of relationships, both within the community and with other government agencies.
The term "community policing" had yet to become common, he says, but that's essentially what it was. Johnson watched as crime rates dropped substantially during the 1990s, and he credits the reduction in part to a change in police culture nationwide as community policing became the norm.
After 20 years in Sunnyvale — a period in which he was promoted to lieutenant and captain — Johnson became the police chief of nearby Los Altos in 2000. He returned to the Sunnyvale department in 2005 and served there for another six years, this time as its chief.
In 2011, Johnson moved to Oregon and became chief of the LOPD. By that time, he says, his commitment to community policing was already long-established. But he didn't fully appreciate the "No Call Too Small" philosophy, he says, until he began working in Lake Oswego.
Life in Lake Oswego
Sunnyvale is nearly four times the size of Lake Oswego, and Johnson says he initially expected to not have access to as many law-enforcement tools in the smaller city. But he says he was surprised and pleased to find the LOPD well-equipped and well-supported, not only in terms of technology and resources but also because of the comprehensive training that all Oregon police officers receive, particularly the emphasis on de-escalation and finding less-intrusive ways to resolve situations.
"Oregon really does it right with law-enforcement training, I think," he says.
He also credits Lake Oswego's officers and staff for their commitment to getting the job done and their willingness to see the value in always trying to find new ways to engage with the community.
Looking back at his time in Lake Oswego, he says the days that stand out most are the ones where situations required all hands on deck, especially major crime events and big winter storms that kept officers busy in every corner of the city.
Those moments are a challenge, he says, but they also allow officers to enjoy hard-earned success.
"The days where nothing is cooperating with you, those things that test the mettle of the department, are also the things that can boost morale," he says.
But not every big day is an emergency. Lake Oswego is also home to a number of wildly popular city events, and Johnson says the department's officers also enjoy working as part of the community during events like the Fourth of July parade that show off the city's enormous heart.
"Most people don't have to shut down roads so you can bring 15,000 people in to watch a parade," he says.
Johnson says he spent most of his first year in Lake Oswego learning the ropes and settling into the role, but he eventually began to look for ways to draw on his previous experience and replicate some of the programs that he'd seen succeed in California.
The first big change was expanding the number of AED-equipped squad cars from just a handful to the entire fleet, which occured in 2012. Johnson had also been involved in domestic violence prevention efforts in California, and he began pushing for Oregon to have its own emergency protective order law.
He also worked to equip officers with naloxone injectors, again drawing on his prior experience in Sunnyvale. And throughout his entire tenure at the LOPD, Johnson made it a point to never say no to a request for a hands-only CPR class anywhere in Clackamas County.
In each case, Johnson credits the successful rollout of the programs to the work of partners in other state agencies, such as Clackamas Fire District 1, the county's Health, Housing and Human Services office and State Rep. Julie Parrish, who co-sponsored the bill to create the emergency protective order law in 2015.
"We've been able to do a lot just based on relationships," Johnson says.
There were also small-scale changes. The department began using a technology called electronic site writing, based on a suggestion from Sgt. Clayton Simon, and added barcodes to all evidence after Evidence Officer Wendy Svaren recommended that practice.
There have also been numerous instances in which Johnson has worked to secure grants to fund officer training sessions or public outreach campaigns for topics like distracted driving, cyberbullying and de-escalation.
Earlier this year, Johnson helped organize a trip for several officers, school officials and city staff to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He had previously attended workshops there and saw the trip as a great way to educate public officials about equity, diversity and unconscious biases.
That's one of the most important areas of training for police departments today, he says, and it's a constant process — officials need to be careful to not make the mistake of thinking the work is done.
"With the national tenor right now, we really have to focus on fairness, equity and diversity," he says. "The police department has to be the stake in the ground that doesn't waver from that."
Looking to the future
As Johnson prepares for the final few days in his office at City Hall, he says he's not entirely sure what's next for him — but he's got some ideas. He and his wife Denise are planning to take the opportunity to travel more often, and Johnson says he also wants to find new ways to spend time volunteering.
In particular, he says he plans to keep finding ways to use what he's learned throughout his career to make a difference in the community, and to keep recognizing good ideas and giving people the support to see them through.
Johnson describes himself as "a bit naive" back when he started as a police officer at age 21, but also hopeful — and he says his experience across three different police departments has been consistently positive and allowed him to hold on to that hope, and to be confident that he'll always be able to have an impact.
"It's pretty neat to come in with a lot of hope of making change, and be heading out the door still with that hope," he says.