OCEANSIDE — An Oceanside woman is being recognized later this month for more than 20 years of service with the San Diego Police Department.
Detective Sarah Johnson, along with two other women, will be honored at the 10th annual Women in Blue luncheon on March 19.
Johnson first arrived in San Diego County about 20 years ago when her husband was transferred to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Johnson grew up and started her law enforcement career in Louisiana.
Johnson originally became interested in law enforcement during the investigation of her brother’s murder when she was still a teenager.
“In the process of finding the suspect and him getting convicted I was able to see how the police did their job and how the DA stayed in contact with us,” Johnson said.
What intrigued her about the case was how domestic violence can affect not just the family, but the entire community as well.
Johnson grew up in a small community where everyone knew everybody, so her brother’s murder affected more than just her immediate household.
It also made her want to help change laws regarding domestic violence.
“The suspect only got five years,” Johnson said. “It was premeditated.”
Later on, Johnson attended the Shreveport Police Academy in Louisiana, where she was hired by the department as a corrections deputy. There, she began working in jails to learn how to communicate with inmates suspected of crimes before she began learning how to speak with everyday citizens.
A few years later, Johnson was hired at the Bossier City Police Department in Louisiana where she began patrolling as an officer.
At the time, the police department was dealing with a lot of discrimination complaints from citizens. The community was also dealing with the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, which would hold loud monthly meetings near town.
“The rule within the African American community was when the lights when on, you get in your house,” said Johnson, who is African American.
To curb the discrimination complaints, the department began sending officers of the same race into predominantly white or black communities.
“Anytime a call came from the African American community, a black officer would go with a white officer,” Johnson said. “Same with us — if we went into a predominantly white community, we had a white officer to cut out complaints.”
This was also during a time when law enforcement officers weren’t equipped with body cameras. Police had tape recorders but that often wasn’t enough evidence, Johnson said.
Johnson explained that when she was on the police force in Louisiana, there was only “black and white” and no one from either community ever mixed. When she first came to California to visit her husband, she was blown away by how many mixed couples and different races she saw.
“It blew my mind, the diversity,” she said.
So, she decided to apply for a police officer position with the San Diego Police Department, and she has been with the department ever since.
While going through the hiring process with the SDPD, Johnson immediately felt she was treated like family.
“They didn’t see me as an African American female, they saw me as part of the police family,” she said.
Johnson’s first assignment with SDPD was related to domestic violence. She stayed on these types of cases for three years and learned about the cycle of domestic abuse between victims and their abusive partners.
She recalled one family with multiple domestic violence cases and other calls that stuck out to her. Once police were finally able to get the woman and her children out of the family home, it broke the cycle of abuse, allowing the victims to receive the help they needed.
“It made me feel good to know that we have those different organizations in San Diego that will really help people if only they accept the help,” Johnson said. “We knew in her case she needed the help.”
When her brother was killed, Johnson decided she was going to help make a difference regarding domestic violence cases.
“It’s a passion of mine,” she said.
Johnson also worked in narcotics, homicide relief, and area-command investigations. She is currently working in backgrounds for new applicants.
“This is where I got the opportunity to give other applicants the same reward that I’ve had for over 20 years,” Johnson said. “Every graduation I cry when I see my applicants go across that stage and get their badge.”
Sara Napoli, president of the San Diego Police Foundation, which hosts the Women in Blue Luncheon, noted Johnson’s mindfulness about giving other people “the opportunity to protect and serve.”
“She takes special pride in her work in backgrounds, which is the entry point to becoming a police officer,” Napoli said.
Napoli said Johnson is a remarkable woman.
“At first contact, (Johnson) evidences such inner strength, but also radiates warmth and sweetness through her smile,” Napoli said. “She has a compassion that’s very evident toward her fellow human beings and expresses that in her police work.”
According to Napoli, the Women in Blue luncheon is about leadership, diversity and inspiring the community, particularly young people to pursue their goals.
“This leader is exemplary of exactly that aspiration in life,” Napoli said about Johnson.
Johnson said she is thankful for the work that the foundation has done, particularly regarding women in law enforcement.
“It takes a village to do this job,” Johnson said. “It takes everybody working together and the San Diego Police Foundation is one part of that pie that helps us to continue to do what we’re doing.”
Johnson is about a year away from retirement, after which she plans on moving back to the East Coast to be closer to her grandchildren.
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son