04/26/2006

Santa Fe welcomes new police chief at ceremony

Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal

By JEREMY PAWLOSKI
Albuquerque Journal

When Eric Johnson started out as a Santa Fe police officer at age 19, he was too young to purchase ammunition for his own firearm, according to city attorney Angela "Spence" Pacheco.

On Monday afternoon, 20 years after joining the department, Johnson, 39, was all smiles as friends, family and fellow officers watched him get appointed chief by new Santa Fe Mayor David Coss.

Johnson said he's learned a lot about himself as he rose through the ranks after the department from joining at such a young age.

"I promise I'm going to do a good job for everybody and for the community," Johnson said.

Johnson had his father, Arthur Johnson, pin the chief's badge on his chest during the ceremony at Santa Fe Police headquarters off Camino Entrada.

Coss said that during the interview process in appointing a new chief, he was impressed with Johnson's responses to questions about how he would involve community groups with the department and recruit new officers.

"I think he is going to be an excellent police chief for Santa Fe," Coss said.

Coss said he also realized that, as he got to know Johnson better during the interviews, they share a similar manner - "we're both kind of quiet and soft spoken."

Coss said he felt it was important to hire a chief "who was a police officer as well as a manager," and Johnson, who has worked as everything from a beat cop in Santa Fe to head of the violent crimes unit, certainly fits that bill.

Retired Santa Fe Police Lt. Paul Lennen said that when Johnson worked under him as a rookie officer, Johnson was kind of quiet and shy, but he was always calm, no matter what problem confronted him.

"It's really hard to get him upset," Lennen said of Johnson, adding that Johnson has "a long fuse" and that "he'll need it," as chief.

When asked about the challenges the department faces as he takes over as chief, Johnson said, "It's not a big secret that we're short staffed right now." He said he plans on stepping up recruitment efforts to fill the 18 vacant positions in the department.

In the past month, officers have had to step up and work long hours, starting with the Concentra medical clinic tragedy, in which a truck crashed into the clinic and killed three people, and continuing with two homicides and two additional non-fatal shootings, Johnson said.

Filling vacancies would be an important step in relieving stress on officers who have had to work lots of overtime during the recent "trying times," Johnson said. Johnson said he recently joked with an employee at the city's finance department that she might have a heart attack when she sees all the overtime the officers have been working.

Johnson's family, including his parents, wife and children, were present at Monday's ceremony. Four brothers, including Santa Fe Police Lt. Gary Johnson and Santa Fe County Sheriff's Sgt. Kenneth Johnson, also were there.

Included among those in attendance that Johnson thanked Monday are retired Santa Fe Police Chief Beverly Lennen and Raye Byford, who recently served as interim chief after Lennen retired. Johnson said Byford is "a very strong leader" who has always been a mentor of his.

Byford said he supports his friend Johnson as chief, just as Johnson supported him when he was named interim chief.

Fellow officers in attendance Monday praised Johnson as likable, approachable and fair.

"I think he'll be an excellent chief," said Detective Matthew Martinez, one of the younger detectives on the force. "He rose through the ranks, and he's a police officer's police officer. He's what we all strive to be."

Coss could not be reached for comment Monday night to explain what Johnson's salary will be as new chief.

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