From intern to deputy chief:Johnson retires

Andy Steinke

He has dug graves at a cemetery, swept floors at a coffee house and hitchhiked his way out West.

Those are distant memories for Deputy Chief Steve Johnson, who has been working his way up the University Police Department’s ladder for the past 29 years.

A timeline of Deputy Chief Steve Johnson’s climb up the UMPD ladder

1976 – Student Intern
1979 – Officer
1992 – Lieutenant
1999 – Interim Chief
1999 – Captain
2004 – Deputy Chief

Today, however, that climb comes to an end, as Johnson retires from the department after his 10,622-day tenure working in the University community.

Life on the force

Johnson, 55, was born and raised in north Minneapolis and came to the University in 1970 after attending Patrick Henry High School.

He worked three part-time jobs at first, but eventually went full time as a head custodian for the University and was able to quit his other jobs.

Johnson’s time at UMPD actually began more than 30 years ago when he was hired as a student intern in 1976.

He kept his job as head custodian while he worked in crime prevention at UMPD with one of the lieutenants. He was hired as an officer three years later on April 2.

For the next 13 years, Johnson patrolled the University’s campuses and got to know a lot of people.

“The vast majority of my memories are working in the University community and getting to know hundreds of people that became really good acquaintances, that I enjoyed working with,” he said.

According to University police Chief Greg Hestness, it’s that great knowledge of the community and organization at the University that will be missed the most when he is gone.

“It’s not just that he can tell you the last five presidents and provosts and general counsels,” Hestness said. “He knows who the janitors and custodians are, when things were built and what the problems were, who you need to contact to get things done, and what problems you can anticipate from year to year.”

In 1992, Johnson’s hard work was recognized and he was promoted to lieutenant, bypassing sergeant in the process. His duties as lieutenant included serving as watch commander and organizing the department’s role in special events on campus.

He remained a lieutenant until 1999, when then-Chief Joy Rikala left the department for a position in Minnetonka.

As chance would have it, a captain in the department had also planned his retirement for the same time as her departure, and Johnson was forced into the role of acting chief because he was the senior of three lieutenants.

“I had no desire to be the chief and be the one in charge,” he said. “But I thought it was a job that needed to be done, and I made the best of the situation.”

When a new chief was hired later that year, Johnson was promoted to captain and became second in command. He was later appointed to deputy chief in March 2004, a month before Hestness took over as chief.

For the past four years he has had many duties, including managing the department, fielding media requests and meeting with community leaders and student groups.

His dark sense of humor and odd jokes, which his wife Cindy calls “Johnson jokes” because they’re “usually stupid,” have been traits that co-workers will remember when Johnson is no longer with the department.

Now, as he cleans out his office, Johnson’s co-workers said the department will have a new personality.

Lt. Troy Buhta, who shares coffee with Johnson every morning, said it will be like having a piece missing from the department when he leaves.

“I look at him as a pillar of our department,” Buhta said. “He came with the place.”

Life outside the department

When Johnson isn’t working, he said he enjoys lifting weights at the gym.

“I’ve always worked out a lot,” he said. “I competed in powerlifting for 20 years.”

Johnson has won numerous weightlifting competitions over the years, and he still displays one trophy in his office that he won for being the best lifter at the USA Powerlifting Police and Fire National Powerlifting Championship in 1987.

As the best pound-for-pound lifter in the competition, Johnson got his picture on the cover of PowerLifting Canada magazine – which can still be found on eBay for $30.

Johnson and several other lifters were also responsible for starting the Minnesota Drug Free Powerlifting Association in the late 1970s when steroids were becoming a big problem in the sport.

When he isn’t working out, Johnson enjoys spending time with Cindy and his two sons, Geoff, 28, and Kiel, 26.

Cindy said she had mixed emotions when Johnson first started at the police department, but said she got used to it and is now ready for him to retire.

“I’m nervous and excited,” she said. “Working 10 to 12 hours a day and then you’re home all day, it’s quite different.”

Johnson, a former Delta blues and country gospel singer, also likes to watch his son Geoff – aka Bona Phide – rap with his band Black Belt Jonezin from time to time.

His other son, Kiel, said he enjoys woodworking and brewing beer and wine with his dad.

Johnson also spends quite a bit of time at his church in Ham Lake, his friend Beth Gerard said.

“There’s a side of Steve that people don’t know,” she said. “He sings in the church choir.”

When he isn’t doing anything else, Johnson likes to entertain guests at his house, serve drinks and barbeque.

Life after retirement

Johnson said woodworking is something he is looking forward to doing more, now that he will have more free time. A kitchen remodel and several projects for friends have already been lined up.

Cindy said she’s looking forward to golfing with her husband but hopes he will also take some time to go fishing.

Johnson said he’d like to take some time to go back to the Boundary Waters to canoe, camp and fish; something he did with his family when his sons were younger.

Over the years, Johnson has gotten e-mails from people who said he has affected the decisions they make. And that, he said, is really rewarding.

“I just hope that I’m leaving the same kind of, I don’t know if I want to call it a legacy or not, but that I’ve helped influence people,” Johnson said, “how they see the job and how it can fit into helping the community.”