On the Brink: School officer changes minds in York City


Little girls squealed as if the latest boy band had arrived to perform an impromptu concert at their school.

Boys lined up in the hallways to snag a high five or a handshake. Entire classrooms of children rushed to the door and pressed themselves against the glass windows to catch a glimpse.

Teachers and administrators greeted him with hugs and compliments on the uniform (which apparently makes him look taller).

Officer Quinn Johnson had returned to Davis K-8.

In this York City school on this day, Johnson walked the same halls he'd walked hundreds of times before. But, this time, he wore a uniform and carried a Taser on his hip.

Overwhelmingly, students at Davis were thrilled to see Johnson — who'd spent three years as a hall monitor at the school before transitioning to the role of school police officer assigned mostly to William Penn Senior High School a few months ago.

But sprinkled throughout the interactions were hints of the tensions between urban communities and the police that have become a flash point in the national conversation this past year.

One little girl smiled at Johnson, then said, "I'm scared of you." A boy warned his friends to steer clear: "He'll shoot you." Another boy asked, "Why are you a cop now?"

"Because I want to make sure you guys are safe," Johnson said in response.

New department: Johnson, 27, is among the newest officers in a department that got its start just 15 months ago. York City School District administrators pitched the idea of a district police department as a way to protect students from outside threats and to enhance students' and teachers' sense of safety.

The department's chief and seven officers do not carry firearms, though they are armed with Tasers and pepper foam. The district's superintendent has proposed adding five more officers next year.

Johnson said he's always wanted to be a cop. But, in this role, he sees himself as more of a mentor for students — many of whom associate the police with fear.

"These kids feel like no one cares," Johnson said. "And I want them to feel like someone does care for them."

Here to help: On average, Johnson takes 12,000 steps every day — a fact he knows thanks to an app on his phone.

When things are low-key, he walks casually through the school, interacting with students and checking to make sure doors are locked.

At the high school, he urges loitering students to get to class. He busts a couple canoodling in the corner.

But the top priority, Johnson said, is protecting the students and staff from an outside threat. Because he walks the halls every day, Johnson knows the high school as well as anyone.

District police officers trigger lockdowns when shots are fired anywhere near a school, which happens occasionally. Recently, Johnson and others sprang into action when a building across the street from the high school caught fire.

To protect students from the heavy smoke, they moved students to a safer part of the building.

"I love it in here," said Officer Greg Seibert, who recently joined the department after 15 years as a cop elsewhere. "It feels like the first time in 15 years that I'm actually getting to help people."

Though he does not carry a gun, Johnson said he would confront an active shooter if the situation ever arose. Johnson said he feels confident the Taser could stop a shooter — if he can get within 15 feet of the person.

"That's my job," he said. "I have to stand up for these kids."

Not once since the department opened 15 months ago has a district officer used a Taser, said Michael Muldrow, the department's chief.

Only once has an officer used pepper foam — which does not spread through the air like pepper spray — during an incident with an "out of control and combative" person, Muldrow said.

Each of the eight officers has experienced the shock of a Taser to drive home the point that officers should use the weapons only in the most extreme circumstances, Muldrow said.

"They know it's not just for a disruptive kid," he said.

In the department's use-of-force continuum, the Taser is the last resort. District officers won't pull a Taser "until a street officer could almost pull a gun," Muldrow said.

"I'm convinced we can stop a threat. I just don't have to be concerned about any of our people killing a threat," he said. "That's a sobering and a comforting thought."

A chase, and a knife: Only once in his few months on the job has Johnson had to arrest a student.

It almost happened again on a recent Tuesday.

Johnson and Seibert stood outside William Penn Senior High School as students flooded the sidewalks and streets. It was just after 3 p.m.

An assistant principal called for Johnson's help. A man — or maybe he was a teenager — was being argumentative and needed to leave.

The situation escalated quickly, with a student running away from the school and shouting obscenities back at Johnson. For a moment, it seemed things had returned to normal.

Then, a call came over the scanner that someone had been spotted with a knife near the high school. Johnson and Seibert took off running north on Beaver Street in search of the threat.

Within minutes, about 10 cops from the school district and the city police department responded. While other officers interviewed suspects and sorted out what happened, Johnson detained the same student who'd yelled at him earlier. He was later released without charges.

Eventually, officers recovered a large knife — dropped in a breezeway during the chase — that Muldrow called "a freaking sword."

The person who dropped the knife is facing charges filed by the city police department, Muldrow said.

The incident was "definitely not something that happens every day," he said.

While a student was not directly involved in this case, there are times when district police officers must arrest a student.

But the number of arrests has actually decreased significantly — by about 50 percent — compared to the years before the department opened, Muldrow said.

Before, district staff had to call city police officers to handle criminal incidents. Now, a district police officer is usually just minutes or seconds away.

That means small fights are less likely to escalate into large fights, Muldrow said.

"It's different when I already have the officers standing there in the cafeteria," he said. "The fight is less likely to happen. And if it does happen, the level of intervention happens faster."

Changing minds: Johnson spends much of his day confronting misconceptions about his job and his life.

The students' wariness about police is "something we're working on," Johnson said.

When older kids repeat anti-police rhetoric, Johnson said he confronts them directly and tells them, "You've got to know the facts."

There's two sides to every story, he tells them.

"It's a long road ahead of us, but we keep trying," he said.

Johnson is also trying to set the record straight with district students about what he — a black man in a police uniform — really represents.

Johnson said he spent most of his childhood with his mother, while his father was incarcerated. He attended York City schools.

Today, he holds a degree in criminal justice. He owns a home and a car. He has a wife and three kids.

But, sometimes, students assume Johnson has led a privileged life.

"That's when I stop them," he said.

Johnson tells students he "walked the same streets as you."

He tells the kids who are growing up without a mom or a dad: "Try to be better than them."

— Reach Erin James at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.