Being deputy isn’t for everyone. Those in uniform are surrounded daily by humanity’s darker side, witnessing events the rest of the community can’t imagine. San Juan County Undersheriff Brent Johnson, however, decided early on, law enforcement was what he wanted to do.
“I wanted to be a detective since I was 5 years old,” Johnson said, explaining that he always loved piecing puzzles together and solving problems with the reward of protecting the innocent. After approximately 50 years in law enforcement, with the last three serving as undersheriff, Johnson is retiring. His last day will be Friday, March 16. He and his wife are moving to Phoenix, Arizona, where their daughter attends college.
Johnson said he will miss the island and the camaraderie of the department. He and detective Lachlan Buchanan became like brothers, Johnson said, after years of working side by side sharing the same office. For the nearly 20 years Johnson has lived on San Juan Island, he has become immersed in the community. He is a volunteer firefighter, and has served on the board of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services, now known as SAFE San Juans, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and eliminating domestic violence and sexual assault through victim services and education.
“He is a good guy, always upbeat, and has done a lot for the community,” said Sheriff Ron Krebs, which, besides his knowledge and experience, are reasons why he appointed Johnson as undersheriff.
Johnson also has an eye for detail, Krebs said and, has been able to get reports up to snuff before sending them to the San Juan County Prosecutor’s Office.
“When you have been out on a call till two in the morning, and then have to write a report, it’s really difficult to write a quality report. You’re exhausted, and your brain isn’t in the right place,” explained Krebs.
Johnson, he continued, has been able to look over the reports, make sure all the necessary and pertinent information is included, and correct mistakes, so the prosecutor can build a solid case.
“Being a detective is a unique job,” said Johnson.
For one, to ensure justice, officers have a responsibility to both the victim and the suspect. Prosecutors are primarily concerned with the victim, the defense and the suspect, he explained. To ensure the correct person is prosecuted, and justice is truly served, officers must take time to question and listen to both parties. The public visibility also makes detective work different than other judicial entities.
“The police are out there on the streets every day. People see them. Judges, prosecutors, they are not as in the public eye,” Johnson said.
The result, he continued, is that they often bare the brunt of public opinion.
“I hope the public understands we get just as frustrated as they do. We want to solve problems, and sometimes we can’t,” he said. “We can’t just arrest people because there was a rumor. We have to have solid evidence and operate within the law.”
Despite a deputy’s best efforts, cases can go sideways in the courtroom. Juries may not be convinced of a suspect’s guilt, a judge may give a more lenient, or harsh, sentence.
Occasionally, the law needs to be changed. One of Johnson’s proudest moments over the course of his career, he said, was working to change laws in New Mexico, to make it easier to collect evidence and arrest perpetrators of domestic violence.
In the early 80s during Johnson’s first few years on the Albuquerque police force, the force realized there was a high volume of domestic calls, and deputies suspected many were repeat offenders. However, evidence was difficult to collect, making prosecution nearly impossible. The first thing the officers did was set up a reporting system to see how many calls were received, how many were repeat offenders, and how the calls were handled in order to assess how to improve the situation.
The department, according to Johnson, received 800 domestic violence calls per month, and many were repeat offenders. From that study, Johnson and his fellow officers determined that laws needed to be strengthened to protect victims.
These officers wined and dined their New Mexican Legislatures in order to change the laws that gave officers a consistent protocol on how to handle domestic violence cases, established a Domestic Abusers Response Team that included a judge, prosecutor, police officers and representatives from women shelters. The new law also required perpetrators to be held a minimum of six months in jail, as well as attend anger management classes, he said, emphasizing that abuse is a learned behavior.
“They were the first laws like this in the nation,” Johnson said proudly, noting that people from around the world – Africa, Asia and Europe – have visited to learn more about this new model.
“We have a lot of domestic violence calls here too; people may not realize it,” he added.
Domestic violence cases are one of the most dangerous calls to respond to, Johnson said, and, along with heartbreaking child abuse cases, have been the most challenging aspects of his career.
After March 16, Sgt. Zac Reimer will be sworn in as undersheriff. Krebs says he will miss Johnson around the office, and his relaxed and optimistic nature, but he has faith that Reimer will continue Johnson’s quality work.
Reimer, like Johnson, has strong ties to the community, Krebs said, and has an upbeat personality.
“I have a tendency to surround myself with positive people,” Krebs laughed, adding that he holds both Johnson and Reimer in high regard. “Brent and I didn’t always agree on everything, and neither do Reimer and I. But I respect them. I don’t want a yes man. Different perspectives are important.”
Johnson has high hopes for the department after he leaves also, knowing required trainings will be continued and that the nearly 30-year-old policies will be updated. He also says he is leaving the department in good hands.
“This department is filled with people who care and want to do the right thing,” said Johnson “They are human and imperfect, but they work really hard to try to do the right thing.”