Downey Police Chaplain Is Trained to Use a Gun, but His Aim Is Counseling
The Downey Police Department’s newest reserve officer hesitates, if only for a moment, when asked if he would have any qualms about using a gun in the line of duty. But the Rev. Jeff Johnson, the new reserve officer and the department’s first chaplain, says he is trained and ready to use a weapon to protect himself or someone else.
“Of course it would be a life-or-death situation,” said Johnson, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel in Downey.
But standard police duties are not what Chief Pete Stone plans for Johnson. And although the pastor could find himself in a dangerous situation on an occasional patrol, it is unlikely, Stone said.
Instead, the chaplain will be used as a counselor of sorts, to console crime and accident victims and to help officers who cope with tragedy and danger. He will be used for death notifications and, if need be, in hostage negotiations.
“He’ll really give us a new resource,” Stone said. “It’s one more service we’ll be able to provide to the citizens in the city.”
Police work is not new to the 40-year-old Johnson, who has served as a chaplain for the Montebello Police Department since 1980. Technically, Johnson is still on the Montebello force, but he said he plans to resign. Reserve officers are volunteers.
Johnson says he decided to switch departments because he was approached by Stone and asked to serve his hometown. Johnson is a Warren High School graduate who has lived in Downey since he was 5 years old.
A Montebello Police Department spokesman said Johnson was instrumental in helping the department’s chaplain program get off the ground in the early 1980s. Johnson has been less active recent years, Sgt. Tim Mahan said.
“It was men like Jeff Johnson who won (some) hard-core cops over and made the program a success,” Mahan said.
Johnson, who was ordained in 1975, currently is completing course work for a master of ministry degree at the Azusa Pacific University Graduate School of Theology, a university spokeswoman said.
But the pastor has not lived a tidy, trouble-free life. And that, he said, is in part what led him to become a clergyman and reserve officer.
“I was in Hawaii with Timothy Leary living in the jungle (in 1968) during the LSD hippie thing,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he returned to Downey in 1969 and turned to religion, which gave him the motivation to give up drugs.
“I was looking for joy and happiness, but I couldn’t find it in drugs and sex,” he said. “Getting the Lord into my life pulled me out of a six-year drug binge. . . . I was addicted to opium.”
In 1973, Johnson said, he founded a Bible study group that eventually grew to become the Calvary Chapel, a nondenominational church that has 5,000 members and conducts an aggressive outreach ministry. In 1980, Johnson was recruited to be part of Montebello’s police chaplain program.
“There’s a calming effect that can be brought in with a chaplain,” Johnson said. In addition, he hopes the department will refer people to the rape counseling and anti-drug programs his church offers.
In 1985, Johnson decided to enroll in the Rio Hondo Regional Training Center for police. He received reserve officer training, including firearms.
“I wanted the officers to see I’m serious about being a backup for them. I wanted to see what they go through,” Johnson said. “If the training’s there, the officer feels more relaxed, the chaplain feels more relaxed.”
Johnson said he has had to draw a shotgun twice as a reserve to back up an officer, but never had to fire.
Despite Johnson’s training, some Montebello officers did not take to the idea of a clergyman in nuts-and-bolts police work.
They thought “I would be a liability or they just didn’t want a chaplain riding around with them,” Johnson said. “Hey, I understand. At first it’s hard, but once you get to know them, it’s easier.”
Johnson started with the Downey Police Department earlier this month. And so far, he said, his reception has been warm. He also hopes that he will gain the confidence of fellow officers who otherwise might not be inclined to talk about the stresses of their jobs.
“You hear so much about divorce among police officers,” Johnson said. “They’re under so much pressure.”
Chief Stone said the new chaplain will not conduct religious services at the department. And it will be up to the officers to decide whether they want to work with or seek counseling from Johnson, he said.
For Johnson, the department is fertile ground for his spiritual teachings. “I’ve seen the Lord change officers’ lives,” he said. “I’ve seen the Lord do work in a whole police department.”