Matt Johnson remembers sitting on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike on a cold December day, his hands cuffed behind his back, watching a group of white police officers search his car.
Then a student at Rutgers University, Johnson had been pulled over by an officer who told him he was suspicious because he had been driving slower than the other cars barreling down the turnpike. Johnson wasn’t surprised — back in the late 1980s, police were notorious for stopping African Americans on the roadway.
When the officers ultimately let him go, Johnson recalled, there was “no explanation, no sorry, no nothing.”
“Anybody that has an experience like that is not going to forget it,” he said.
As Johnson prepares to take his seat Tuesday as Los Angeles’ newest police commissioner, he said the memory of the stop and harassment by officers he experienced as a teenager have helped him understand the frustrations many people feel toward police.
But Johnson’s view of law enforcement was also shaped by growing up around the officers who were friends with his father, enjoying barbecues at their homes and getting to know them as people rather than just police officers.
The two distinctly different impressions are still hard to reconcile, Johnson said. But the 47-year-old entertainment lawyer believes they give him a unique perspective at a time of roiling national debate over policing and race.
“Today, there really isn’t a more pressing or important issue that we’re dealing with as a society than police-community relations,” he said.
Johnson will be the only African American on the Police Commission, the five-member board tasked with keeping an eye on the Los Angeles Police Department.
Appointed by the mayor, police commissioners oversee the operations of the 10,000-officer force, set LAPD policies and often spend time outside their weekly meetings attending community events. Commissioners have an inspector general who investigates and audits the department on their behalf.
Richard Drooyan, a former Police Commission president, said the board’s role as the “eyes and ears of the community” is particularly important at this moment given the public desire for increased accountability of police. Johnson, he said, must be “willing to criticize when mistakes are made and support the department when the department is right.”
In one of its most important roles, the board decides whether police shootings and other serious uses of force were appropriate. It’s a responsibility that has come under greater scrutiny as police officers across the country have increasingly been criticized for how they use force, particularly against black men.
Activists have blasted the LAPD and commissioners for some of the police shootings in Los Angeles. LAPD officers have shot 28 people so far this year, half of whom were killed.
Some of the most vocal critics are affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, including some who denounced Mayor Eric Garcetti for putting Johnson on the Police Commission. They said they wanted an anti-gang activist on the board instead of another person who donated to Garcetti’s campaign.
When asked about the criticism, Johnson said the Black Lives Matter movement had “shined a light on very important issues.”
“The bottom line is, there is an alarming number of African Americans across our country who have been killed by police,” Johnson said. “A large part of the reason that I agreed to join the commission is that I’m concerned about it, and I believe I can play a positive role in reducing those incidents.”
Paula Madison, the outgoing commissioner who has been the board’s only African American member since 2013, described Johnson as a friend who works with quiet deliberation, someone who understood the impact he could have as a black man on the Police Commission.
“If you get the opportunity to help set policies, you take it very seriously,” she said. “And knowing Matt, he’s going to take this very seriously.”
Johnson was raised in Highland Park, N.J., a small bedroom community of Rutgers University. His father was a firefighter, his mother a schoolteacher. Growing up, he said, he watched his mother battle school administrators to get her son into the honors classes that were generally off-limits to black and Latino students.
Johnson credits his mother for creating the opportunities that led him to college and, later, the New York University School of Law. He said that struggle instilled in him a sense of responsibility to help create the same chances for others.
He moved to L.A. in 1992 — three weeks after the Rodney King riots — and got involved in his new community, mentoring a teenager in a juvenile detention center. He volunteered with the Challengers Boys and Girls Club in South L.A., and another club in Echo Park. He took kids on field trips, college tours and to the beach.
Johnson spent Saturdays running a college prep program in Echo Park. He remembers that LAPD officers would swing by just to make sure everything was OK.
That’s the kind of policing he wants to see throughout Los Angeles, he said — officers building real relationships in the neighborhoods where they work.
“When the police officers actually know people in the community, they’re going to treat people differently than if they don’t,” he said. “If people in the community get to know the police officers on an individual basis, they are likely going to view their interactions with police differently.”
Johnson praised the progress the LAPD has made in the decades since he moved to L.A., and said he sensed a “genuine commitment” from top brass toward improving the department.
But he already has a to-do list. Johnson wants to look at ways to expand community-based policing programs across the city. He’s focused on understanding the surge in violent crime that the city has experienced this year — particularly in killings and gang violence — so the jump doesn’t continue.
He also wants to take a fresh look at the way the LAPD trains its officers, particularly when interacting with people who confront officers with knives. It’s important that officers have sufficient less-lethal options, he said, so they don’t immediately have to resort to their guns.
“I’m sure that there are lots of things that can be done better,” he said. "We always have to have a culture of trying to improve.”
Johnson said Garcetti first approached him about becoming a police commissioner about two years ago. Johnson declined, believing his time was better spent addressing other issues through his philanthropic work. He’s a national trustee with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and actively involved with other groups, such as the Los Angeles Urban League.
His career is also demanding — he negotiates contracts for celebrities, producers and professional athletes, such as Serena Williams and Oprah Winfrey. And he and his wife are raising four children in their Sherman Oaks home. The oldest is in college, the youngest a toddler.
But after the killings of black men began to draw national attention, Johnson saw the issues of race and policing become more urgent. Recently, the mayor asked him to reconsider joining the Police Commission.
As he mulled over the offer, Johnson said, he thought about his children and how he hoped they would see police: as people there to protect them.
“I want them to grow up in a world where they can feel safe — from gang violence, from societal violence, from gun violence,” he said. “And I certainly would expect that when they see a police officer, that they don’t view that person with fear.”