Dr. Mildred Johnson: Soft Heart & Steely Strength
When Millie Johnson was in her early 20s, her family thought she was “too soft” to be a police officer. But this daughter of a pastor felt called to be in law enforcement and make a difference in the world. So she applied and was accepted into the police academy, a move that would set a trajectory for a life of service and leadership.
Upon graduation, Millie became a City of Pittsburgh police officer, a job that wasn’t easy. She dealt with people stuck in lives of crime with little hope.
But even as she witnessed hatred and darkness, she also experienced goodness and light. People were appreciative that she was providing safety in the community. And sometimes those she’d arrested paid the price for their crime and came out transformed. Some even thanked her for helping them to get their lives back on track.
“That is rehabilitation,” Millie explains. It’s helping people through steps needed to become law-abiding citizens. It results in people who were incarcerated being integrated back into their family and community.
But Millie wants more than just rehabilitation. She wants restorative justice – which, for her, means forgiveness.
“God forgives and we need to, as well. That’s the path to healing for all parties.”
But does restorative justice, the ideal, really happen?
Millie knows, from first-hand experience, that restorative justice can and does occur.
While a city cop, Millie was working with fellow officers to disperse an unruly crowd from the street. The crowd had gathered in an area with bars and restaurants, following a Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory. Many of the people were drunk and one of them, for some reason holding a tiki torch, lashed out at Officer Johnson. Attacking her, the perpetrator set her on fire.
Because of quick actions and the grace of God, Millie survived, and the man was taken in. Unfortunately, through a “bad deal” the man got off, with no charges being pressed. Millie was angry but could do nothing but recover physically and emotionally to the best of her ability.
Later, Millie encountered the man at the Allegheny County Jail. He had been arrested and found guilty of possession of a large amount of drugs. Millie became even angrier. It seemed that it was okay to set a police officer on fire, but drugs were another story. The inmate asked to speak to Millie.
So Millie faced her offender. He explained that he was drunk and barely remembered what happened. He admitted his guilt and asked for forgiveness.
And Millie forgave him. The forgiveness provided a sweet freedom to both the criminal and the victim. “God orchestrated it all,” she says. “It was a gift. And it was crucial to my healing.”
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgives you.” – Colossians 3:13
“That is restorative justice,” Millie affirms.
She continued her career in criminal justice, striving to share kindness, fairness and respect to everyone she encountered.
Through the years, Millie earned her bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate degree in areas of strategic leadership and criminal justice. She served as a patrol officer and police sergeant for the City of Pittsburgh for 14 years. She was a police chaplain in Pittsburgh and director of the Police Academy in Westmoreland County. And now she’s a professor at Geneva College, where she’s been teaching criminal justice for more than seven years.
She is passionate about teaching restorative and transformative justice to a new generation on the criminal justice path. She loves their questions, their learning and their desire to change the world.
“I love seeing my students be successful,” Millie says. “It means a lot to see them walk across the stage at commencement, knowing that they are going to full-time jobs they’ve already secured.”
Most people think of a Criminal Justice degree leading to a career as a police officer – and it does. Millie points out, though, that the degree can lead to as many as 150 different careers, including investigations, community corrections, probation and parole, legal support, federal investigations, victim’s advocacy and much more.
“I’m honest with my students. These just aren’t jobs. They need to feel called to a greater good, wanting to serve others and stand for justice in a world where it’s desperately needed.”
Millie’s honesty, wisdom and caring heart impact her students. When she walks in Geneva’s halls or cafeteria, students rush up to update her on a problem they’ve prayed about, tell her about an internship or ask questions about a class activity. She knows her students and their stories.
One student, recognizing her support, says, “Dr. Millie Johnson has been such a huge blessing to me and to many other students by being there when we need someone to talk to. I don't know what I would do without her!"
A graduate who’s working in criminal justice comments, “There are times at work that I literally only know information because she taught it to me.”
Dr. Terri Williams, who’s been Millie’s department chair at Geneva sums up her impact, “She makes students believe they can accomplish their goals and pushes them toward success. Because of Millie, students are well prepared for careers, but more so, for life. Particularly for life as Christians in the world.”
“These are challenging times. And we are called to respond to them with honesty and the certainty that there is a greater plan,” says Millie.
Millie knows that the need for accountability and transparency in policing is more important than ever following the death of George Floyd. Concerns about police misuse of power can create an unhealthy division and feelings of mistrust between the officers and the community. Young African American males, in particular, feel singled out by police they often view as racist.
Perception is not always reality, she says, but it must be addressed. She talks about the need to bring back community policing and more diversity in police forces. Hiring and training practices, along with oversight and accountability procedures, need to be refined. And the public needs to know about it. The secrecy that has been part of the police system for decades needs to change.
Dr. Millie Johnson doesn’t just engage and challenge her students. She works directly with police leadership and officers across the country. She is an instructor with ABLE, or Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, a national program created by Georgetown University.
“Police officers are active bystanders in many ways. They put themselves in danger to help others every day. They run toward the gun shots, not away. They show courage when so many others would show fear.” - ABLE
Millie explains. “Active bystandership authorizes and empowers law enforcement to intervene in another officer's actions, regardless of his or her rank.” When officers learn to strategically intervene, they become empowered to protect their own and their colleagues' mental and physical well-being.
She says it’s not easy, but she knows what needs to be done. “Accountability, legitimacy, minimal and appropriate use of force, diversity, transparency and other organizational issues must be part of everyday law enforcement.”
“I trust God to use me as a resource. I want to be his servant to reach people who can make a difference.”
She continues, “My daily prayer is that I would be a light. It means so much to me that sometimes I go into my office and cry. ‘Did I get it right?’ I’ll ask myself.” What she does, she knows, is important.
To the surprise of many who know her busy schedule, Millie is an Associate Minister at Triumph Baptist Church on Mt. Nebo Road in Pittsburgh. It may seem like she doesn’t have the time, but her faith in God and trust in His provisions enable her to serve her church faithfully.
As passionate as Millie is about her the various areas of her work, she is also passionate about her family. Her homelife is at the core to all that she does. “I am a blessed beyond measure be the wife of a wonderful retired police detective and mother to three beautiful children.”
Family has always been vital to Millie. She remained close to her parents while they were alive. And they eventually witnessed that a soft heart, combined with a steely strength of character, can be an advantage when it comes to criminal justice.
“Love never fails.” – 1 Corinthians 13:8