Bob Johnston says he’s leaving the RNC with souvenirs, bad and good
When Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Bob Johnston retires Feb. 28, there are some cases he worked over his 35-year career that he’ll be taking with him.
They’re not necessarily the biggest or the most complicated or the ones that got the most media attention — though some of them are — but they’re the most haunting.
There’s the time he drove to the Health Sciences Centre in his unmarked police car with a lifeless baby in the front seat, the mother having refused to give the child up to ambulance attendants or uniformed police officers after the child died from sudden infant death syndrome.
There are the times he interviewed the victims of Roman Catholic priests later convicted of having sexually assaulted them as children — and was asked by one victim not to ask him any more questions, since he didn’t know what he would do to himself if he had to deal with the abuse again.
There’s the incident when, during his first night on the job — as a 20-year-old constable having never had a brush with mental illness before — he saw a young woman, irate and hysterical and needing mental health care.
And there’s the time he called Greg Parsons, who had done jail time after being wrongfully convicted of killing his mother, Catherine Carroll. Johnston told Parsons the police had gotten a confession from Brian Joseph Doyle, and the public would finally know he had had nothing to do with his mom’s death.
More than those cases, however, are the others; the ones that perhaps aren’t as newsworthy, but make up what Johnston says were the best parts of his job over the past 3 1/2 decades. The letters he’s received from victims of crime, telling him how empowered he made them feel, simply by talking to them about their ordeal; the emails and calls he’s gotten from members of the community, praising the police force for a job well done; and the relationships he has developed with his colleagues, members of the community, leaders, activists, media representatives and others.
“Sometimes it’s just an act of kindness that means a lot to people,” Johnston explains. “They are the things that I remember the most.”
Johnston joined the RNC in 1979, having wanted to be a police officer all through high school. A native of Mount Pearl, he had originally applied to be an RCMP officer, but was told the Constabulary was hiring. While current RNC applications are 50 pages long and the process includes a range of interviews and tests, Johnston submitted his résumé and received a call from the then deputy chief a day later.
“He asked me a couple of questions and he gave me a slip and said, ‘I want you to see Dr. Brown tomorrow.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I went over to see Dr. Brown the next day and the following Monday I got a phone call from Deputy Chief Roche saying, ‘OK, you’ve been accepted to the Newfoundland Constabulary. You start next week in training.’”
Training took about 4 1/2 months, and Johnston recalls starting the job as a new officer in plain clothes, since the new uniforms weren’t yet ready.
That first shift brought not only his first experience with mental illness, but his first experience with the court system: he and his supervisor arrested a man for carrying a significant amount of illegal drugs, and Johnston was called to testify at his bail hearing in court two days later.
Starting out as a patrol officer, Johnston worked in many departments over the years, including criminal investigation, and various sections like break and entry, major crime, sexual assault and criminal intelligence. He also worked as a VIP liaison co-ordinator for visits by a number of premiers and prime ministers.
Former U.S. president George Bush Sr. came to St. John’s once during that time, and Johnston worked with the Secret Service beforehand to prepare.
“It was really interesting to see the level of security,” Johnston said. “We’d go to the Health Sciences Centre to make sure there was a certain number of pints of blood on hand in case something happened, and to see how long it would take a trauma team to get in place.”
Once Bush arrived, he made a point of meeting Johnston, introducing himself on the tarmac at the airport and thanking him for his work. He told Johnston to bring a camera when they met the next morning, so they could get a picture together.”
“I said, No, Mr. President, that’s not my role. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I want to get my picture taken with you,’” Johnston recalls, smiling. Bush gifted Johnston with a tie clip, complete with his signature and presidential seal.
Over the course of his career, Johnston learned what he saw during his day-to-day life was only a snapshot of the community. It would have been easy to become jaded and discouraged about society, he explains, but he was able to find balance.
“You may see the worst of times in people, but out of that, you see extraordinary courage and tenacity and goodwill,” he says. “There may be some people out there doing these terrible things, but there are a lot more people out there doing good things.”
Johnston has no concrete plan for his immediate future, and says he’ll spend time with his wife, Gloria, who retired about a year ago. He’s into sports and fitness, and says the spring will likely see him biking, rowing and playing golf.
He’s not ending an era in his family, but simply passing it to the next generation. His daughter, Amanda, is an RNC officer stationed in Labrador.