New Dover police chief ‘a seasoned veteran’: Johnson brings solid experience from Pa.

New Dover Police Chief Thomas A. Johnson Jr., left, and Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen watch the Dover Police Department Honor Guard enter before Chief Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony at the Dover Police Department on Thursday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — He arrives from an ethnically diverse community, with at least 50 different languages spoken and residents representing 65 countries, Upper Darby Township Police Department Superintendent Timothy M. Bernhardt says.

New Dover Police Chief Thomas A. Johnson Jr. started as an Upper Darby patrol officer in May 1996, then ascended into an array of positions protecting and serving a Pennsylvania town of about 83,000 residents. He’s a cross-trained firefighter and paramedic, too, committed to coordinating first responder efforts at every opportunity.

All that’s no small task.

During the Monday through Friday work week, thousands of transients pass through the area commuting to and from Philadelphia by using public transportation station stops for trains, trolleys and buses. Center City is less than 10 miles away.

Town limits abut West Philadelphia, stretch to within about seven miles of the airport next to Interstate 95 and roughly 10 miles from where the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies and 76ers play in the South Broad Street area.

Pennsylvania’s sixth largest municipality has seen three homicides — two shootings and a vehicular incident — in 2020, all bringing arrests, Supt. Bernhardt said. The department cleared 75 percent of its homicide cases in 2018, which he said was more than 10 percent above the national average.

“We don’t have an inner part of the city or poverty stricken area,” Supt. Bernhardt said. “Residential areas are made up of single family homes, townhomes and rowhomes.

“There’s no dilapidated or boarded up homes, no housing projects, there’s a small percentage of lower income housing….”

Dover has been troubled by a spate of shootings since late December 2019, along with ongoing nuisance crimes downtown. Incoming Chief Johnson is equipped to utilize staff in a way to quell the violence, his former boss said.

Dover Police Chief Thomas A. Johnson Jr. gives his wife Janice flowers at the Dover Police Department on Thursday.

“Like anything else in life it’s an adjustment and Tommy has the background to deal with the violent crimes,” Supt. Bernhardt said. “He’s a seasoned veteran, and he’s (worked plenty of serious cases that happen everywhere.)”

Upper Darby PD enlists 133 sworn officers who handle more than 60,000 service calls annually, assisted by 23-non-sworn officers covering a municipality of 7.62 square miles. Supt. Bernhardt said the department’s annual budget is more than $31 million.

Chief Johnson was a captain overseeing the Upper Darby department when chosen from a field of more than 20 applicants nationwide to lead the Delaware capital’s police force. He’s the second ever chief hire from outside Dover PD in 95 years, the first coming in 1949 with the addition of James E. Turner (who then served over 18 years) from Delaware State Police.

On Thursday, a noticeable contingent of family, friends and former co-workers made the roughly 75-mile trip south to support Chief Johnson’s 15-minute swearing-in ceremony inside a packed Public Assembly Room at the Dover Police Department. He thanks his mother Ruth first, then wife Janice and children Tom III and Carly.

Chief Johnson was a captain overseeing Upper Darby’s detective unit when he retired and left for Dover.

“He’s a great guy, great employee, supervisor, trainer, you name it,” Supt. Bernhardt said at mid-week. “Morally and ethically you’ll never find a better officer than Tommy.

“He’s been looking for this opportunity for some time. Delaware is definitely fortunate to get him, he’s an ace hire.”

‘Up the ladder’

East Lansdowne Fire Company President Jim Carr met Chief Johnson 35 years ago and watched him “work his way up the ladder, ultimately to the top position as chief.”

Transitioning from regular fire responses, Chief Johnson served on the company’s Board of Directors for at least 10 years, handling many administrative duties.

Back in the day, Chief Johnson responded to alarms at the front of the crew.

“He was an aggressive firefighter who wasn’t one to hesitate about going in,” Mr. Carr said. “He immediately knew where to go and exactly what to do, he got his hands dirty.

“He was the epitome of cool, calm and collected during serious, sometimes chaotic situations.”

Dover Police Chief Thomas A. Johnson Jr. meets with a well wisher at Dover Police Department on Thursday.

While the company’s membership has dwindled to around 20 currently active members, Mr. Johnson likely slowed the manpower drain while keeping operations going. Newcomers to the area often arrived to the borough from communities with paid fire departments, and didn’t have a mindset to volunteer.

“He’s the guy who always had creative ways to boost morale, increase membership, get the community more involved,” Mr. Carr said.
Every organization has internal spats at times, and Chief Johnson diffused any continuing animosity.

“When there were little disagreements among factions in the department, he was the peacekeeper,” Mr. Carr said.

With Chief Johnson spearheading the process, East Lansdowne was one of the companies to receive a SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grant to have full-time firefighters at the station to aid rapid response.

“Those grants are not easy to get and we just recently completed our second one,” Mr. Carr said.

Ever the first responder, Chief Johnson was the driving force in the fire company’s partnership with the Crozer-Keystone Health Services to create round the clock ambulance coverage, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“He’s very intelligent and well rounded, he knows everything about police, fire and EMS work,” Mr. Carr said. “He knows all the emergency services and how they run inside and out.”

Curbing drunk drivers

Twice, Chief Johnson earned top DUI enforcement recognition by the Delaware County Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Victim Service Specialist Debbie D’Addona worked with him the past two years in a mutual assist type relationship.

MADD joined police during DUI task force and checkpoint efforts that Chief Johnson headed up, providing past victims to share their stories beforehand, providing refreshments for staff and more.

“Those were huge events that sometimes included media, drones, a whole lot of attention,” Ms. D’Addona said. “He coordinated them and it was very meaningful to us. Afterward he would always provide us data and information from the night that we could use as well.”

Safety for everyone involved was a top priority at the checkpoints, and Ms. D’Addona said he “instructed officers beforehand that they should act in a compassionate and respectful manner with everyone they come in contact with.”

Cooperation wasn’t limited to just the roadway.

“He was extremely professional and always made an effort to understand what other activities MADD was involved with and how he could assist in promoting them,” Ms. D’Addona said.