Farewell salute for police commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson, 43 years on the force, got an escort, with sirens blaring, to an extraordinary send-off at the Kimmel.

Posted: January 05, 2008

Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson retired yesterday, leaving with a pomp-and-circumstance farewell from his department and a rousing defense from Mayor Street.

Johnson, a 43-year member of the Philadelphia force who made his mark as a methodical officer, could not avoid the limelight on his last day, and had to endure the kind of send-off not seen here in decades.

More than 500 police officers, city officials, and friends and family members gathered at the Kimmel Center on South Broad Street to say goodbye. Johnson was escorted from Police Headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets by a phalanx of motorcycle police and greeted at the Kimmel by the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes and Drums in full Scottish regalia as a police helicopter hovered overhead, its spotlight fixed on the commissioner.

Inside the Kimmel's Perelman Theater, Mayor-elect Michael Nutter thanked Johnson for his decades of service and praised him for "showing us that we can actually do something about crime and safety."

But it was Street who roused the audience of about 500 to repeated standing ovations with a spirited defense of Johnson, who has been criticized for the city's level of homicides.

"Commissioner Johnson deserves better than he's getting," Street said.

The mayor, who appointed Johnson to the top job in 2002, said Johnson deserved credit for bringing down the murder rate, in his first year as commissioner, to a 17-year low. Despite the subsequent rise in killings, Street said, the murder toll remained well below the average number during the years of the Rendell administration, which preceded his own.

"He was good enough in 2002 . . . and he is good enough in 2006 and 2007 and 2008," Street thundered as the audience rose in applause. The mayor turned to Johnson and said, "We will never let the people who want to run you down get away with it."

When Johnson took office in 2002, the city recorded 288 murders, the lowest yearly total since 1985. In 2006, there were 406, the most in 10 years. In 2007, there were 392 murders, and Philadelphia had the highest homicide rate among large U.S. cities.

Johnson defended the department's efforts to combat killings and other violent crime, saying in his final news conference this week that the police "did an outstanding job" despite limited resources. He noted that shootings were down 13 percent in 2007 from the previous year, and that violent crime was down in 22 of the city's 23 police districts.

Johnson's successor as police commissioner, former Washington Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, was among the guests at last night's gala. Gov. Rendell did not attend, but he sent a letter of congratulations that was read by Pennsylvania inspector general - and long-time Philadelphia police officer - Donald Patterson.

Patterson, who was Johnson's boss when both worked in the Homicide Bureau, praised Johnson as the first of a new breed of police officer in the city.

"People would confess to Sylvester Johnson because he was a nice guy," Patterson said. "He got more confessions without raising his voice. . . . He showed you could be just as effective without being violent."

Johnson joined the department in 1964. A short time later, he joined the Highway Patrol.

He climbed the ranks and earned the department's highest award, the medal of valor, after stopping an armed robbery at a Cheltenham supermarket while off duty and shopping with his 6-year-old son in 1972. By the time he was appointed commissioner, he was known as a "cop's cop."

During his tenure at the top, he has been given credit for making strides in building trust with the community and for bringing a diversity of sexes and races into the upper ranks.

He talked about a holistic approach to solving crime and reached out to religious and business leaders for help. In recent months, he helped organize 10,000 Men, a program to use volunteers to help keep the peace and prevent crime.

Contact staff writer Barbara Boyer at 215-854-2641 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

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