Donnie Johnson lofted a spiral skyward, and young Errick Yance reached out in anticipation.
The Tulsa police officer told the 8-year-old the pass would be a tough one to catch. The football bounced off Errick’s hands and tumbled to the pavement at the Savanna Landing apartment complex near 61st Street and Peoria Avenue.
“That was your fault,” Errick told Johnson, a former University of Tulsa wide receiver.
“No, that was your fault,” the 34-year-old retorted with a laugh.
Johnson did turn up the difficulty level on the youngster with that throw, but the community resource officer is positioned to make Errick’s life — and those of others in Hope Valley — better. Seven months ago, Johnson replaced Amley “Popsey” Floyd in Hope Valley as its community resource officer.
“I play football, basketball — in my trunk right now I have a volleyball,” Johnson said in a recent interview with the Tulsa World. “If they want a meal, I have coupons from QuikTrip to give to them to get a free meal at the QuikTrip kitchen.
“Overall, as a community resource officer, I feel like that’s my role is to provide for the community. If I have it, or if I have the means to get it, I will.”
A valley finding hope
Hope Valley, with boundaries from 56th Street to 65th Street between Riverside Drive and Yorktown Avenue, is the target of a $503,000 Community-Based Crime Reduction Program federal grant that Tulsa was awarded in late 2016.
Since the 1990s, the 61st and Peoria area has been seen as synonymous with crime in Tulsa. The notorious execution-style quadruple homicide at Fairmont Terrace (now Savanna Landing) in 2013 served as a catalyst for the latest intense push for action.
Two grant research consultants on Tuesday provided the community with an update on efforts, which primarily focus on Savanna Landing and the nearby Kwick Stop. They suggested that changes atSavanna Landing, including 24-hour security and zero-tolerance policies on tenants fighting and illegal activities, might provide a lesson in how to reclaim a neighborhood from crime.
In Hope Valley, burglaries have dropped nearly 30% and robberies about 20% — both percentages greater than in the city as a whole, according to Police Department statistics. At Savanna Landing, formerly Fairmont Terrace, assaults are down 20% to 25% since the changes were made. Burglaries there have declined about 15%.
Recent Savanna Landing resident surveys found that nearly 70% now feel safe at night. Only about 40% did in 2018 and 30% in 2017.
The grant period ends in September, although the city has requested a brief extension that would run into January. The grant initially was for two years, but the city later gained approval for a third year.
“It’s going to take the community to step up and volunteer and do group activities together as a whole and just love on each other,” Johnson said. “To me, that’s what has to be done to be sustainable moving forward.
“I see that in Savanna Landing. I wouldn’t say I see that in other places outside of Savanna Landing.”
Stealing a chance
Community buy-in outside of Savanna Landing is like a fresh flower peeking through a sidewalk crack.
In Johnson’s first two weeks as community resource officer, he visited many businesses in Hope Valley that he suspected might often experience petty crimes. Larceny. Trespassing. Disturbances.
He asked managers to call him if he could possibly help. They alerted him of a man who routinely walked along Peoria Avenue, openly stealing items.
Johnson said he came across the man the next day.
“I walked up to him, and I said, ‘Hey, today it’s gonna stop. We’re not gonna have this anymore,’ ” Johnson recalled. “He looked at my shirt and he said, ‘Thank you, Officer Johnson. I needed that.’
“And since then I have not seen him. The dollar stores have not called me and told me he’s in their stores.”
A store manager called him once to report that two teenagers had run out with several items. Johnson quickly spotted them and beckoned them over.
He made them return the stolen goods and apologize before having a chat about their actions. One said he was just being a knucklehead. The other had fallen on hard times as a convicted felon unable to find work.
Johnson handed the stunned teen a lengthy list of resources that could help him. Consider this a blessing, he said, cautioning that another officer might not handle it similarly.
Six months later, Johnson was approached by a person he didn’t recognize as he set up for a community event.
“‘I’m the guy who was stealing from the dollar store,’ ” Johnson recounted. “I said, ‘Oh, OK. I remember you. How’s life now?’ And he said, ‘I want to let you know that — and I appreciate what you did for me that day — since that day I have rededicated my life to Christ. And I have a job now.’ ”
A need for mentors
Johnson patrols Hope Valley. That’s his grant-based mission.
The Police Department wants him to improve community relations as an avenue toward crime reduction and to bolster trust in officers.
He makes it a point to stop by apartment complexes, businesses and Johnson Park to interact with people. He intends to start doing that more with those who live in houses, too.
Apartment managers have him speak with tenants who get a bit rowdy and disturb neighbors. Parents ask him to talk to children who are acting out. After all, he has three kids of his own and another on the way.
He wants to see more male mentors step up in Hope Valley for directionless youths.
For example, Johnson Park was littered with trash after Fourth of July celebrations. So he knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask for a broom and rake to clean up the formidable mess.
That person’s child offered to help. Before long, a dozen more had come over to help the pair, and the job was finished in 2½ hours.
“You wouldn’t see a lot of kids do that,” Johnson said. “But if they see me out here working hard, they’re probably thinking to themselves, ‘Well, why not?’ … I don’t stay on this side of town. They live here. So if Officer Johnson is out here working hard, why aren’t we?”
Johnson also coordinated a trip to the Gathering Place. He brought in an ex-gang member to talk with youths about bullying and gangs, afterward hosting a community barbecue.
‘I used to be scared’
During the grant update Tuesday, City Councilor Jeannie Cue said Johnson is doing a “fantastic job.”
Kimberly Owen, vice president of the Savanna Landing Apartment Tenants Association, has lived there for nearly a decade. She credited Johnson with helping change her attitude toward police — that she needed to avoid them — into a relationship.
“If you watch the news, a lot is portrayed that the police aren’t on our side, that … they just want to lock us up,” Owen said. “But that’s not true. I used to be scared.”
At the grant’s end, Johnson is expected to retain his role. The city will take over paying his salary.
“I don’t anticipate that we will give him specific boundaries after the grant expires, and his work will be in areas that we identify as we go along and where needs exist,” said Capt. Thom Bell, his supervisor. “Hope Valley will continue to be an area that he works in, and I don’t see any change to that occurring.”
Dealing in dominoes
The first month or two in Hope Valley brought some chilly receptions for Johnson.
His predecessor had earned trust and support. Johnson was an unknown and potentially unwelcome cop.
Early on, he hung out in Savanna Landing’s community room with a set of dominoes on a table. He had developed a reputation as a domino man on his beats in north Tulsa, using his passion as a fun ice-breaker to interact with residents.
“When I would introduce myself, some people would just keep walking because they don’t know who you are,” Johnson said of Savanna Landing. “They’ve never seen you on this side of town.”
But during the grant researchers’ presentations, Johnson highlighted his 47-2 record in Hope Valley — an illustration of the community warming toward him.
The following day, a Tulsa World reporter sat with Johnson for a conversation over a game of dominoes in Johnson Park. A woman walked over halfway through to ask Johnson who was leading.
“He’s beating me right now. It’s OK. I’m gonna get him,” Johnson quipped.
“I bet you will,” she responded with a hearty laugh, knowing what fate likely was to befall the journalist. Johnson did ultimately improve his record to 48-2.
“You don’t see people just walking up to the police and laughing and giggling and having a good time,” Johnson explained. “You normally don’t see that. But if they trust you, they’ll feel more open and more prone to come up and have that interaction with you.”
A fatal shooting
A lukewarm welcome in Hope Valley isn’t his first experience with uncomfortable conversations.
Johnson and two Tulsa County deputies fatally shot Joshua Barre in June 2017 as he carried two knives into a north Tulsa convenience store during an episode of psychosis. A stun gun had failed to work, and Barre didn’t comply with commands.
A large and restless crowd gathered at the scene, prompting law enforcement to break out riot gear. A riot failed to manifest, and the tense situation eventually cooled off.
The District Attorney’s Office later cleared the three of any criminal wrongdoing.
Afterward, Johnson said he wanted to work in that area to show his love for the community and that he wouldn’t run away from what transpired. He did so when the next shift change opportunity came around.
Counseling, prayer and being around his spiritual leaders help him cope, he said.
“There were people who know I was involved in the incident,” Johnson said. “But the good thing about that is I wanted to tell my story the way I saw it happening in my eyes. And a lot of people understand. And there were some people who didn’t understand.”
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