Blue Line

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From constable to chief


March 4, 2014
By Danette Dooley

by Danette Dooley

After the official opening of the newly renovated and expanded Royal Newfoundland Constabulary headquarters in St. John’s on Feb. 12, the chief tendered his resignation.

Robert Johnston said his work-related bucket list is now complete. After 35 years in the force, the timing was right to retire.

“Today was such an important day for the RNC and I am so honoured to be part of it,” a beaming Johnston said.

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{Began as a teen}

Johnston joined the RNC in 1979 when he was 19 years old. At that time, he said, the old police headquarters in St. John’s was being completed.

The building (in the same historic site as the new building at Fort Townsend) was designed without any thought for women police officers, he said, and with limited technology.

The new building represents a provincial police service that supports the province’s Northeast Avalon, Western Labrador and Corner Brook areas.

Policing has changed over the years, said Johnston, but what remains a constant is the people that the force works hard to protect; some he will never forget.

Johnston recalls the day he picked up the phone to tell Greg Parsons “It’s over.” Brian Doyle had been charged with and pled guilty to the murder of Parsons’ mother, Catherine Carroll. Parsons had been convicted of the crime but cleared through forensic evidence. It was Johnston who led the investigation to find the real killer.

Another case that will stay with him is the three missing O’Brien boys. The children went missing with their father Gary O’Brien. Their mother, Diana O’Brien, is a courageous woman, he said.

“We will always follow up on new leads but looking at the evidence after we found the engine block (of Gary O’Brien’s car) in the ocean off Red Head… there was a higher probability that it could have been murder-suicide. Diana looked me in the eye and said ‘I don’t think that’s the case.’ She said ‘I’m going to continue to have hope’ and I admire her so much for that.”

While policing opens a window on some of the most heinous crimes, it’s also an opportunity to see just how strong the human spirit can be.

Johnston recalls, as a young father and plain-clothed member of the force’s criminal investigation division, responding to a call of a sudden death.

A baby had died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). A uniformed officer and paramedic were at the home when Johnston arrived.

“The lady was carrying the lifeless child in her arms. She wouldn’t give it up. She eventually gave me the child to carry in my arms in an unmarked police car to the hospital. She felt that there was still some hope that her child might come back but that if (the baby) went in a marked car or in an ambulance she was afraid she wouldn’t see her child again.”

{New building tied to resignation}

Johnston’s retirement was effective Feb. 28. Being part of the grand opening was important to him, he said. When he took over as police chief in 2010, the management team put in place a three-year strategic process. That plan will be complete this year and strategic planning will begin again soon to outline a road map for the next three years.

“I think it’s unfair for me to put together a plan and ask somebody else to execute it.”

While it’s the government’s decision who to appoint as chief, Johnston is optimistic his replacement will come from within.

“I have the utmost confidence that there are officers here today who can move the organization forward in many different ways – and I’ll offer that opinion to government.”

Johnston said he’s proud of the police officers and civilian members of the force who, over the past few years, have worked out of various areas of the city while the building was undergoing its $42 million make-over.

“Any success that I’ve had a chief of police is because I’m surrounded by exceptional managers and a dedicated a group of police officers and civilian employees… We are now here under one roof and there is nothing that the RNC is not going to be able to take on in relation to policing challenges in the future.”

In his remarks at the grand opening, Johnston spoke of the force’s positive partnerships with the provincial government, community groups, the RCMP and other agencies.

The force’s success has been the result of many partnerships, he said, including with Memorial University of Newfoundland in developing police recruits and supervisors. “We are attracting some of the brightest and most compassionate Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to policing.”

Throughout the force’s history, Johnston said, RNC members have worked hard under less than ideal conditions in the interest of safe and healthy communities. My father told me, ‘Anyone can do it on a good day.'”

Before leaving the podium Johnston thanked retired RNC Chief Joe Browne. Browne worked tirelessly with the government to secure funding for the entire RNC Campus development, he said.

Today’s RNC has the latest in investigative techniques and technology to fight organized crime groups and others who break the law, Johnston said.

“We have all the capabilities of any modern progressive police service anywhere in the country to deal with organized crime… We will never eliminate it but we will do whatever it takes to make sure these people are not going to set up violent organized crime activities in our communities.”

Touted as the oldest police force in North America, the RNC has grown exponentially over the past decade, with the addition of 85 new police officers and 29 civilian employees.

The number of female officers has increased to almost 25 per cent.

“Our members don’t judge each other by the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. They judge them by their integrity and their ability to do their job,” said Johnston, “so if they’re treating each other like that they are going to treat the public like that.”

{Government response}

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Tom Marshall said he has seen first-hand Johnston’s dedication to the RNC and the province.

“Whether he was a new constable patrolling the streets of St. John’s or serving in his capacity as chief, Bob has been an exemplary police officer and an outstanding role model for all members of the RNC. On behalf of the people of the province, I wish him all the best as he begins this next chapter of his life.”

Justice Minister Darin King said Johnston has always been dedicated to ensuring that the RNC’s vision of safer communities through policing excellence is met.

“Bob has been instrumental in the evolution of the RNC as it has become one of the world’s finest police services. The fact that he worked his way through the ranks from constable to chief is a testament to his hard work and the respect that he has garnered from many corners. I congratulate him on an outstanding career and wish him a pleasant retirement.”

The province’s deputy justice minister and deputy attorney general Paul Noble described Johnston as “a police officer’s police officer.”

“Deeply passionate about promoting the RNC, protecting the community, keeping the vulnerable safe and advancing the cause of justice writ large, he accomplished all these things and more,” Noble said.

Johnston earned the respect of the community, civilian and uniformed members of the force, his peers across the country and the provincial government, Noble said.

{Job is a privilege}

Johnston said it’s been a privilege leading the RNC. He now looks forward to spending more time with his wife – an educator who retired just over a year ago.

“We’re practically empty nesters,” he said.

“My wife and I had very busy careers but we are best friends and we have no idea what the future will bring. I know we will both want to be challenged. I believe it’s important that everybody has purpose. I’m not sure what that purpose or that challenge will be but I’m looking forward to whatever is ahead for us.”

dooley@blueline.ca