The Embattled Chief

News Feature

When then-General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54 chose 26-year Boston police veteran Paul E. Johnson to be Harvard's police chief in 1983, he made the choice largely on one criterion: professionalism.

Johnson, who had served as director of training and education for the city's force, was a paragon of professionalism. And Steiner said he wanted, above all else, "a professional police department here."

"A lot of people with more command experience, higher rank, applied for the job at Harvard," says Boston Lt. Det. Richard C. Cox, who now occupies the same corner office Johnson used when the chief was the area police commander for sections of Roxbury, North Dorchester and Mattapan. "I happen to be privy to the fact that after Paul's interview at Harvard, they basically stopped looking."

Ten years later, Johnson, who turns 63 this year, is considering retiring to his home on Martha's Vineyard, police department sources say. Johnson has long told acquaintances that a decade at Harvard would be enough, although his current boss, General Counsel Margaret H. Marshall, says she has not discussed retirement with him.

If he leaves on December 6-the date he was hired in 1983--Johnson will bequeath to his successor a department very much like the one Steiner wanted when he hired him. By nearly all accounts, Harvard police are more professional, have better facilities and hire and retain far better educated officers than they did a decade ago.


Johnson, then, has made Steiner's vision a reality, but the chief may leave a department that is bitterly divided over charges of discrimination and on-the-job harassment in its security guard unit. Many employees say internal relations are bad and frequently bitter, though police officers have a better working relationship than do the guards.

"As a commander, I have respect for him," says one department employee. "But as an overseer of department policy, he is uninformed of the atmosphere and the conditions we're working under."

Some of these conditions may be race-related, though the extent of such troubles within the ranks is hotly debated. Johnson has insisted there is no racism in his department, suggesting that such a problem would be inconceivable in an office where the chief is Black.

"How could I, as a Black man, tolerate a racist supervisor?" Johnson said in an interview last year. "That wouldn't make any sense."

Sources within the department, however, say Johnson has long ignored hints of racial troubles, and the department--particularly the security division--is now beginning to pay the price. Some have dubbed Johnson "No Waves," suggesting he is content if the department is running smoothly even when a tempest is storming beneath the surface.

Even those who agree that the department fairly treats its employees blame Johnson for not being assertive enough in his job.

"I think he's too mellow," says one guard. "I think he's just riding the tide to retirement."

Even Manager of Operations for Security Robert J. Dowling, whom Johnson has defended in the face of allegations of harassment and discrimination in the security guard unit, said in a February interview that he would like the chief to assert himself more.

Some veteran Johnson watchers see this criticism as symptomatic of a larger problem with Johnson's management style.

"Decision-making: He's not too good at that," says one longtime Johnson friend. "He paul E. Johnson has been a police officer for nearly four decades. He has been everything from a patrol officer to an area police commander. In December, he will complete his tenth year as the chief of the Harvard University Police Department. He is known for his consummate professionalism, but whenever he has faced problems on the job, police department employees say Johnson has always followed one simple rule: tends to vacillate and find a way to get by day by day."

Johnson did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.