The sleek black Crown Victoria rolled along the shattered block of Bouvier Street and all talk stopped.

Even the youngest kids on this desolate North Philadelphia street know what was up.

A cop had arrived.

The car pulled up to a narrow, green rowhouse. A burly cop stepped out in full uniform and knocked on the door.

A woman answered, immediately recognized the placid face of Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, and smiled. “I better not get hurt because of you,” Shirley Davis, 67, said with a nervous laugh.

Johnson, returning to his childhood home for a quick hello, was greeted in the way he is all across the city – with a mix of respect, anger and a shrug. Teenagers glared at him, not knowing who he was or what he wanted. He told them his title. The kids were not impressed.

“What are you doing about the streets?” asked Tony Hall, 12.

Johnson remained unflappable. In a gentle, grandfatherly way, he preached the importance of a good education.

This is his comfort zone. This is his message. Johnson has always felt more at ease on a hardscrabble street in the role of a social worker, than he has as the chief in a sprawling office, decorated with leather furniture and artwork, at police headquarters.

In seven months Johnson will retire at a time of untamable murder in a city plagued with too many illegal guns and drugs. Yesterday saw the 200th murder of the year.

While some say Johnson has the impossible job of fixing the unfixable, residents on the poorest and richest streets alike blame him for not doing enough. His rank and file describe him as either apathetic or overwhelmed.

But Johnson – who has chased gunmen, convinced wanted criminals to give up and led one of the largest police-corruption investigations in city history – says he’s at peace.

His force of 6,600 cannot stem violence alone, he says. Instead Johnson focuses on things he believes he can change. He’s diversified the department, and he’s mentored dozens of kids to try to save them from the deadly drug culture.

With this grounded, secure man, married father of three successful sons, at the helm, more minorities are of rank than ever before. He describes himself foremost as a proud Black Muslim, a product of the civil-rights era. . .

Johnson won’t waver on his opinions of stop-and-frisk, the controversial police tactic, and other forms of what he describes as apartheid-style policing. On nights and weekends, he mingles with community activists, inmates or recovering addicts. . .

“People criticize him and say he is trying to be a social worker,” said Malik Aziz, a gang member turned Men United leader and one of Johnson’s close friends. “But I think he is a commissioner who thinks traditional policing is not working. He is trying to make a change for people out in the streets.”

But critics contend that Johnson only hangs in the neighborhoods to build support in the neighborhoods and avoid the real tough problem of being top cop.

“The commissioner doesn’t push his beliefs on anyone, but his whole life is that of a Muslim,” says Imam Suetwedien A. Muhammad of Germantown’s Masjid Muhammad, one of three mosques Johnson frequents for Jumah, or Friday prayer.

The Imam recited one of Johnson’s favorite passages from the Koran’s Sura 13: “Never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.”


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