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Fired Miami Gardens police chief apologizes after arrest: ‘The stress overwhelmed me’

Miami Gardens Police Chief Stephen Johnson, shown in this Nov. 5, 2010 file photo when he was North Miami police chief, was fired Friday after he was caught soliciting a prostitute, according to the Miami Gardens Police Department.
Miami Gardens Police Chief Stephen Johnson, shown in this Nov. 5, 2010 file photo when he was North Miami police chief, was fired Friday after he was caught soliciting a prostitute, according to the Miami Gardens Police Department. FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER

Stephen Johnson arrived in Miami Gardens almost a year ago with a mission: to repair a frayed relationship between the police department and the community.

On Friday night, he lost his job after being arrested and charged with soliciting a prostitute at a Dania Beach hotel as part of a sting operation by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

On Saturday morning, when Johnson bonded out of the Broward County Jail, a gaggle of TV cameras greeted him. He then apologized for the arrest and pointed to stress on the job for his poor judgment.

“I want to apologize to the community, and I want to apologize to my elected officials,” he told reporters. “The stress overwhelmed me, and I made a very bad decision to deal with that moment I’ve never experienced before.”

In his remarks, Johnson made a vague reference to an incident on Friday morning involving a 10-year girl who was struck by an unmarked Miami Gardens police car. Johnson, however, did not elaborate further about how the incident and his arrest were connected, but he said it was a stressful situation.

Johnson’s arrest has again thrust the police department into a negative spotlight. It comes just days after protesters marched into City Hall to express their anger over the fatal police shooting of a mentally ill man fewer than two weeks ago.

On Saturday, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert told the Miami Herald that the city and police department will move on from this incident.

“Mr. Johnson’s actions were unacceptable and I support the city manager’s decision to end his tenure as chief of police immediately,” he said. “The city police department is more than one man. It is hundreds of dedicated men and women that rise to serve the wonderful residents of the city. Their duty is unchanged and their service will not be interrupted. We will move forward as a police department, city, and community, together.”

The Broward Sheriff’s Office gave this account of Johnson’s arrest:

On Friday, Johnson used his cellphone to call a number he’d found on the escort section of backpage.com and spoke to a woman he believed to be a prostitute. They discussed him paying $80 for 30 minutes with one woman, later settling on $100 for a threesome.

At about 6:20 p.m. Friday, Johnson arrived at an unidentified hotel in Dania Beach with two condoms in his back pocket. He knocked on the door of room 423, where he was greeted by the presumed prostitutes. As soon as he paid the $100, he was arrested.

Detectives captured the encounter with Johnson on video and audio.

Within an hour of the arrest, City Manager Cameron Benson fired Johnson and named Assistant Police Chief Antonio Brooklen interim chief. Then the city released this statement:

“We remain committed to excellence and integrity on every level. We will not allow Mr. Johnson’s bad judgment to reflect negatively on the hardworking officers of the city of Miami Gardens and the residents they serve on a daily basis.”

The expectations had been high for Johnson, a veteran cop. He’d come with 30 years of experience working in the public sector. Rising from a rookie cop to police chief in North Miami during the first 27 years, he then transitioned to the city’s administration when he was appointed interim city manager in August 2011. Within three months, he was given the permanent job.

By spring 2014, city administrators in Miami Gardens were looking for a new top cop after losing former chief Matthew Boyd — the young city’s first and only police chief at the time — and his deputy chief Paul Miller when they resigned amid allegations of harassment and illegal stop-and-frisk tactics at the 207 Quikstop. The scandal, brought to light after the Miami Herald obtained surveillance videos from the convenience store owners showing cops’ behavior, left a blemish on the department’s reputation.

In April 2014, Johnson donned the four gold stars on his collar for Miami Gardens as he set out to improve the reputation of the police department.

He did make some strides in gaining favor with the community. At his first appearance before the City Council last year, he gave the public his cell phone number to make himself accessible. He was more present at community events and crime watch meetings.

Before he was hired in Miami Gardens, Johnson did face some controversy when he was police chief in North Miami. He was criticized for buying 43 replica police badges for former North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre without consulting the city manager. According to evaluations from his time on the North Miami force, he was noted for submitting police reports late and writing correspondence with grammatical errors.

He’d recently been dealing with the shooting death of a mentally ill man, Lavall Hall. He had been shot by police officer Eddo Trimino. Trimino and his partner claim Hall was shot after he struck the officers with a broomstick. Johnson supported his officers, tell the press they “did the best they could.”

Johnson is also listed as a pastor at Bethel House of God Church in Hallandale Beach, according to the congregation’s website. Efforts to reach church officials were unsuccessful.

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