‘I wanted to help people’

Whether it was Ozaukee County residents or Iraqi citizens, Sheriff Jim Johnson’s mission during his career in law enforcement and the military has always been to protect others

OZAUKEE COUNTY SHERIFF JIM JOHNSON, stood in his office sporting a beard to put him in character as Santa Claus for the holiday season, displayed some photos from his days as a K-9 officer with his partner Argo. In 31 years with the department, Johnson has held almost every job available, he said. Johnson’s retiring from the department on Jan. 2. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Jim Johnson had already served about a decade as a member of the Ozaukee County Sheriffs Office when he was engaged in another type of police work patrolling the streets of Baghdad leading a squad of soldiers tasked with restoring order during Operation Iraqi Freedom as a member of the 32nd Military Police Co. of the Wisconsin Army National Guard.

“One of our jobs was to stabilize  the situation and get Iraqi police back working,” said Johnson, who is wrapping up a 31-career with the department. “We rebuilt police stations and worked to restore confidence” in law and order. “I worked with Iraqi citizens and tried to protect them.

“We averaged one and a half homicides a day. There was a breakdown in government structure,” he said.

It was dangerous work.

“We were exposed to a lot of hostile fire and explosions. I lost one of my soldiers,” he said.

Johnson was awarded the Bronze Star medal and his unit was awarded the Valorous Unit Award, the second highest U.S. Army unit decoration bestowed on units that display “extraordinary heroism.” It is considered equivalent to the Silver Star, which is awarded to individuals for gallantry.

“The citation for the Bronze Star was more for the accumulation of work that had been done,” Johnson said.

His military service —which included 10 years in the Marine Corps from 1980 to 1990, U.S. Army Reserves in 1991 and 1992, as well as the National Guard from 1999 to 2004 — was one of the more memorable parts of a decades-long career that will come to an end in January when his term as Ozaukee County Sheriff comes to an end.

Johnson said he knew when he graduated from Port Washington High School in 1980 that he wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement.

“I looked up to (Port Washington Police Officers) like Al Esselmann and Butch Klopp, guys that took the time to talk to us kids,” he said.

“In the most simplistic terms, I wanted to help people. It’s rewarding to be able to help people who need help. I wanted to make a difference in peoples lives. A positive difference,” he said.

Johnson was elected sheriff in 2014, and re-elected in 2018.

His career began in 1991 when he came home and got a job at Badger Meter. But he had not given up his dream.

“I convinced my wife it would be a good opportunity to work in law enforcement,” he said.

His hope was to get a job with the Port Police Department so he applied there and at the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office simultaneously. It was former Sheriff Mike Milas who called first.

“I took a nickel (per hour) cut in pay from Badger to work in the Sheriff’s Department,” he remembered.

He went to work in the old jail that was attached to the Ozaukee County Administration Center, which makes him the last full-time Sheriff’s Office employee who worked in the old jail.

Since then, he has worked almost every job there is in the department — patrol, K-9 handler, detective, jail administrator, captain and undersheriff before being elected Sheriff.

“I’ve been blessed to do a lot of different jobs the last 31 years,” he said. “I enjoyed them all.”

If he had to pick one job that he enjoyed most, he said he would pick being a patrol officer,.

“You’re often the first person on the scene and the first person to be able to help someone in crisis and to make a difference,” he said.

“In the jail  I was able to guide and mentor younger deputies. As detective, I enjoyed the cerebral part of figuring out what happened. And as you go through and become a supervisor and leader you work to make the organization better. If you ask me, the job I liked the most was as a patrolman.”

One of Johnson’s most recognized achievements was being part of the team — as a detective and as sheriff — that solved the murder of Traci Hammerberg, a Port Washington teenager whose body was found in the Town of Grafton on Dec. 15, 1984.

She had been raped, strangled and beaten. The investigation included hundreds of interviews and the collection of DNA samples from more than 400 people, the largest collection ever made for a Wisconsin case.

Investigators, who included retired detective Jeff Taylor and Neil McGrath of the state Dept. of Criminal Investigation — never gave up on the case and in October 2019 they were able to announce they had found the killer, Philip Cross, 21 at the time, of Port Washington who died of a drug overdose in 2012 in Milwaukee.

The discovery was made with help from an FBI DNA database in Los Angeles that used a “forensic genetic genealogy” approach, which built Cross’ family tree in reverse based on DNA left at the crime scene.

It was a technique used to capture the notorious Golden State Killer and was the first time it had been used in Wisconsin.

”I was glad we brought that to a conclusion, especially for the families,” Johnson said. “There were people who thought a group of friends was involved. Us being able to actually solve it helped the community to heal,” he said. “I was glad to be a part of that.”

Asked what he was most proud of as sheriff, Johnson cited community engagement efforts and collaborations with other departments and non-profit organizations.

“We’ve been able to work with our community partners to make Ozaukee County a better place to live,” he said.

Another accomplishment of his tenure, but one that remains unfinished, he said, is the crisis intervention training for deputies, police officers and other first responders on how to deal with mental illness and substance abuse cases, he said.

But the task isn’t complete, he added.

“We wanted to make sure we have those tools available. We were aggressive in getting that training. But there were some other engagement pieces we just couldn’t get to,” he said. “We had a lot of things on our  plate. But I think Sheriff Knowles will be carrying those pieces forward because she has a commitment to that.”

Johnson, 61, said he will have no problem keeping busy in retirement.

He is an adjunct professor at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon and will continue to teach courses on justice and public policy, criminal investigation, criminal psychology, stress management for law enforcement and public information and community leadership.

He’s also very active with the American Legion and is a past commander of the Van Ells-Schanen American Legion Post in Port Washington and Second District Commander.

He created the Legion’s 100 Miles for Hope, which promotes physical and mental wellness among veterans.

He also is founder of the Wisconsin American Legion Law Enforcement Academy, a one-week boot camp at the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy at Fort McCoy that for the last five years has introduced 52 high school juniors and seniors each year to potential careers in law enforcement.

Instructors include Legionnaires who have law enforcement experience, State Patrol and other police officers from around the state and federal officers.

“We want to provide information to the students so they can see what law enforcement is about. We’re not trying to sell law enforcement (as a career),” he said. “We want them to see it for what it really is.”

It’s a boot-camp-like —”Marine Corps-style — experience for the students, with Johnson, using his military experience, waking them up at 5 a.m. every day and the training and education not stopping until 10 p.m., he said.

And no cell phones.

“My involvement with the academy is truly rewarding and energizing,” he said. “The kids are awesome. Our future is in good hands.”

All activities and classes are coed, with the number of students divided evenly between males and females. But that’s only due to housing accommodations.

The number of applicants each year is double the number that can be accommodated, Johnson said, with the majority of those applying being young women.

“I don’t know why that is,” he said. “There are more and more females in the field.”

Exhibit A of that trend is the election of Knowles as Johnson’s successor, he said.

Knowles, a native of Cedar Grove, and Belgium resident, will take office in January as the first woman sheriff in Ozaukee County history.

“I think (Knowles’ election) is a positive for the agency and she’s earned that level of trust,” he said.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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