Sitting in his police car as rain falls on a cold, early morning, Senior Airman Deric Johnson prepares for the day’s patrol through northern Italy’s Aviano Air Base.
Fog blankets the white car’s windshield as the car begins to warm up. The 28-year-old security forces Airman reaches for the knob and sets the defogger on full blast.
“Alright. Let’s get to it,” Johnson says to himself, amping himself up for another day of protecting his community.
As a member of the 31st Security Forces Squadron, Johnson works a variety of shifts, but a majority of the time, he finds himself as the day’s Police One officer.
As Police One, Johnson fills a technical sergeant position and acts as the first-line supervisor for all security forces police officers performing law enforcement duties.
Not long ago, Johnson was patrolling his hometown of Eden, N.C., as a city police officer.
Johnson, who was barely old enough to order a drink at the bar at the time, knew he wanted to make a difference in his community – a mindset he inherited from his mother, who’s also a police officer.
“My dad says it best. He says, ‘Son, you’re a C.O.P. – a citizen on patrol,’” Johnson recalled, who joined the Air Force when he was 24 years old. “You know, the people make us. I’m part of the community. I have an obligation to be there for them. To have those answers for them when they doubt … I protect them, and in turn, the community protects me. Community … we’re all together.”
Whether it’s offering a crying child a piece of candy or going out of his way to greet members of his community, getting to know people comes easy to Johnson.
Johnson begins every morning he patrols as Police One by walking through the base exchange.
It’s impossible for Johnson to walk more than 5 feet without someone stopping to say hello or for him to greet a passerby, whether he knows them or not.
“I have a phrase, ‘I’ve never met a stranger.’ I mean, of course I’ve met strangers, but I try to make every stranger an acquaintance by the time we walk away. It makes the world less lonely,” Johnson said.
Walking alongside Johnson is an experience in itself. It’s hard to tell if he’s patrolling his community or running for political office.
“People get confused when they walk around with me. I can have a conversation with someone for 20 minutes and walk away best friends, though we didn’t know one another when we started talking,” Johnson said. “Friends say, ‘Wait, you didn’t know that person? It seemed like you were best friends.’ And I’ll say, ‘I didn’t know them, but now I do. And now we’re tight.’”
It’s good that Johnson enjoys getting to know people because talking is an important part of his job.
“If people don’t know me, they’re not going to come up to me when there’s a problem,” he said. “And I’m in the business of taking care of problems and stopping them before they exist. So yeah, knowing people is essential if I want to actually be good at my job.”
Then his words are spoken into action.
Shortly after greeting a commissary worker, who’s old enough to be Johnson’s grandfather, a technical sergeant comes up to Johnson.
“HEY!,” she greets Johnson, both exchanging a hug. “I was thinking, and I think I have more info.” The sergeant would help identify a suspect from a case that Johnson had previously responded to when the woman reported a theft in her work center’s parking lot.
“Since that tech. (sergeant) knew I was someone who could help her, she felt comfortable enough to come right up to me and give us more info on the case,” Johnson said. “There is a method to my madness. Well, that’s if you consider being friendly, madness.”
Caring about people is what it comes down to for Johnson, and a simple question that his first mentor at the Eden Police Department asked him helps keep “people” in mind.
“Are you going to treat people with salt or with sugar?” Johnson recalls his mentor asking. “You can treat people salty, but is that how you’d want to be treated? Is that what’s going to make a person trust you? No. I treat people with sugar. I know that’s how I’d want to be treated, so that’s how I’ll treat every person I meet.”