Paul Johnston was a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a man of the sea, a US Army veteran, and a helluva writer whose column, “The Beat Goes On,” graced these pages for more than a decade. But he was best known in these parts as a trusted and respected Boston police officer whose rough exterior belied a caring, compassionate heart that made him a community policing pioneer in the city of Boston.
Paul died on Saturday in his adopted hometown of Bridgewater, where he was working on his boat. A heart attack felled him before care could reach him.
He retired from the Boston Police Department — and as a regular columnist for this paper— in 2003. But his unique voice, his sense of humor, and his good-natured manner were all very much in our minds when news of his sudden passing began to pass among former colleagues on Monday.
Captain Tom Lee, who started his career as one of Paul’s students at the Boston Police Academy in the 1980s, went on to serve as Paul’s commander when he headed up the C-11 district.
“Paul had a great rapport with the community and he was a great help to me with all the institutional knowledge he had. He could have gone anyplace in the department, but he liked being in Dorchester. Paul had that worn, street-weathered look about him, but he had a heart of gold. He’s one of those tough- looking guys, but then you found out he was anything but.”
Lee was the C-11 commander when Paul took his retirement in ’03. His comrades at the community service office planned a party in his honor at the stationhouse that was soon packed with friends and neighbors from across the city. He’d met many of them doing the work that he helped to pioneer as the veteran member of C-11’s Community Service Office— a job he started in 1991. Armed with crime stats and a notepad, Officer Johnston crisscrossed Dot’s villages on a nightly basis, hitting church basements and living rooms. Wherever two or more gathered in the name of civic engagement, Paul was there.
“The Boston Miracle got its face from high-profile clergymen and headline-gobbling suits. It got its feet — and its eyes and its ears — from cops like Paul Johnston,” wrote Jim O’Sullivan, the Reporter’s former news editor, on the occasion of Paul’s retirement.
O’Sullivan covered that stationhouse party in which Paul addressed his admirers, telling them that the source of his unique brand of policing came from the fact that he himself was a “a chronic complainer.”
“When I saw things I didn’t like, yeah, I was probably thinking to myself: How could we do something different?” Johnston told the room. “Why we do it this way, I don’t know. I just know that we can do better.”
Reporter publisher Ed Forry remembers that Paul Johnston began writing his “Beat Goes On” column for this paper in the 1980s at the urging of his then-commander, Deputy Superintendent Paul Bankowski. One of Officer Johnston’s duties while he was detailed to the Police Academy in the 1980s was to teach new recruits how to write incident reports – which are typically dry, “just the facts, m’am” texts. But Paul had a flair for writing about the bizarre, sometimes funny, and often heartfelt episodes of life as a beat cop in our neighborhood.
“He never made light of a serious thing, but Paul looked for those incidents that were interesting and sometimes hilarious. He had a way of turning a phrase,” said Capt. Lee.
Forry recalled that Paul would frequently pull an overnight detail working security at a South Boston homeless shelter. It was there that he would put pen to yellow legal pad and churn out his weekly 800-word chronicle of life as a C-11 patrolman.
“Paul would come in on a Monday or a Tuesday with this hand-written column and— more often than not— he’d begin a recitation for whoever was in the office to listen. He liked to make sure that the laugh lines worked,” Forry said.
They almost always did. But Paul Johnston brought more than gallows humor to the space. His was an authentic voice from the streets that he’d known as a youngster in Brighton and as a patrolman working the streets of Roxbury and Dorchester since 1968.
There was a grittiness and irreverence, to be sure. He dished out his share of verbal dope slaps for the unfortunate perps whose misdeeds crossed his radar. But he was self-deprecating and wasn’t beyond taking side-swipes at his fellow badges from time to time. Once, when writing about a prisoner hauled in for impersonating a police officer, he noted drolly, “No doughnuts were found on his person during the booking search.”
Paul was sincere and passionate in his prose, especially when it came to the crime he came to detest above all: domestic violence. The scourge of violence within families was a constant drumbeat in Paul’s space – especially around the holiday season. He helped to launch an innovative project in Fields Corne – Close to Home – that took direct aim at the problem and labored to help battered spouses find shelter and counsel. It was something that he took great pride in – and even more so when his daughter, Aimee, took up the cause with equal zeal.
“It’s something I understand better than I ever did before, how far-reaching it is,” Paul said at his retirement. “It’s not just two people. It takes everybody down, whole families, whole neighborhoods.”
As O’Sullivan noted at the time, Paul was late in arriving to his retirement party on that November day in 2003 because he was “off on a 209A”— BPD jargon for a domestic violence call.
Paul’s legacy can be found in many places in this community— most notably in the men and women at C-11 whom he mentored and befriended, whether they wore a badge or not. Paul’s voice has been absent in recent years, although the Reporter still routinely carries a column authored ably and with great wit and skill by C-11 Officer Mike Keaney.
Officer Johnston’s columns— including one classic about “Christmas at the Stationhouse” will be reproduced in our pages in the coming weeks.
Thanks for the memories, Paul. You will be missed.