Tommie Johnson III was a young police officer in Norman — a “pup” as his fellow officers would call him — when he made a routine traffic stop of a woman who had a warrant for an unpaid ticket. He arrested her, impounded her car, and took her to post bond.
“By the book, I was a good cop that day, I did my job,” Johnson said. “But I didn’t feel like a good cop that day.”
Johnson hadn’t removed a violent criminal from the streets or made someone’s life better. He became a police officer to help others but that mission didn’t feel accomplished.
“I just kept thinking that the old way is flawed,” Johnson said.
Years later, Johnson is running for Oklahoma County sheriff, seeking to rethink some of the tenets of the criminal justice system and modernize an agency with new levels of transparency and investment.
Johnson, a first-time political candidate, beat incumbent Sheriff P.D. Taylor in the Republican primary and faces Democrat Wayland Cubit, an Oklahoma City police officer, in the Nov. 3 general election.
His arrest of a woman with an outstanding traffic ticket as a young officer is the inspiration for his proposed program to reduce arrests of nonviolent offenders who may be unable to afford citations.
Working with municipalities across the county, Johnson wants to expand an existing program that allows those with low-level traffic violations or other misdemeanors to be able to file their income tax returns and sign away future refunds to pay off a ticket.
“This would help them, one, stay squared with the IRS,” Johnson said. “Two, you are paying your bill and we take it out of your taxes, so now you are satisfied with the county or the city.
“Third, the most important thing, we allow someone to remain a productive member of society and provide for their family. Everybody wins.”
Johnson’s platform also includes expanding the existing school resource officer program to put on assemblies that train students on how to interact with law enforcement and explain why things are done a certain way during an encounter.
He also wants body cameras for every member of the sheriff’s office, a raise for employees, and a quarterly financial report that is easy for the public to read.
“I think we’ve had a void in leadership and (the sheriff’s) department has been outpaced by what our community wants,” Johnson said.
‘His own man’
Raised in south Oklahoma City, Johnson graduated from U.S. Grant High School and headed to college to play baseball.
An injury sidelined his professional dreams, but coaching became a new outlet for his love of the game. When his first child arrived, Johnson sought a more stable profession and followed a friend’s suggestion to become a police officer.
Johnson found another team environment in law enforcement and launched his career at the University of Oklahoma before later joining the Norman Police Department in 2015.
In Norman, Johnson served on the department’s bargaining committee, uniform committee, and hiring board.
Johnson was also involved in recruitment, where he enjoyed speaking with young black men and women who may have had a negative impression of the police.
“I was able to relate to people where being a police officer wasn’t your first choice,” Johnson said. “I came from the same background, so I could really relate.”
If being a police officer was at times at odds with some in his community, his decision to run as a Republican was especially tough for some to comprehend, Johnson said.
Some friends and relatives questioned his political party, but Johnson said his perspective on law enforcement always included conservative ideals.
Raised a Democrat, Johnson said his parents encouraged him to be a free thinker.
“People have an idea of what they want you to be and when you don’t conform to that idea they have a problem,” Johnson said.
His wife, Amanda Kay Johnson, agreed.
“Tommie has always been his own man, but he is also someone where what you see is what you get, he won’t hide who he is,” she said.
Johnson said he supports criminal justice reform efforts and wants to find alternatives to lengthy prison sentences or overcrowding the county jail.
But speaking to Republican voters earlier this year, Johnson said he was against State Question 805, which would end some sentence enhancements.
He also does not support efforts to discontinue the county jail’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and has said he wouldn’t enforce a mask mandate as sheriff.
Earlier this year, in response to nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the city council of Norman voted to divert some police funding towards community outreach programs. Johnson called it one of his “saddest moments.”
“It hurts your feelings to no end,” Johnson said.
Johnson sees a need for more spending in the county sheriff’s office, including for more training, body cameras, and raises.
But he has also pledged to use conservative principals to spot wasteful spending as a way to cover some of the cost.
Johnson also said the recent decision by county commissioners to strip the sheriff of control of the county jail offers the chance for the next sheriff to be more community oriented.
Yet he doesn’t want to ignore the jail entirely.
“I still want to learn (how it works) because I don’t think this model will last forever and if it ever goes back (to sheriff control) I want to hit the ground running,” Johnson said.
Further reading about the other candidate in the Oklahoma County sheriff’s race: