San Jose Officer Michael Johnson Honored as a Hero in Life, Death

Michael Johnson, his sister said, was the type to "go big or go home."

"He didn't just play chess, he was captain of the chess team," Jamie Radack remembered of her brother. "He didn't just do jujitsu, he became a second-degree black belt. He didn't just make a cheesecake, he used our grandma's super secret recipe and he not only kept that recipe secret, he literally stored it in his gun safe."

He didn't just scuba dive, his sister continued, he swam with great white sharks in the Farallon Islands. At Starbucks he wouldn't just get a cup of coffee, he got a venti quad-shot upside-down caramel macchiato with extra caramel. Go big or go home.

"Mike loved his family with all his heart," Radack said in a eulogy both lighthearted and heartbroken, "and he expressed his love by being present.”

Photo by Greg Ramar

Photo by Greg Ramar

Thousands of people packed the SAP Center on Thursday to mourn the death of Officer Michael Johnson, who on March 24 became the 12th officer in San Jose's 166-year history to be killed in the line of duty. He was 38 years old, a 14-year veteran of the San Jose Police Department.

Leading up to the ceremony, officers from dozens of law enforcement agencies around the state marched to the SAP Center along with a motorcade. In the intersection outside, two fire engines suspended a giant, billowing American flag. Inside, a stage set with flower wreaths and photos of Johnson—in uniform, with his wife, Nikki, and another of him alone grinning at the camera—was flanked by two police cruisers and fronted by the fallen officer's flag-draped coffin.

“This ultimate sacrifice is an eternal reminder that safety comes at a supreme price," California Attorney General Kamala Harris remarked during the service, "and that price must always be remembered by a grateful state and our people.”

Family, friends and colleagues remembered Johnson as a loving husband and son, attentive uncle, faithful friend and a model officer. He married his wife in a civil ceremony in August 2013 and planned to renew their vows in a formal ceremony this coming August.

San Jose Diocese Bishop Patrick McGrath likened him to a meteorite that burned bright and fast, "that flashes across the sky from time to time. They don't last long but those who experience their light remain forever dazzled. That was true with Mike."

Menlo Park Officer David Solis, formerly a San Jose police officer, graduated in the same academy class as Johnson in 2001. That class has now lost two officers: 24-year-old rookie Jeffrey Fontana was gunned down during a high-risk traffic stop shortly after graduating.

 “To the Johnson family, we hurt for you like you would not believe," Solis offered.

Solis, Johnson, Fontana and the others came together 14 years ago as a bunch of strangers, scared and afraid, but they evolved into family.

"We didn't know what we were getting ourselves into," Solis recounted with some levity. "Most of us were kids except for two—who were old as dirt."

But Johnson, he said, carried himself with an air of authority.

"I remember the first time I noticed Mike. We were in class and we had some type of instructions on a firearm or weapon, something so ridiculous and so obscure that we would never use it in our career, and he got into an argument with our instructor about it. I remember thinking, 'Who is this guy? What is he doing? Shut up—you're going to kick yourself out of here.'"

Johnson turned out to be right and the instructor later apologized to the class.

"That's who Mike was," Solis said. "He was Yoda."

From a young age, Johnson's siblings figured he'd become a police officer, that he'd take after their dad, who spent decades as a military police officer in the U.S. Army, then a deputy of the Calaveras County Sheriff's Office. "The most badass cop ever," Radack said of their father, Daniel Johnson.

After spending some years working in retail, Johnson joined the San Jose police academy, graduating on June 15, 2001. During his tenure as an officer, he worked as a patrolman, court liaison, prescription drug fraud specialist and, recently, a field training officer in charge of mentoring young cadets. He also was assigned to the covert response unit because of his skill as an expert marksman and his reputation as an upstanding policeman.

Photo by Greg Ramar

Photo by Greg Ramar

Chief Larry Esquivel said Johnson was everything he looks for in an officer, someone tough but willing to engage the community. A warrior and a guardian, brave and compassionate.

"He was a San Jose officer prototype," Esquivel said. "Always had a smile on his face, respectful, physically fit. The type of officer who would get the job done."

When Johnson and his partner received a radio call nine days ago about a suicidal man with a rifle who had threatened to hurt himself and his family, they rushed to the scene and were met with gunfire. Johnson died on the spot. Officer Doug Potwora answered 57-year-old gunman Scott Dunham's shots with a round to the head.

"The officers did everything correctly," Esquivel said.

He recalled the moments following the officer's death, when he received a call from Assistant Chief Eddie Garcia, who emceed the ceremony.

"As a police chief, you never want to get that call," Esquivel said. "On Tuesday, March 24, 2015, I got that call. It was a day I will never forget, one etched in my mind forever. ... I was sickened. I was angry. I felt helpless ... like I was hit with a sledgehammer."

Solis asked the audience to give a standing ovation in celebration of Johnson's life near the end of his address, asking those present to express how they felt about the life he lived and sacrificed in the line of duty. A thundering round of applause with cheers and whistles lasted almost a minute.

He exhorted people to honor Johnson's life by "choosing to live differently."

"Don’t quit," he said to anyone reconsidering plans of becoming a police officer because of this tragedy. "Don’t let this make you quit. Choose to live differently. It’s this that brings us together to make us stronger. Everybody has a choice in deciding how to deal with this. But if you’re thinking of quitting, you’re doing yourself a disservice. ... Push forward. Keep going. Do not quit.”

He ended his address with a thank you to his fallen friend.

“We thank you for your life and your sacrifice for us," Solis said. "Death did not make you a hero. You were already a hero while you lived. You are forever stitched to us, bonded to us, and now your heart will beat through ours.”

Here is a photo gallery of the procession and memorial service.

Photo by Greg Ramar

Photo by Greg Ramar

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

12 Comments

  1. Thank you Jennifer. Hopefully, your story allows readers to see the vast majority of Law Enforcement Officers through the example of local hero, Michael Johnson. And hopefully, Law Enforcement Officers are inspired to live up to the standard he set and the community trust and support he earned.

  2. Sam Liccardo did not speak at the ceremony. I’m wondering if that was at the request of family. If so, then good for them. Like the rest of us, I doubt Mike had much use for Liccardo. A good man was lost, but you could easily tell that he was the product of a loving family. Very sad.

    • I was hoping that Liccardo wouldn’t speak and would like to thank him for not demanding or using his authority to do so. About the only decent thing, in my opinion, he’s done for SJPD.

  3. He came to the command post at Lewis and Senter the night of the incident. Had some pizza before taking a cat nap in the mobile command van. Thats a fact. Its interesting how many politicians spit in the face of public safety and then are drawn like fireflies to light when a tragedy occurs. I guess its no different than the light they were drawn to in from of city hall after Ferguson MO when Sam jumped on the bandwagon, vowing to bring any SJPD to justice for profiling… Obviously that drum was already beat to death… But the firefly just can’t stay away….

  4. It was probably the fear that thousands of police officers would have turned their backs to him that kept him away.

    • Yea that probably would have happened. Those cops just stick together no matter what. Just like when they turned their backs on the mayor in Long Island for speaking out about the murder of Eric Garner. Quite frankly I find it disturbing. And for the record I agree with Liccardo. When cops stand together on everything than you get bad apples like that racist Phillip White. Someone in that office should have reported him. But nope they are not going to say anything negative about their fellow officers. Very disturbing!!!!!!

  5. And I watched the funeral. One of his fellow officers said we use the term hero loosely. Celebrities, Sports Figures, and he added Johnson was a true hero. Well I am sorry, my heart is too full of the stories of innocent people who have died at the hands of cops, and spent long prison terms while innocent. The man in Alabama who was recently released after 30 years on death row in solitary. When he was released he went to his mothers grave and he forgave the corrupt cops and prosecutors who put him in jail. That is a true hero. Only these people will never be plastered all over the news. They (if alive) will go on living with most people never knowing what they endured. We all have our heroes. The ones without the power and crucified every day for something they did not do, those are my heroes. They are definitely the unsung.

    • David Brown- For every bad Cop, there are hundreds of good ones. We rarely ever hear about the good Cops because the media is hell bent on reporting on only the bad ones.

      For every innocent person who has unfairly done time, there are thousands who deserve to be in jail/prison. I too have stories of hundreds of mothers who have lost their children to murders, rapists, etc. Their stories quickly become yesterday’s news, but their pain is forever. They wait years, and decades for justice. Some get it and some never will, so forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for criminals who shoot and kill others over nothing more than road rage, money, a pair of shoes, the color of their skin, for being gay, for the color of clothes they wear, or for simply being homeless and vulnerable.

      We have hundreds of thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line for us everyday. They see and deal with things no human being should have to. They do it because they love this country, and our community. To me, they are heroes, and they deserved to be honored. Officer Johnson is a hero in my eyes, and I for one am grateful for his service to our community.

  6. Kathleen, I am not shedding tears for “criminals who shoot and kill others over nothing more than road rage etc,etc.” Forgive me if I think one innocent life killed or spent in prison is grossly wrong. I am talking about the innocent. Not everyone is guilty that has died at a cops hand or is rotting in prison. I wonder how you would feel if one of yours was wrongly accused. “They do it because they love this country and our community” Really, you know that? Again forgive me if I do not believe all you say. I know too many other sad,sad stories.

    • David Brown: No innocent person should ever do time in prison. On that we can agree. Our judicial system is far from perfect, on that we can agree too.

      I do think you took what I said out of context. You can’t lump one bad Cop in with hundreds of thousands of others. It just isn’t fair, just, or true. That is all I was saying.