ESTERO — Seminole Police Department Lieutenant Joseph P. Johnson was laid to rest June 5 after a 41-year career in law enforcement, the last 10 years spent as an investigator at SPD and most recently in its Homeland and Infrastructure Security Unit.
Johnson, 64, perished in the line of duty during a one-car accident as he was traveling between reservations on U.S. 27 in Palm Beach County late on May 29. He was transported to St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach where he was pronounced deceased in the early morning hours of May 30. He is only the second SPD officer to fall in the line of duty.
Hundreds of police officers in cruisers, SUVs and motorcycles traveled from police departments around the state to pay their final respects to Johnson at a memorial service at the Hertz Arena in Estero. Men and women in blue filled the arena as speakers honored Johnson’s memory with recollections of his life and career.
Inside the arena, Johnson’s flag-draped casket was surrounded by flowers, an SPD cruiser and an SPD pickup truck. Flags of the U.S., Seminole Tribe, Florida, SPD and Collier County Sheriff’s Office provided a backdrop for the memorial. Large screens showed photos of Johnson with family and colleagues during the two-hour visitation before the memorial service.
Johnson spent 26 years with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, five years at the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office and 10 years with the SPD. In 2013, the Broward County Crime Commission named Johnson one of the county’s Detectives of the Year.
“He tried to retire twice before coming to SPD,” Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. said to the audience. “He wanted to make sure the world could be a better place. Because of his sacrifices, the world tomorrow will be better for it. Celebrate what he has given and honor his memory every day.”
Executive Director of Public Safety William Latchford hired Johnson in 2009 and said he wished he knew him longer.
“He will be remembered for how he lived his life and cared for people,” Latchford said. “He made sure he left everyone he came across as better than when he found them. I believe Joe’s place on earth was to bless us. He took countless officers under his wing and taught them life lessons. He made sure his legacy was passed along to all of us.”
At the end of his remarks, Latchford announced he posthumously promoted Johnson to captain.
“He was a skilled investigator,” Latchford said. “He was a bulldog when it came to finding answers.”
SPD Chief of Police John Auer reiterated Johnson’s desire to make the world a better place.
“Joe was old school and had a strong work ethic,” Auer said. “Today we are in the presence of a true hero. He always had your back and put others first.”
Johnson’s daughter Ariana Johnson said a few words come to mind when she thinks of her father: sacrifice, service and commitment.
“He sacrificed his life for the country he loved,” she said. “I’ll miss his crazy stories of arresting bad guys, settling down hysterical people and getting incriminating confessions out of suspects. He was a true master of his trade.”
She said at her father’s core, he was a family man.
“I could not have asked for a better role model or protector than my dad,” she said. “His best advice was to do what makes you happy and work hard at it. My dad’s story is one of a hero and heroes are not easily forgotten.”
Former Hendry County Sheriff Ronnie Lee worked with Johnson and recalled his endearing personality.
“Good people loved him and the outlaws feared him,” Lee said. “He will be remembered by the good people and by the ones he put away. Even the ones he arrested came to like him.”
Collier County Sheriff’s Office Captain Mark Baker knew Johnson for 30 years and said he was a good judge of character, a consummate professional and committed to serving the community.
After the memorial service, the crowd adjourned outdoors for traditional law enforcement honors. Hundreds of law enforcement officers in dress uniforms lined the road from the arena to an adjacent field for the ceremony. Each officer saluted as the hearse passed by. Once the family gathered under the tent, a symbol of a fallen warrior, a riderless horse with Johnson’s boots placed backwards in the stirrups, walked by the mourners.
The flag that draped Johnson’s casket was ceremoniously folded. Latchford got down on one knee and presented it to Johnson’s widow.
A bugler then played taps and a large group of bagpipers played “Amazing Grace.” The explosive sound of the three-volley salute was followed by a traditional end of watch call amplified over speakers for all to hear. The dispatcher called for Johnson, twice. When there was no reply, the dispatcher announced the officer had fallen in the line of duty.
Four helicopters came from the south and flew over the observance, but one fell away from the rest to create the missing man formation.
Born in Fort Myers, Johnson graduated from Naples High School, earned his associate of arts degree from Florida SouthWestern State College, joined the U.S. Army and served as a military police in the Vietnam War.
He is survived by his wife Nadereh, daughters Ariana and Cara, three grandchildren, siblings Maggie, Grady and Jeanette and several nieces and nephews.