Robbie Johnson named new Plaquemine Police Chief

Veteran discusses plans for PPD, along with his future intentions,

Staff Report

Robbie Johnson, who came out of retirement earlier this year to work as a chief administrator of the Plaquemine Police Department, now finds himself leading the force.

The Plaquemine Board of Selectmen last week unanimously agreed to hire Johnson as interim police chief.

Robbie Johnson, surrounded by family and fellow police officers, takes oath as interim Plaquemine Police Chief during a ceremony at the Board of Selectmen meeting on Dec. 13.

Johnson, 58, was the first African-American assistant police chief, and now police chief.

He has been a detective chief, assistant chief and administrator, among other posts.

“It’s not a color issue for me,” he told POST/SOUTH in his first public interview. “I have this job because I have the most experience and I’m the most qualified.”

He accepted the job less than a month after Kenny Payne stepped down following a guilty plea on charges of malfeasance in office.

Johnson had been retired as assistant chief when Payne brought him back as an administrator.

He said he never imagined he would become police chief. 

Johnson said he knows the department will face intense scrutiny following Payne’s departure, but he’s up for the task.

“I’m not one for disappointing anybody … that goes for the public, my family, the mayor, the council,” he said. “They know I’m trustworthy and they know I won’t disappoint, but they know I’ll demand professionalism.

“I promise that the public will see a difference in our police officers – and as of two weeks ago, I already see it,” Johnson said. “Where we’re at now, is where we’re staying .. we’re not going back to where we were in April, and it’s been a bad time since that all started, with employees who were distressed, disgusted and want to leave."

Johnson’s association with the Plaquemine Police Department dates back to December 1988, when he was hired under the administration of the late C.J. Cazes.

It’s more of a continuation of the work he started when he returned to the police department, but he said he wants to build accountability for the office.

One of those tasks has involved the ability to retain officers.

As a means to ensure officers were being paid accordance with salaries paid to officers in other municipalities of the same population range as Plaquemine.

“We’re actually very competitive of any city of this size,’ he said.

Competitive pay was a top priority because the Plaquemine Police Department had a large turnover ratio and was losing nearly $150,000 from training, academy enrollment, salaries, uniforms and benefits, according to Johnson.

“That’s been fixed,” he said. “The pay scale was very important, and now we’re very competitive in terms of pay.”

The starting salary for an untrained officer has increased from $37,000 to $43,000 annually. With the additional $6,000 per year from state supplemental pay, starting officers now receive $49,000 per year.

“Nobody wants to leave now … they’re happy and comfortable with their pay,” Johnson said. “Nobody has any complaints, and I tell the officers I’m open to suggestions, although I can’t promise I can go along with every suggestion.

“But we have the best of the best in equipment and everything we need to operate with … we’re not lacking anything,” he said. “They have what they need for them to do their jobs.”

Johnson said he had been pushing for those changes during his years as assistant chief.

"I stayed on top of that game, but we got put in a bad light because of our chief of police,” he said.

Johnson says he plans to continue working on juvenile crime issues during his time in office.

He said he can’t promise resource officers as Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi has done, but Johnson said he plans to push interaction between officers and youth in the community.

Johnson is also adamant about public relations.

Some officers have been with the department for less than two years, and Johnson wants them to consider his return a new chapter in their career, as well.

“It’s the dawning of a new era,” he said. “These young officers are the future of the department, and that’s how it was when I started two years ago.”

Johnson said the words “training” and “respect” will play a special role in Johnson’s approach to the younger officers.

“It’s all about accountability, respecting the elders, respecting the community, good public relations, staying in contact with victims and keeping in touch,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to call and ask why they haven’t heard from the police department about what happened with their stolen car or the person who attacked them … we’re going to call and tell the victims what’s going on.”

Johnson said he wants to see additional community gatherings like the city held last fall at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, in which law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office, mayors and other community leaders gather to determine how they will curb violence, illegal drug use and other crimes among youth in the community.

“I want to keep that line of communication wide open,” he said. “Just because juvenile matters have simmered down again, it doesn’t mean we won’t see all hell break loose again.”

Training was also a major issue. In the past 30 days, Mayor Ed Reeves provided the PPD the former Council on Aging building near City Park (at the corner of Sherburne and Ferdinand) for use as a training facility.

The conversion is still a work in progress, but it’s coming together, Johnson said.

“It’s a state-of-the-art training facility,” he said. “It can also be used as a substation for communications in the event we had a major disaster and lost the police office, we have a command spot … it’s something I had been trying to do for the last five or six years.”

While Johnson wants to continue working on ways to improve the department, he said he does not want to seek a full term as police chief in an election next year.

“This job as chief came with a pay cut, but this wasn’t about the money,” he said. “But my wife and I discussed this, and we know this may never happen again.

“When I took the oath of office, I lost my retirement,” Johnson said. “But I know what it takes to keep this office running because I’ve been around a while and I know all the aspects … I’m not just tooting my horn.”

He said he may have considered a four-year term several years ago, but he has another reason he wants to make his job as chief a temporary role.

“I missed the growth of my daughters, and I put them all through college,” Johnson said. “I was gone before daylight, having children and being married, but I don’t want to miss my grandkids. “All I can recall is the Plaquemine Police Department,” he said. “I’m not going to do that on the latter side of my life for my grandkids and my wife.”