Former Mayor William Johnson Talks Race Relations

Updated: Dec 12, 2020


Tocsin Magazine had the honor of sitting down with former Mayor William Johnson. Johnson was the first and only African American man elected as mayor of Rochester, NY, or any other city in upstate NY back in 1994. The Howard University graduate was an unlikely candidate for the city that struggled with race relations and police corruption. In 1992 former Rochester Police Chief Gordon Urlacher was convicted of three counts of embezzlement and one count of conspiracy for stealing police funds between 1988 and 1990.


Urlacher was sentenced to four years in federal prison. By 1994, the crime rate was skyrocketing. According to (WHEC) --1994 was a deadly year in Rochester. The city witnessed over 65 homicides in one year.


However, that did not stop Mr. Johnson from believing that he could make a difference in a city that had yet to see better days. At that time, Johnson recalls that nine mayoral hopefuls were looking to fill the position after then-mayor Thomas Ryan announced he would not seek re-election. Luckily, Johnson proved to be the best man for the job and served as mayor from 1994-2005.


Unfortunately, the position came with many challenges and push-back against the first Black man to become mayor. When asked if he had ever received hate mail, we learned that Johnson's staff would intercept all hate mail that was sent to his office, Johnson stated, "They didn't think I needed to know about it, but I knew about it." We probed a little more on racism Johnson experienced then, " I was called an Orangutan and a monkey by Bob Lonsberry on-air. He ended up losing his job for a while because of that. Brother Wease used to call me Grady after the character on Sanford and Son. I had to go on the air with him and confront him. I said I don't even understand the reference to Grady, he didn't want to say it. Oh, he's just a Black man who is a comic figure. So, I'm treating you as a mayor, Black man as a comic figure." He continues, "I had to deal with these kinds. I've been stopped by the police for no reason. Then when they run a check and I'm driving a city car assigned to the mayor. So, I know what it's like to be a Black man in America. I was born in the south. I was born during the time of segregation. We came a long way, but we still have a long way to go."


Johnson was not the only Black person who knew that “Race relations were strained" in the city of Rochester. The worst relationship was the one between the Black community and the Rochester Police Department. According to Johnson, "a number of Blacks had been killed, unlawfully in my opinion by Rochester police.” He goes on to say, “But, we came into office to try and change those conditions, and I think we had a fair measure of success over 12 years.”


Sadly, little has changed when it comes to the relationship between the Black community and police officers. In September, the community viewed the brutal murder of Daniel Prude by officers within the Rochester Police Department. Our question to Johnson was, what would you have done if this happened on your watch? Johnson replied, “The first thing I would tell you is, I can’t imagine anybody working for me who had kept that information from me. But, if they had done it, they would have been fired on the spot, pure and simple. Secondly, we have to ask questions. What does this say about our system? If you tell me this is the way we are training our officers, we need to immediately reexamine and reform our practices. How do we deal with people who are having mental health issues? We did that. We had several incidents of bad encounters between the Rochester Police Department and the citizens of Rochester, particularly African American men. We hired Cedric Alexander, at the time, he was a psychologist at the University of Rochester, but he had previous police experience and the contract he had with the University, he was working with Rochester police officers to help them deal with these kinds of emotional issues. We hired him, swore him in as Deputy Chief of Police, and gave him full authority to come up with new protocols. So, this Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team (EDRPT), now they call the Crisis Intervention Team and Family Crisis Intervention Team (FACIT) that started during my administration. We saw real differences in the way we approached people. First, we didn’t approach them with guns drawn. We specially trained police officers to be on this special detail. We made certain that on every shift there were members of this team available to be immediately dispatched. Because you don’t have these things happening simultaneously, every five or ten minutes across the city. These are rare situations, we made certain we had people trained. We invested a lot of money on training people for this.”


***Watch out for our upcoming print issue to read the entire interview***

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