Illinois State Police promote first African-American woman to rank of Colonel

First black Colonel for Illinois State Police

When JoAnn Johnson joined the Illinois State Police 27 years ago, she didn’t set out to be the first African-American woman to reach the rank of colonel.  The Springfield resident was drawn to law enforcement by her father, who worked as a Chicago police officer.  They would watch police-themed TV shows like “Hill Street Blues” as she was growing up, and her father would let her know which parts were realistic and which parts were fantasy.  By the time Johnson enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, she knew she wanted to be a police officer so she could help people and investigate crime.  She was the only black woman in her academy class, but that didn’t deter her from completing the course.  “I took pride in doing a good job,” Johnson said.  “I’ve always set out to do 110 percent at everything I’ve done.  My father taught me that.  In doing that, I feel like my hard work has been rewarded along the way.”  Johnson, 48, was promoted to the rank of colonel on Nov. 1.  She works at ISP headquarters in downtown Springfield and is in charge of the division of internal investigation. The division investigates allegations against both sworn and civilian members of the state police, as well as employees at some other state agencies such as the Departments of Corrections and Transportation.  Johnson is one of four colonels in the state police, and there are only two people above her in the chain of command: First Deputy Director Chad Peterson and Illinois State Police Director Leo Schmitz.  Johnson’s done a lot of diverse jobs with the agency since she started on the midnight shift in Elgin as a patrol officer.  She worked in criminal investigations and also served as an undercover narcotics officer in a joint-jurisdictional drug task force in the early 1990s.  “I didn’t have any children at the time, which made it easier,” Johnson said of her undercover work.  “There were a lot of late nights working undercover, a lot of talking and some scary events.  I did learn a lot.”  In 2010, Johnson moved to Springfield to teach at the Illinois State Police Academy.  Three years later, she was promoted to lieutenant colonel and moved to the internal investigation division.  Investigating fellow employees isn’t easy, she acknowledged, but it’s important work.  “(People working in internal investigations) understand the sensitivity of potentially investigating one of your own.  We go to great lengths to work the cases thoroughly because we realize we may be proving that our officers did not engage in any misconduct.  We are finders of fact.  We leave no stone unturned, and the evidence falls where it falls,” Johnson said.  While Johnson has been able to climb the ladder at ISP, women are still a decided minority in the department.  There are about 1,500 men who are sworn officers compared to about 167 women.  Of those 167 women, 22 are African-American, Johnson said.  Johnson noted that the state police are trying to recruit more women and more minorities.  “State police are very active in recruiting in minority neighborhoods,” she said.  “We want to build those numbers up.  We want to get our female officers out at recruiting events, schools and other events in the community so people can see that I can do that, too.” While the work of a state trooper can be physically demanding, Johnson said women are very capable of learning the defense tactics that are needed to keep them safe.  She added that women are often able to avoid physical confrontations through communication skills.  “I’m trained and know how to defend myself against a 6-foot-2 inch, 200-pound man or woman, but I really don’t want to do that -- especially on a little strip of real estate called the shoulder of the highway,” Johnson said.  “We have learned to use our voices and our communicative skills and tactics to help us accomplish what we need to accomplish without having to go to fisticuffs or having to use hands-on.”  Johnson, who married Richard Johnson in 2013, has two daughters, ages 9 and 11.  Despite her demanding routine, she’s found a way to balance home life and work life.  “I’m a soccer mom and a softball mom.  I do all of the things moms do, and I am there for my family, yet I can still do this job.  I think women need to see that you can do all of this,” Johnson said.