This article originally appeared in The Inquirer on April 17, 2002.
After 3 1/2 months of uncertainty, Sylvester M. Johnson officially takes over today as the city’s police commissioner.
No more No. 2 man. No more "acting" police commissioner.
A teletype issued at 3:30 p.m. yesterday let police brass know that a rushed ceremony would be held at 11 a.m. at the Convention Center.
Within the hour, Johnson had the hint of a grin while sitting at his desk in his third-floor office in Police Headquarters and thanking Mayor Street for the appointment.
"After 37 1/2 years, I got the position," Johnson said. "I'm also thankful for Commissioner Timoney for preparing me for this. "
Johnson, 59, had been interim police commissioner since Jan. 4, when Street appointed him after the popular John F. Timoney resigned to become the chief executive officer of a private security firm in New York.
Immediately after Timoney left, Johnson garnered widespread support and became the front-runner to lead the 7,000-member department.
Indeed, Street said he had no other candidate in mind.
Still, days turned to weeks and then months, and the mayor did not name Johnson, or anyone else, to the post. Community activists, including the NAACP and Mantua Against Drugs, joined the Fraternal Order of Police and the Guardian Civic League, an African American officers' association, in rallies supporting Johnson and questioning Street's motives.
Yesterday, the Mayor's Office remained mum despite the teletype. Insiders said police officials were under order by the mayor to say nothing.
"I can neither confirm nor deny that is the case," Frank Keel, Street's spokesman, said of the appointment.
It was unclear yesterday what finally prompted Street to make or suddenly announce his decision.
Johnson's appointment comes a week after the mayor resoundingly lost a fight over the city wage tax to a rebellious City Council.
Moreover, Street found himself under fire yesterday for remarks made during an NAACP meeting Saturday in which he said: "The brothers and sisters are running the city. " Some have called that statement and others made at the meeting divisive and hurtful.
Political sources speculated yesterday that Street had hurriedly scheduled the 11 a.m. appointment ceremony to overshadow a news conference, called for the same time, at which the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity was to endorse state Auditor General Bob Casey Jr. for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Street has endorsed Ed Rendell, Casey's rival.
"It's a ridiculous assertion," Keel said. "One thing had nothing to do with the other. "
The hallways of Police Headquarters were abuzz after the mayor was spotted meeting with Johnson late yesterday morning, apparently for an unrelated matter. In the early afternoon, Johnson received a call from an aide to the mayor making it official.
"It's a relief," Johnson said. "I want to thank everybody who really supported me for three months. "
Johnson, who joined the department in 1964, has earned respect as a police officer by working his way through the ranks. In 1998, he became the No. 2 person under Timoney, who had been hired from the New York City Police Department.
"It's great," Timoney said of the news yesterday. "I was an outsider and some people didn't trust me. Everybody liked him and trusted him.
"We could never have pulled off all the changes we pulled off without him. He was instrumental. "
Although the two men had different styles, they shared a vision of fighting crime.
Timoney, known for his charismatic swagger and popular among the black-tie circuit, saw crime drop 13 percent during his tenure. He placed a high emphasis on state-of-the-art policing techniques, such as computer crime maps.
Johnson, more low-key and still adjusting to a more high-profile role, is known for his strong presence and work with the community as well as his grassroots attack on drugs. He's also known as a "cop's cop. "
"He has a lot of concern for the average officer," said local FOP president Rich Costello. "He takes police work very seriously, and that's going to boost morale. "
Former Police Commissioner Kevin M. Tucker, a department reformer in the 1980s, said he had seen promise and talent in Johnson.
“I think Sylvester Johnson was an excellent choice. He’s professional. Competent. And has come through the ranks and knows what it is to be a police officer,” said Tucker, commissioner from 1986 through 1988.
In the months since Johnson was named acting commissioner, he remained upbeat and light-hearted, saying he would continue doing the best job he could, even if another person was named.
Despite the uncertainty, he’s already made a mark with major personnel changes, promoting 171 new commanders, many to high-ranking positions.