THE SLEEK BLACK Crown Victoria rolled along the shattered block of Bouvier Street and all talk stopped.
Even the youngest kids on this desolate North Philadelphia street know what was up.
A cop had arrived.
The car pulled up to a narrow, green rowhouse. A burly cop stepped out in full uniform and knocked on the door.
A woman answered, immediately recognized the placid face of Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, and smiled. "I better not get hurt because of you," Shirley Davis, 67, said with a nervous laugh.
Johnson, returning to his childhood home for a quick hello, was greeted in the way he is all across the city - with a mix of respect, anger and a shrug. Teenagers glared at him, not knowing who he was or what he wanted. He told them his title. The kids were not impressed.
"What are you doing about the streets?" asked Tony Hall, 12.
Johnson remained unflappable. In a gentle, grandfatherly way, he preached the importance of a good education.
This is his comfort zone. This is his message. Johnson has always felt more at ease on a hardscrabble street in the role of a social worker, than he has as the chief in a sprawling office, decorated with leather furniture and artwork, at police headquarters.
In seven months Johnson will retire at a time of untamable murder in a city plagued with too many illegal guns and drugs. Yesterday saw the 200th murder of the year.
While some say Johnson has the impossible job of fixing the unfixable, residents on the poorest and richest streets alike blame him for not doing enough. His rank and file describe him as either apathetic or overwhelmed.
But Johnson - who has chased gunmen, convinced wanted criminals to give up and led one of the largest police-corruption investigations in city history - says he's at peace.
His force of 6,600 cannot stem violence alone, he says. Instead Johnson focuses on things he believes he can change. He's diversified the department, and he's mentored dozens of kids to try to save them from the deadly drug culture.
With this grounded, secure man, married father of three successful sons, at the helm, more minorities are of rank than ever before. He describes himself foremost as a proud Black Muslim, a product of the civil-rights era.
"I was black before I came to the department and I will be black when I leave," Johnson said. "If I cross Cheltenham Avenue, I am just another black man."
" . . . Instead of a thousand more cops, lets have a thousand more jobs."
He points out that 72 percent of last year's 406 homicide victims were black men, while about half of Philadelphia's African-American men are "jobless" and/or dropping out of school.
"Frustration breeds aggression," he said.
Back on Bouvier Street, indecipherable rap music blared from a green Buick Century.
A young driver had spotted the uniformed cop and cranked up the volume.
He pulled the Buick up on the sidewalk two inches away from the commissioner's black shoes. Johnson didn't flinch.
The lanky tough stepped out of the car and sauntered into a nearby rowhouse. Other children backed away in panic. By the tough code of the street, they are guilty.
They had spoken to a cop.
'It wasn't always like this'
With "Soul Street," XM Radio's old-school R-&-B station, on mute, Johnson drove Car One down Cumberland Street.
The police radio crackled as street-corner addicts tried to steal glimpses of the man behind the tinted window. The neighborhood is strewn with broken glass, boarded homes and worn, barely legible store signs.
"It wasn't always like this," Johnson muttered.
This side of North Philadelphia was tidy and safe when Johnson, now 64, was a boy here 50 years ago.
At 17, he joined the Navy and left his integrated neighborhood for the segregated South. It was 1961 and racism in Norfolk, Va., transformed this bright young Philly kid into a second-class citizen.
Outside the naval base, he couldn't use the same bathroom as whites or sit next to his new friends at the local movie house. Telling the story today, he focuses on bigotry and breezes over being part of the fleet sent to Cuba during the missile crisis.
When he returned home in 1964 and joined the Police Academy, racial tension was high. For three nights, frustrated blacks stormed Columbia Avenue, now known as Cecil B Moore Avenue, after rumors spread that police had assaulted a pregnant woman.
Johnson was just 21, a rookie in the 14th District in Germantown. He saw young white officers assigned to cars while veteran blacks were still forced to walk the beat. Johnson was outraged.
Blacks were typically paired with whites under the banner of "salt and pepper teams," said James Reaves, the department's first African-American captain and Johnson's mentor.
"Reality hit you," Johnson said. "Blacks weren't treated like whites."
Johnson was soon transferred to the elite Highway Patrol where he escorted President Richard M. Nixon and other celebrities. He also was one of the few blacks on the department's famed Motorcycle Drill Team, which put on Evel Knievel-type motorcycle shows.
In all roles, Johnson never let his facial expressions give away what was on his mind.
"Don't ever play poker with Sylvester," joked Vincent Borrelli, who was on the drill team with Johnson and who now heads public safety at the Delaware River Port Authority.
"You won't even know what he is thinking. The same face he makes when he is angry is the same face he makes when he is happy."
Behind the calm, Johnson was filled with angst and confusion. He was upset that few men like him held the rank of sergeant or higher. He was upset that men like him were hosed down by angry whites as they protested for equality.
"Civil rights workers were murdered," Johnson said. "Dogs were stuck on people. I would see this stuff on the news and read it in the paper. My world was not just Philadelphia."
In the late '60s, the drives to Harlem began. He went alone to New York's Mosque No. 7 and listened to Malcolm X on the pulpit. He connected.
Johnson joined the Nation of Islam, the only one in his family to do so. He wondered if he ought to leave a racially polarized Police Department.
A Harlem minister talked him out of it. He still remembers the words and they hold true today, he says, when some cry out for him to retire: "Brother, as long as you know who you are and what you are, what other people say or think doesn't matter."
Johnson won't waver on his opinions of stop-and-frisk, the controversial police tactic, and other forms of what he describes as apartheid-style policing. On nights and weekends, he mingles with community activists, inmates or recovering addicts.
"People criticize him and say he is trying to be a social worker," said Malik Aziz, a gang member turned Men United leader and one of Johnson's close friends. "But I think he is a commissioner who thinks traditional policing is not working. He is trying to make a change for people out in the streets."
But critics contend that Johnson only hangs in the neighborhoods to build support in the neighborhoods and avoid the real tough problem of being top cop.
"The commissioner doesn't push his beliefs on anyone, but his whole life is that of a Muslim," says Imam Suetwedien A. Muhammad of Germantown's Masjid Muhammad, one of three mosques Johnson frequents for Jumah, or Friday prayer.
The Imam recited one of Johnson's favorite passages from the Koran's Sura 13: "Never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves."
'He lived his dream'
Sylvester M. Johnson, the second-youngest of four boys and one girl, was born in Pocomoke City, Md., in 1943, to a family rooted in Maryland slavery. His father, Christopher Sylvester Johnson, who worked in the Navy Yard, and his stay-at-home mom, Lillie-Mae Johnson, moved the family to Bouvier Street when Johnson was a first grader. They were one of about three black families on the block.
Johnson passed the time playing basketball and stickball on the sidewalk. His friends called him "Junnie," because he shared his father's middle name.
At 15, without any explanation, he told his mom that he would become police commissioner.
Before he graduated Dobbins High School, Johnson fell in love with a pretty cheerleader named Cynthia. The two have been married for 44 years.
During his first decade as a cop, Johnson was repeatedly cited for bravery. He had a penchant for chasing down gunmen, even when he was off duty. In 1972, Johnson was out shopping with his middle son, Mark. They walked into a Pantry Pride store, on Cheltenham Avenue, and stumbled upon a stick-up in progress.
One of two robbers pointed a shotgun at Johnson, a corporal of police radio at the time. Johnson pulled out his police revolver and shot both robbers. One later died. The department gave Johnson the prestigious valor award, one of 42 commendations in his file.
That same year Johnson joined detectives twice his age in the homicide unit. By decade's end, he was promoted to sergeant. In 1986, Johnson, as a lieutenant, led Mayor Goode's security detail; and in 1993, Inspector Johnson led the FBI joint task force's investigation of the 39th District corruption scandal.
"I learned how to dream from him," says Aaron Johnson, Sylvester's youngest, a Doylestown health-care executive who used to be a Philly policeman. "He lived his dream and achieved his goals. That speaks volumes."
His eldest, Steven, 44, is a director in the sheriff's office; middle son, Mark, 41, is an FBI agent stationed with his family in Nigeria.
The sons credit their dad for their ambition. On the track field, Johnson wouldn't allow his boys to quit running even if they were tired.
As he put in long hours in homicide, Johnson during the mid-'70s co-founded Philadelphia Express, a children's citywide track-and-field club.
"It is better to build children than to repair adults," read one of the club slogans.
He became a surrogate dad to dozens of kids on the club. He says that at least five are now cops.
Johnson calls his 10 grandchildren his "best buddies." Whenever he can, they gather at his 4,200- square-foot home in Bear, Del., that he shares with his wife. He spends weeknights at his apartment in Essington.
He says he has no time for vacations: "If I go three days off, that is a break for me."
He describes his only indulgence simply as "sneaks" - Adidas or Nikes.
Death struck close to home for the commissioner last year. In March, Johnson lost his 86-year-old father to natural causes. Three months later, his 85-year-old mother died of what Johnson believes was a broken heart.
In the time between those two personal sadnesses, Johnson also lost one of his men - community-relations officer Gary Skerski was working overtime on the night of May 8, 2006, when he was shot and killed while responding to an armed robbery call at Pat's Cafe in the Northeast .
Meanwhile, headlines painted a prickly relationship between Johnson and Mayor Street. The commissioner wanted to hire 500 more cops. Street instead offered $10 million to pay for overtime for cops already on the payroll. Johnson didn't discuss the differences publicly. The rank-and-file lost faith.
By summer's end, the FOP, the local police union, called for Johnson to step down.
Meanwhile, other tensions were brewing.
Black commanders say the commissioner holds them to a higher standard than their white counterparts. Johnson readily admits this, saying that while he wants to diversify the department, he expects black cops to in return give back to the community by mentoring kids.
"I'd rather see a white person in position of power who will benefit 1,000 blacks than just one black person in power who will just benefit himself," he said.
On the flip side, some white male cops complained that Johnson favors minorities and women at promotion time.
This spring, the acrimony reached an apex. Johnson promoted his longtime aide, Kimberly Byrd, to an executive position. Tempers flew at a recent chiefs meeting in which two commanders criticized Johnson's position about race in the department.
"I feel bad for him," says Tommy Gibbons Jr., a former highway patrolman who worked with Johnson and later covered his administration as a longtime Inquirer reporter.
"In today's policing environment, Johnson made a mistake. He hung around too long. You can't do that anymore.
"What went wrong?" asked Gibbons. "Loyalty." Johnson, Gibbons said, is too loyal to Mayor Street, who insiders say keeps Johnson as a buffer between his two-term administration and negative publicity over crime.
Those closest to Johnson hold several more theories: "He creates a lot of controversy," said C.B. Kimmins, an anti-drug activist and Johnson friend. "It is not for something he is doing. It is for something he is not doing. He is not demonstrative. He is not bravado. People say, 'He can't be that humble. He must be a phony. . . .' I think he is a victim of his personality."
Aaron Johnson said his father is neither a politician nor a fan of the camera. Just a "cop's cop."
Still Johnson's legacy is tainted by a murder rate that has crept up during the last three years. His department, like others across the country, is stretched thin due to a bevy of federal budget cuts. His officers face an overwhelming number of dangerous repeat offenders.
Johnson hopes people will remember him for making his department more diverse and more accessible to the public.
He vows to stay active in the neighborhoods after his retirement. He says he has no plans to take up another paid job.
With months left at the helm, he doesn't want to talk murder rate. He'd rather talk about the city's children.
He points to the framed photos in his office. His grandchildren. Teens he's met or mentored.
There are paintings, too, of children hugging, reading, smiling - gifts to him from schools.
"With all these homicides today, I see all these black kids and black parents being killed," he said. "I think we should have more Afro-American male mentors. We have to give these kids a future." *
Staff Writer David Gambacorta contributed to this report.