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Verdell Johnson: Leadership by Learning at the 39th Police District

Verdell Johnson
Verdell Johnson

As a young Philadelphia police officer with an infant son, Verdell Johnson began thinking of changing careers. His decision to enroll in Community College of Philadelphia in 1992 to study nursing was prompted, in part, by a spate of incidents where he had to fire his weapon while on duty.

"My son was only six months old, and I asked myself if I really wanted to continue doing this and risk leaving him without a father," Johnson said. "I thought it might be time to try something different."

The nursing profession had always appealed to Johnson, a self-described people person. And while some might view nursing and crime fighting as career opposites, Johnson sees common ground. “You still serve the public, just in a different capacity,” he said. “My main goal is to help people.”

Johnson remained on the force, all the while attending classes, working at local hospitals as part of his training, serving as a reserve in the Marines and helping to care for his son. “I still wonder how I found time to do it all,” he said.

After he received an associate’s degree in May 1997, his first departmental promotion followed in 1999. “Once I began making rank, that was it,” said Johnson, who rose from corporal to captain in eight years.

The education he received at the College greatly contributed to his success as a police officer. “My studies helped me become a better communicator both orally and in writing, which in my profession are critically essential skills,” Johnson said.

The Philadelphia Police Department now requires applicants without prior law enforcement experience to have at least 60 college credits or two years of full-time military service. Police officers taking promotional exams receive extra points for having a college degree.

Now 44, Johnson plans on a career in health care after he retires from the police department. In preparation, he has transferred his community college credits to West Chester University and is working on a bachelor’s degree in Public Health Administration.

Prior to taking over the 39th District, Johnson was assigned to the Accident Investigation District and served as acting commanding officer of two police districts in 2010. The 39th Police District, which he has headed since last December, serves more than 60,000 residents in East Falls, and sections of Germantown and North Philadelphia.

A dedicated lifelong learner, Johnson said he recommends Community College of Philadelphia to his fellow officers. “The College gives you an excellent education for an exceptional value,” he said.