Johnnie Lee Williams knew poverty and injustice growing up in the southeastern part of San Diego.
He wore hand-me-downs to school and the lunch he carried to Stockton Elementary usually consisted of collard greens between two halves of a biscuit. There were places he couldn’t enter and opportunities denied to him because of the color of his skin.
He had many odd jobs before joining the San Diego Police Department and embarking on a 26-year law enforcement career marked by his sense of fairness, persistence and determination to do the right thing.
Mr. Williams died of a heart attack at his home May 25. He was 85.
When he retired as a homicide detective in 1978, he estimated he had investigated hundreds of crimes during his tenure. His service included six years as a beat cop and six years as a burglary investigator. In interviews with The San Diego Union and The Evening Tribune, Mr. Williams said his police work was rewarding though sometimes difficult.
In 1970, he was called to a homicide scene where he discovered the victim was his older brother. In his early years on the force, he was assigned to work only with other African-American officers and on cases involving African-Americans.
“I was called an S.O.B. by my own people (when he first became a policeman in the 1950s),” he said in a 1974 interview. “I didn’t let it bother me. I knew it was nothing personal. It was just the job people were reacting to.” He came to earn the trust of the community. “In a couple of cases, I had suspects come and wait in front of my house to (surrender) to me,” Mr. Williams said. “If I was not at home, they would … wait for me.”
Ivy Williams said her husband enjoyed his work even though residents in certain parts of the city would sometimes call the police on him. “They’d see a black man in their neighborhood and call the police. He was just another black man in a car,” she said.
Friends and colleagues said Mr. Williams was an excellent policeman with stellar investigative and interrogation skills. Some of his interrogations were used as models statewide in recruit training.
Jack Mullen, a retired San Diego police officer, said he requested Mr. Williams for his team when he became homicide sergeant. “He was a wonderful interrogator. He had this fairness about him,” Mullen said. “Johnnie was of the school that you get more being nice to people and putting yourself in their shoes.”
Retired Assistant Chief Rulette Armstead said Mr. Williams was one of the few African-American detectives on the force when she joined in 1974. “He was kind of like a legend. He was very well-respected in the community and he was very good at what he did,” she said. “He was a gentle giant, but he could also be very forceful and forthright. He was professional and was the go-to person in the black community.”
Friend and former colleague Melvin Maxwell said Mr. Williams was a mentor to him and many others at the Police Department. “Johnnie could talk to anybody, he had a talent for interviewing (suspects),” Maxwell said. “He used to say that whatever you have to do, never, ever take away their dignity.”
Mr. Williams credited two former policemen for his own career. “I was born and raised in Southeast San Diego and these two black cops there, Bert Ritchey and Jack Bransford, treated me real good as a kid,” he said in a 1974 Tribune interview. “They inspired me.”
He sought to help other youths both as a police officer and as a volunteer with the Boys & Girls Club, which had been a haven for him when he joined in 1941. “I was 16,” he said in a 1979 interview. “and that was the first place that was freely open to us in Southeast San Diego. At first, there was a wood shop, games and sports events. Later, a pool was added.”
In addition to being a board member of the Boys & Girls Club, he was a trustee of Bethel Baptist Church and a past master of Fidelity Lodge.
Johnnie Lee Williams was born May 20, 1925, in San Diego to John and Cleo Addie Williams. He was one of eight children and attended Stockton Elementary and Memorial Junior High schools and graduated from San Diego High School in 1943. He attended San Diego City College and what was then San Diego State College. Before becoming a police officer, his jobs included digging ditches and working in a meat market.
After retiring from the police force, he managed apartments and a coin-laundry business he and his wife owned.
In addition to his wife of 60 years, he is survived by a son, James, four grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Tommie.