Fareed Johnson’s life experiences don’t resemble those of people typically chosen to lead civilian police advisory boards across the country.
In Jacksonville, a pastor to more than 1,400 members leads the Jacksonville Safety and Crime Reduction Commission. The chair of the Dallas Community Police Oversight Board is a credit bureau reporting analyst who is also a writer, community activist and public speaker.
A private investor and former chairman of the local Boys and Girls Club heads the board of police commissioners in Kansas City, Missouri. In Columbus, Ohio, the community safety advisory commission is led by a former city attorney who is CEO of the local United Way.
Johnson, chair of the Gainesville Police Advisory Council, is different. He’s 28 years old – and routinely spends 10 hours overnight driving his semitractor-trailer to deliver dry bulk to area food and construction companies before returning to his apartment on the city’s northwest side.
A divided advisory council elected Johnson to lead it during its meeting at City Hall in February.
Johnson said he hopes as council chair to be a voice for the community as well as help to bridge the gap between the public and the Gainesville Police Department.
“The most important thing that we do is we keep the community first,” Johnson said of the 11-member panel, which the City Commission reconstituted after protests erupted nationally and locally last summer over police tactics and misconduct.
“That’s who we’re working for,” he added. “That’s who we’re here to speak up for.”
Johnson, a council member since 2017, and his supporters insist that he is ready for the job.
“He just represents the best of what Gainesville can be,” Mayor Lauren Poe said.
In 2015, Johnson served on the Mayor’s Community Response Council in Gainesville after police practices were put into question following the killing of a Black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Norbert Dunkel, a former associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Florida, said Johnson’s youthfulness aided Dunkel greatly when he served as the council’s chair in 2019.
“I’m not aware of all the fads that are going on right now,” he said. “Fareed was.”
Dunkel added that Johnson was eager to get involved as a council member.
“You could feel the energy when he was speaking,” Dunkel said.
A Gainesville native, Johnson said his mother moved with him and his younger brothers often because of her work with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. He said he attended five high schools in Texas and Florida before graduating from Eastside High in Gainesville in 2010.
A brother, Parris Lee, now 27, said Johnson was an innate leader as a child, and that they’d take shortcuts to the next school bus stop whenever they missed the nearest one. Noting that Johnson – like countless schoolboys – had hoped to play basketball professionally, Lee, who is unemployed, said he never imagined his brother having such a civic duty.
Lee said of Johnson and the council: “He wants to make a change, something different, way different than the past. Something that’s going to be beneficial for everybody – not just for white people, not just for Black people, for everybody.”
Johnson’s grandfather, Lewis Lee Jr., worked as an officer for the Alachua City Police Department. His father, Lewis Lee, worked as a mechanic on a naval ship in Norfolk, Virginia, and as a respiratory therapist at the Gainesville Army Reserve.
At a young age, Johnson wanted to be just like his father, even dressing in camouflage and mimicking the actions of a soldier. The son enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2011 and served as a senior airman at Duke Field, a military airport in Okaloosa County on the Florida Panhandle, and at Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts.
Saying the Air Force made him more adaptable and resilient, he worked as an officer in 2013 at the Okaloosa Regional Juvenile Detention Center. But then his life’s path took a side turn.
The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office arrested Johnson on a charge of robbery for stealing $3,072 from a bank in Interlachen in September 2013. The arrest report states that he did not carry a firearm or gun during the crime. He was sentenced in May 2014 to five years on probation and two years of community service, and ordered to pay at least $2,851 in restitution and court fees.
In August 2017 – the same month his daughter Brilyn was born – Johnson asked Seventh Judicial Circuit Judge Clyde Wolfe to reduce his probation to three years.
“I’ve remained trouble free while volunteering, working,” Johnson stated in a letter to Wolfe, adding that he had also started a beauty supply company and paid his restitution and fees.
“Your trust and discretion has had a great impact on my life,” Johnson also told the judge, who granted his request two months later.
Johnson refused to comment about the robbery or sentencing for this article, except to say that he hopes his story serves as an inspiration for others.
He otherwise told WUFT News that police have pulled him over while driving in matters he considered racial profiling, and that his experiences offer him a unique and varied perspective.
“As a Black man, I see and understand where the community’s coming from,” he said, “the frustrations that some individuals in the community have with law enforcement, but then also understand the day-to-day tasks and job duties and responsibilities of law enforcement.”
Johnson has impressed many people with his potential to serve.
“He’s an amazing human being, and I would trust him with everything I had,” said Craig Carter, who met Johnson at a 2014 Thanksgiving dinner hosted in the GPD Hall of Heroes.
The council elected Johnson as its chair in 2020, but he worried about the time commitment and declined. Carter, a former city commissioner, took on the role – and Johnson became vice chair.
Upon getting a text from Johnson that he was finally going to be chair, Carter said, “This fat, old man did a backflip.” Carter added: “I think he’s a leader, I think he’s inspirational, I think he is exactly what we need – and I think the council members were smart enough to realize that.”
Johnson said he hopes to earn the trust of the council members who voted for someone else to serve as chair. He particularly hopes to connect with Keyon Young – who at age 21 is the youngest on the panel – about how both can be successful and achieve their goals.
Young said while he hasn’t formed an opinion on Johnson’s values based only on their in-meeting discussions, he is pleased to see a Black man in his 20s leading the council.
“He might have a different point of view to me, and I welcome that,” Young said. “He is different, and I think that’s a good sign.”
Johnson said he’s a proponent of what he called GPD’s proactive – rather than reactive – policing. He spoke, for example, of the department’s community-oriented approach in which officers speak one-on-one with Gainesville residents in high crime neighborhoods.
“They are constantly looking around for different models that will have the officers in the community in a positive light,” Johnson said, “not just out there to hook and book people.”
While noting there are other areas that GPD “can definitely improve in,” Johnson also said, “Looking at the agency in comparison to a lot of other agencies around the country, they are ahead of the curve.”
GPD Chief Inspector Jaime Kurnick, who attends the advisory council meetings, said Johnson exudes optimism and that she believes that he will excel as chair.
“Every time I get to see him, he’s got a smile on his face,” Kurnick said. “He’s the most personable person you could come across, and he is also one of the people that will give you the truth, even if it’s not pleasant.”