By Wiley Henry

 MEMPHIS, TN — No one could have predicted that two men from opposite worlds and as different as night and day would forge an enduring friendship. One had broken the law; the other one was upholding the law.

Terrell “T.J.” Johnson had been a ruthless drug dealer and lorded over a gang that controlled a swath in North Memphis; and Lt. Tyrone Currie, then a sergeant with the Memphis Police Department, was arresting vicious gang members.

Johnson was a member of the Gangster Disciples – a menace, a Kingpin if you will – and facing 35 years to life for drug trafficking.

While he was incarcerated, he had an epiphany and reversed course, deciding instead that he could be a mouthpiece to dissuade youth from following in his footsteps.

Currie was assigned to community policing at the Westwood COACT Substation after spending four years at the Raines Station Precinct. Community policing was the order of the day, an idea manifested in 1995.

“At that time, I was the guru of community policing and part of the federal gang task force,” said Currie, who was investigating homicides and aggravated robberies related to gang violence.

But something was needed to deter young would-be criminals and stem the tide of wanton violence, particularly after a stray bullet ended the life of a 3-year-old girl in 2002, which prompted the launch of the city’s Juvenile Violence Abatement Project (JVAP).

Crime was running amok and blood flowed like water on the streets in Black communities. Gang rivalry and warfare were common occurrences that stoked fear throughout the city. Unfortunately, innocent bystanders were added to the list of casualties.

Currie had arrested some of the meanest and most dangerous gang members in Memphis: George John Hughlett, for example, known as “G-Train,” and the notorious Craig Petties, the kingpin of them all.

Dr. Willie W. Herenton, then Memphis’ first elected African-American mayor, had had enough. He tapped Johnson to serve as JVAP’s Prevention and Intervention Coordinator.

The late Dr. Rose Rita Dorsey Flowers was the executive commander for Community Policing and the executive director of JVAP. Currie left the federal gang task force to work with JVAP to reduce juvenile violence through prevention, intervention, and law enforcement practices.

Johnson recalls meeting Currie at the police academy on Sept. 11, 2002. “He was the sergeant in the unit at that time in JVAP. I was the only civilian in the unit.” In fact, he was the first ex-felon hired by the MPD.

Currie wasn’t too sure about meeting or working with Johnson. But Dorsey (whom most people knew her as) was looking for solutions, he said. “I was very skeptical because I was locking up gang members my whole career.”

Johnson had trust issues, too, and for good reasons. It was the police that nabbed him and sent him to prison. Now he was given a second chance at the behest of the mayor and the MPD. His influence was needed for the good of society this time.

“She saw something different in both of us,” Currie said of Dorsey, who was well aware of Johnson’s checkered past. “She knew both of us had a heart. Honestly, she made us start doing presentations together.”

They targeted schools in Memphis and Shelby County. “He (Currie) would talk about the police,” Johnson said, “and I would talk about my life as a gangster dealing drugs on the street and how I got caught up.”

Their trust issues soon dissipated. “After working with T.J. and going to so many schools, he would pour his heart out and I would feel his spirit,” said Currie, then seeing Johnson in a different light.

But all was not well on the home front. Johnson was struggling financially. He’d made a ton of money selling drugs. But that gig was over. Now he was barely making ends meet. Child support payments had depleted his earnings.

“I knew he didn’t have any money,” said Currie, who often took Johnson home, purchased food for his household, placed a $100 in his hand often after he was paid, and worked to get his driver’s license and voting rights restored.

“He was taking care of his kids, so I said this guy can’t be that bad,” he added.

Meanwhile, school-age children were flabbergasted by Johnson’s story. “They were gravitating to him like he was a magnet,” Currie said. “I’ve never seen that before. Our stories were reaching people.”

While they were bonding, Johnson’s star was rising. He remembered what Dorsey had told him in 2003. “She said, ‘I don’t know what will happen to me, but always stick with Lt. Currie. He’s not going to lead you astray.’”

Johnson heeded her advice. Now more than 18 years after first meeting Currie, he’s still sticking with him. They’ve built a solid relationship that includes their wives and children. In fact, he was a groomsman in Johnson’s wedding.

“He showed me he cared about me as a person. He was sincere,” said Johnson, noting his heartfelt appreciation for Currie, whom he calls his mentor.

Their relationship led to a fellowship. “He would give me stuff to read; we would read books together. He really mentored me along the way. Everything that man learned, he pretty much turned it over to me.”

Fellowship turned into a companionship. “I watched him become a successful officer. One of the things that he talked about was that he just didn’t want to lock people up; he wanted to unlock their minds.”

Companionship turned into stewardship. “He showed me how to be a leader. He showed me how to lead from a different perspective, not as a gangster, but as a leader, a businessman.”

Then stewardship turned to ownership. “The ownership was me being married, got a wife, buying a house. I am a productive citizen. Instead of being a problem all my life, he showed me how to be a part of the solution.”

Johnson’s position at MPD was eventually phased out. That didn’t deter him. He is still educating and transforming youth as president/CEO of his Wake-Up Youth Foundation. He also serves as pastor of Wake-Up Ministries in Memphis.

His mission has afforded him opportunities to speak across the country at government agencies, churches, schools, colleges, and even in Congress about juvenile justice and community policing. A plethora of awards and citations would follow including certifications and media stories about his life.

Currie, the longest-serving president of the Afro American Police Association, retired from the MPD in October of 2019. His mentoring program, “Leaders of Tomorrow,” received national attention in Washington, D.C.

He and his colleagues created a number of mentoring programs at the MPD for girls and boys. He and Johnson reached thousands of youth. Dozens who participated in LOT are now police officers themselves, Currie said.

Community policing works, he said, adding, “Now they’re talking about police reform. All they have to do is go back to 1995 and implement community policing.”

Johnson’s success is a testament that community policing does work. He’s now working in Chattanooga sharing what he learned from Currie.