Hit & Run

Tennessee Deputy Who Suffered Panic Attack After Firing At Unarmed Man Had Track Record of Lying and Incompetence at Previous Police Department

Deputy Justin M. Johnson should never have been given a badge and a gun.


Screenshot via Knoxville News-Tribune

How unqualified does an aspiring deputy have to be before the Sevier County Sheriff's Department won't hire him?

In October Reason covered the story of Justin M. Johnson, a deputy in Sevier County, Tennessee, whose bodycam caught him firing wildly and without warning at an unarmed man who had been filming him. The footage then shows Johnson suffering a severe panic attack. The man doing the filming has since been charged with assault for causing the deputy's panic.

The footage and subsequent fallout, first reported by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, is disturbing enough. What makes the tale even more upsetting is Johnson's previous poor performance as a police officer, a track record that should have prevented him from being hired in the first place.

According to a new story in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Johnson worked for a brief stint at the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) in eastern Tennessee before he was hired as a Sevier deputy. He lasted five months before being fired for repeated unsafe handling of his firearm and for lying to his boss about the legal fallout stemming from an extramarital affair.

The JCPD hired Johnson in June 2013, and he almost immediately started causing problems. The News-Sentinel reports that his superiors had to provide him with weekly remedial training and that they cited him for "unsafe handling of guns and suspects."

At one point, Johnson reportedly "fanned" fellow officers with his weapon.

Johnson then lied to his superiors about an extramarital affair he was having. In October 2013, he reportedly emailed Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois to tell him that a "'lunatic' woman with a 'fatal attraction'" would be filing a fallacious complaint against him.

A complaint was then filed by a former lover of Johnson's alleging that he had told her to kill herself over text after his wife discovered their affair. Johnson had also called the Children's Services anonymously to complain that his former lover was neglecting her children.

After his deception was uncovered, Johnson was reportedly allowed to resign instead of being terminated.

In June he applied for a job with the Sevier County Sheriff's Office. His application tactfully left off his time at the JCPD, and he was promptly hired. In December 2016, Johnson had his fateful panic attack.

Sadly, it's all too common for problem officers to be picked up by other departments. As Reason has covered, the lack of a national database on fired or decertified police officers affords bad cops the opportunity to start over in another police department.

How much Sevier County knew of Johnson's past misdeeds when he was hired is hard to say. The department has been inexcusably tight-lipped in the wake of revelations about Johnson's past, refusing to answer basic questions from the News-Sentinel, including whether Johnson was still employed as a sheriff's deputy.