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Former MSHP Captain Ron Johnson on unrest: 'We have to begin to have real conversations'

"We're gonna have to admit that we've got some cultural issues within our justice system. We have to begin to have real conversations," Johnson said

ST. LOUIS — The man who led the law enforcement response during the 2014 unrest in Ferguson said that hard conversations still need to be had in order to bring about real change.

On May 25, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis after an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes while he pleaded for his life. Over the past week, protests have sprung up across the country, including in St. Louis, demanding justice.

In an exclusive interview with Today in St. Louis' Allie Corey Wednesday morning, Johnson said that Floyd's death reminded him of how much work still needs to be done to address problems in law enforcement.

"It was hard to watch. It was painful," Johnson said of the video that captured Floyd's death. "But it let me know that what I’ve been saying, that our country needed to make greater steps, that we hadn’t really made great strides with those that were indifferent with us in law enforcement, and for people of color, we still have many challenges that we have to have some hard discussions around."

Johnson previously told 5 on Your Side that the unrest in Minneapolis had many similarities to the unrest in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown in 2014.

Johnson was captain of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at the time, and is remembered for walking with protesters to bring calm during a time of unrest. 

He published a book in 2018 called '13 Days in Ferguson,' detailing what he called the most trying time in his life. Six years later, he believes change is still needed.

"We're gonna have to admit that we've got some cultural issues within our justice system. We have to begin to have real conversations, those conversations that tug at our heart," he said. "But also talk about implicit bias in a real and truthful way. And I think we have to speak a truth -- we all have implicit biases, but we have to talk about those. And then when we have these issues, when there are issues in law enforcement, we have to stand and correct those."

It's also important to let other voices be heard, he said.

"Community policing has to be a real effort that’s put on, and when we have community meetings, we have to make sure everyone gets to the table," he said. 

"A lot of times we have community meetings, and those that are not really indifferent with police will come to those meetings. But those that are indifferent, we have to begin to talk, we have to begin to listen, and have them be a part of the solutions."

In recent days, peaceful protests in the St. Louis area over Floyd's death have given way to chaos as night fell. Monday night, four St. Louis officers were shot while standing near a police line, and retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn was killed during looting the looting of a north city pawn shop.

RELATED: $10,000 reward for information in murder of retired St. Louis police captain during looting of pawn shop

"They are not what our city stands for, and they will not win," Johnson said of the riots. His prayers went out to the injured officers and their families, as well the family of Dorn, who he said was an inspiration and one of the reasons he became an officer.

"We have great policemen. The St. Louis City police department and police departments throughout our city have men and women that do a great job every day," he said. "But we have to realize and be honest that there’s change that has to be made. And we have to sit there and make sure officers receive that training, and we have to begin to gain trust. 

"Right now, trust is not there.... with those peaceful protesters, we have to gain their trust. Those rioters and looters that are out there to disrupt -- we can’t let them win and drown out the discussion."

Johnson said that when he signed his book back in 2018, he signed "I am you."

"Just know that when we look at each other, we are more alike than we’re different," he said. "And we have to embrace that, and embrace our differences and know that we can be better."

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