DA Investigator Chad Johnson and colleagues join ranks of nation’s most elite officers
■ By Olivia Gildea / Reporter
Hemet resident and San Bernardino County District Attorney Senior Investigator Chad Johnson was awarded the Medal of Valor Feb. 20 at The White House for acts of courage and selflessness during the Dec. 2, 2015 San Bernardino terrorist shooting. Johnson was one of five other law enforcement officers to be awarded the medal for their acts during the attack.
Then a detective with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, Johnson’s day began behind a desk at Morongo Basin Sheriff’s Station where he was assigned.
He received a phone call from his girlfriend, a probation officer working in San Bernardino, informing him of an active shooter at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center (IRC). Immediately, Johnson confirmed police reports of an active shooter, and requested permission from the station’s sergeant to assist, alongside his partner Deputy Bruce Southworth. Once they arrived on the northern perimeter of the IRC, Johnson and Southworth held position while SWAT cleared the buildings.
Once relieved from his position at the perimeter, Johnson was returning to his patrol vehicle when he heard the radio call from Deputy Shaun Wallen, who was following closely behind the suspects’ black SUV when they opened fire on police. With the call of shots fired, Johnson’s immediate instinct became to eliminate the threat. He and Southworth ran to their vehicle and made their way to where the pursuit had ended, roughly 1.7 miles from the IRC in a suburban neighborhood along E. San Bernardino Avenue.
The scene when Johnson arrived was something out of a movie. Officers were already engaged in a gunfight with the suspects, identified at that point as Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Deputy Wallen was pinned behind his vehicle taking fire. Another, Officer Nicholas Koahou of the Redlands Police Dept., had been shot in the leg and needed help.
Despite what Johnson called an “incredible amount of gunfire,” his main concern was the safety of both Koahou and Wallen. What happens next is the reason Johnson’s name will forever be etched in history, alongside all other public safety officers since 2001 who, according to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, have “exhibited exceptional courage, regardless of personal safety, in the attempt to save or protect human life.”
Recognizing the need for Koahou to be protected and removed from the line of fire, Johnson returned to his patrol vehicle and positioned it between Koahou and the suspects’ SUV. Together with the other officers, Johnson helped reach Koahou and begin his rescue. As for Wallen, it was Redlands Police Dept. Officer Brian Olvera who organized a rescue team to extend forward the 20-odd yards to where he was pinned down behind his vehicle and bring him back to a safe distance. The group was able to reach Wallen thanks to Johnson’s use of his vehicle as rolling cover.
“The officers on scene that day were all true heroes,” Johnson said. “They made the decision to run towards gunfire and stop the threat.”
It was six months ago that Johnson was told he would be receiving the Medal of Valor alongside the five other officers who all worked together that day to end the shooters’ rampage. Since then, Johnson, who has moved on to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office as senior investigator, has gone above and beyond what was once a childhood dream.
“My first role model as a child was a New York state trooper. Since then, I’ve always wanted to work in law enforcement. I wanted to help people and make a difference in their lives.”
Make a difference he has. Thanks to the efforts of Johnson and all first responders and police officers who pursued Farook and Malik, the 14 casualties of the incident were restricted to the IRC building. According to AP, searches of the perpetrators’ home revealed thousands of rounds of ammunition—in addition to the thousands found on their persons and in their vehicle—as well as materials used to construct improvised explosive devices. Several of these devices were left behind at the IRC by Farook. Police believe that during the time in between the shooting, which occurred just before 11 a.m. and lasted only two or three minutes, and the pursuit of the black SUV, which began just after 3 p.m., Farook and Malik were attempting to remotely detonate those devices.
Before the February ceremony, Johnson and the other officers receiving medals (San Bernardino Police Department Detective Brian Olvera, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Shaun Wallen, Detective Bruce Southworth, Corporal Rafael Ixco, and Redlands Police Department Officer Nicholas Koahou) were given tours of the East Wing of The White House.
The “White House staff was amazing,” Johnson says of the experience. “It was an honor to accept the award with the other recipients. The day was very humbling.”