Alex Palou holds on to win Detroit Grand Prix

Dented Badge program provides cop families comfort, aid

George Hunter
The Detroit News

In the split second it took for a gunman to squeeze a trigger, the lives of Nicolle Johnson and her family were thrown into chaos.

Nicolle Johnson talks about her husband, injured Detroit police officer Waldis Johnson, as her daughter, Piper Johnson, 8, listens. Officer Johnson was shot in the head as he responded to a domestic violence call April 30 on Detroit’s west side.

“We literally went to sleep one night with everything fine, and woke up in a different world,” said Johnson of Canton Township, a mother of three whose husband, Detroit police officer Waldis Johnson, was shot in the head April 30. He continues to fight for his life after suffering severe brain trauma.

Aside from the emotional turmoil the shooting caused, Nicolle Johnson said her family also was hurt financially. She took time off from her job as a middle school science teacher to be with her husband, who continues to get his base pay but loses out on overtime. The loss of income hit hard, she said.

“I was at the bottom of the barrel, with no groceries or gas money,” she said.

Enter the Dented Badge program.

For families like the Johnsons, there are several organizations they can turn to for help, both in and outside the Detroit Police Department. The Johnsons received money from Dented Badge, a nonprofit that aims to help raise money and provide comfort for the families of wounded Detroit cops.

“Dented Badge was a lifesaver,” said Arin Johnson, Waldis and Nicolle Johnson’s son. “Without them, things would be a lot more difficult than they are.”

Detroit police officer Waldis Johnson was shot last year.

The program is coordinated by former Detroit Transportation police officer Daniel Tackett, a pastor at Restoring Hope Church in Wyandotte, who is also head of the International Police and Fire Chaplains Association.

“There are so many officers that end up in tough situations when they get hurt,” Tackett said. “They lose out on their overtime, which a lot of officers rely on. Many of these families end up at poverty level, and lose their cars and homes.”

Detroit Police Lt. LaShanna Potts, who works in Chief James Craig’s office, said Dented Badge is one among myriad programs that help families like the Johnsons.

“I know the hardship families go through when an officer is injured or killed, so we step up and help those families,” Potts said.

Among the Detroit police-affiliated programs that give aid to families are the Peer Support Group, the Detroit Police Wives Association and the Detroit Police Chaplain Corps, Potts said.

“The Wives Association started when Patrick Hill was killed,” said Potts, referring to the Detroit officer who died Oct. 19, 2013, after being in a coma for six months. He was shot in the head April 2, 2013, as police exchanged gunfire with 23-year-old Matthew Joseph, who was killed in the gunfight.

“The wives got together after that and decided whenever an officer is killed we would help,” said Potts, a member of the Wives Association. “We cook meals, buy diapers, clothing, baby supplies and whatever is needed to help these families.”

The Chaplain Corps holds fundraisers and provides 24-hour spiritual support to families dealing with an officer death or injury, Potts said; the Peer Support Group, made up of police officers, most of whom have been through traumatic experiences, also provides emotional support to families.

“If the officer dies, we help them with planning the funeral, and make sure they fill out all the paperwork so they can get all the benefits they’re entitled to,” Potts said.

Potts said Craig also created the Fallen and Critically Injured Officers Remembrance Committee, to make sure officers who are killed in the line of duty are not forgotten.

“We had a meeting with some of the widows and family members and asked where does the department fall short when your spouse is killed,” Potts said. “They told us we stay connected with them for a minute, but then they’re forgotten. So the chief put a board together to make sure we reach out to them on their kids’ birthdays, proms, things like that.”

The Dented Badge program, which launched in September, came about during a conversation with Tackett and Julian Leese, a British native and real estate speculator who was in Detroit to purchase property.

“(Tackett) got badly injured himself (by a man who ran a red light and plowed into his car), and he told me about other officers who’d been injured who were having a tough time,” Leese said. “So we started Dented Badge.

“Obviously, Detroit has been through some tough issues, but I’ve personally seen the city turn around. The average cop on the street does an incredibly difficult job and if they get injured, it’s tough. It touched my heart, and so Dan and I got together to see if we could help.”

In addition to financial assistance, Dented Badge got donations from hotels and restaurants so families dealing with wounded officers could have a “nice night on the town,” Tackett said. Mariner’s Church also donated money to the officers’ families.

Leese helps bankroll the program, which has helped three officers’ families so far. “Right now, we’re trying to make more people aware of the program,” he said. “I’d like to get some companies to sponsor us, and once we get things cracking in Detroit, try to do the same thing elsewhere in the States.”

Waldis Johnson — known as “Jay” to his wife and friends — was wounded when he and his partner knocked on the door of the Oakman Apartments on Detroit’s west side, after someone called police to report domestic violence.

After Johnson and his partner arrived at the building and knocked on the front door, surveillance video showed tenant James Ray loading his .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol as he walked from his apartment to the building entrance.

Ray shot Johnson in the head. Johnson’s partner fired back, killing the 46-year-old man, who was not involved in the original domestic violence call.

Piper Johnson, 8, said she still relives the night she found out her father had been shot.

“They woke me up and told me; I was really scared,” she said. “They brought me into the police car, and I still didn’t really know what was happening. It’s still hard to go through when it happens to someone you love. It was hard to see my dad like that.”

The third-grader said she’s touched by the people who have helped her family.

“When someone’s hurt in your family, there are people who want to help you through,” she said. “(Her teacher) Mrs. Crites brought me lunch. And friends were there to help me and ask if I was OK.”

Nicolle Johnson said her husband is “slowly getting better,” and she said while she and her family are still struggling emotionally, their financial situation has improved. She’s returned to work, and Dented Badge has donated money to help pay the bills.

“One of the things you learn when something terrible like this happens is how many good people are out there,” she said. “There really are people with good hearts who want to help.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN