Star Johnson was among the few black (“colored”) officers in Phoenix, 1940 population 65,414. The city was segregated, with many stores and restaurants closed to blacks (and Hispanics) and a black-only high school. The color line and racial violence weren’t as severe as in the deep South, but both existed and swelled with the growth during World War II.
Blacks had served in the PPD since 1919 (after a civil rights group forced the issue), but they were not allowed to work a white-populated beat. Black cops patrolled the black section of town, which included the areas south of the Southern Pacific Railroad and Red Light Row. By the 1940s, they were permitted to work the busy downtown business center.
The red-light district known as “Red Light Row” was bounded on the north by Van Buren Street, the south by Jackson Street, west by First Street and east by 16th Street Names of the some 16 establishments included Irene’s, Mark’s Place, the Dunbar and the Cozy Room. Before charter government, overt corruption and vice was common. Phoenix had a reputation as a wide-open Wild West town, made more so by the war boom and thousands of soldiers and airmen training nearby. Yet Phoenix also wanted to be a modern city.
In 1944, Johnson was partnered with Joe Wayne Davis on a walking beat. Thirty-six years old, Johnson had been born in Waco, Texas, but had attended high school in Mesa. An Army veteran, Star was single and had been a Phoenix officer for two and a half years. Davis was from California, married with three children. At 27, he had been a Phoenix officer for two years and two months.
One person who remembed Star Johnson and Joe Davis well was Joe Island, who became a Phoenix Police officer in 1938 and retired as a detective in 1961. Island was also African-American and recalled the challenges of working on the department in his time. He was the officer who trained, or as he put it, “broke in,” Johnson on the ins-and-outs of walking a beat in downtown Phoenix.
Island remembered Star as an outgoing man with an easygoing personality, quick-witted with a pleasant tenor voice that gained him popularity downtown when he would croon a song as he walked the beat. Star was also handsome. With his personality and good looks, he was a ladies man — even though the nickname came from his football days at Mesa High School. Joe Davis, the more serious of the two, was also well-liked by the residents, shoppers and business owners of downtown Phoenix.
The two black cops became popular fixtures downtown. They would start their shift by making the rounds and letting everyone know they were there. Radios for walking cops were far in the future — radios in police cars were only 12 years old. Instead, a light on the top of the pole attached to a callbox flashed, signaling officers to pick up the phone and receive their assignment. The pair would stop in some of the local establishments for a meal or a drink or just to shoot the breeze with the people they served.
Once they were satisfied that all was well, the team got down to business. Johnson and Davis were known by fellow officers as hard-working cops. Existing records indicate the two outpaced the rest of the department in arrests by more than three-to-one. For example, from April, 20th through May 2nd, 1944, they made a total of 27 arrests, from felonies to misdemeanors.
Prostitution, although illegal, was tolerated. Some hotels known to be bordellos were owned by prominent and wealthy Phoenicians. To compound the problem, the city also relied on fines and payoffs from bordellos to supplement the budget. With political pressure from the military to address prostitution — Phoenix had been placed off limits to troops for a time — it was a sticky situation. The unwritten policy was to let detectives “deal” with prostitution. Sometimes that meant cops beating up and robbing soldiers visiting the whore houses. Star Johnson and Joe Davis didn’t play by these unwritten rules. They were making arrests at the hotels, playing it straight and attracting some unwanted attention. As Joe Island put it, they were “making waves in a dirty little business”