At police headquarters, he stars in cleanup spot

Janitor: Howard County police scrambled to ensure that a trusted worker stayed on the job.

April 12, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Howard police Chief Wayne Livesay was huddling with his top commanders for a weekly briefing earlier this year when one report caused him consternation: The department might lose Tony Johnson, a captain told Livesay.

"Do whatever it takes to keep Tony here," Livesay recalls saying.

The chief's order was unusual but urgent nonetheless. Johnson isn't a commander, detective or patrol officer. He's the guy who keeps the halls, offices and cell blocks impeccably clean at the Police Department's Northern District headquarters in Ellicott City. Police officials scrambled to make sure he could stay after the company he worked for lost the county contract to clean the department's offices to another company.

"I took it very seriously," Livesay said in an interview last week. "I don't want to lose Tony."

Although the building-cleaning business faces frequent employee turnover and fierce competition for cleaning contracts, Johnson has become a fixture in the Howard County Police Department during the past dozen years he has worked there.

Police officials said they wanted to keep Johnson for two key reasons: He does a thorough, meticulous job, and it's difficult to find reliable cleaning workers who pass the necessary security checks, which clear them to work in the Police Department's inner sanctum.

Capt. Kevin Burnett, who informed the chief about the possible loss of Johnson, said he approached the new company - Spotless Janitorial Services Inc. - and persuaded them to keep Johnson aboard.

"I said, `Look, rather than go out and find someone to meet the guidelines, why not just hire Tony?'" Burnett said. "He's very dependable, very consistent."

Ronald Del Ricco, vice president of Lanham-based Spotless, joked about the pressure to hire Tony. "I got my arm twisted so much, it almost broke off," Del Ricco said.

But Johnson "does excellent work," he said. "They're very demanding over there when it comes to cleaning. They expect a lot out of us."

At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Johnson, 45, has the demeanor of a gentle giant. Born and raised in Howard County, Johnson has been working in the cleaning business since graduating from Oakland Mills High School in 1976. His mother cleaned homes in the area while his father was a farm laborer after serving a stint in the Army as a mechanic, Johnson said.

"Maybe I took after her," Johnson said.

With a swipe of his ID card, Johnson gets into the areas where he does his job. He begins his cleaning regimen every day at 5:30 a.m. He mops, dusts, empties trash, wipes conference tables, vacuums carpeted areas and polishes tile floors with a high-powered buffer.

"I've gotten it down to a science," Johnson said.

He has developed a methodical, efficient routine. He begins in the main lobby on the first floor and works his way through the halls, conference rooms, and offices of the chief and other top officials. On the lower level, he tends to the weight room, the men's and women's locker rooms, and, whenever necessary, the 15 cell blocks.

Along the way, some of the officers and civilians who work in the building kid and joke with him with apparent ease and familiarity. One called him "Denzel," after movie star Denzel Washington. Others call him "Keyshawn," a star football player on the Dallas Cowboys with whom he shares a last name.

"It's a fun thing, being around with some of these guys, seeing the things that they do," Johnson said. "I admire them."

By the time Johnson leaves at 1:30 p.m., he has covered nearly every room and corner in the 37,000-square-foot building, stairwells included. The only area he doesn't set foot in is the indoor shooting range, which is cleaned and maintained by another contractor, he said.

A couple of times a month, he also cleans the department's Southern District office in Scaggsville, and the vice and narcotics division's secret office at an undisclosed location.

"We know he does a great job, and we feel comfortable with him," Livesay said. "We know he won't violate our trust."

When Johnson finally walks out of the police station each afternoon, his day is only half over. He hops in his 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass and drives to his Woodlawn apartment for some rest. About 3:15 p.m., he picks up his son from elementary school and brings him home.

Then he drives to a doctor's building in Towson, where he supervises two other workers as they clean three floors from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Most nights, he gets home after 10:30 p.m.

By the time the weekend comes, all Johnson wants to do is spend time with his girlfriend, Leslie Gaither, their 9-year-old son and a 14-year-old godson who lives with them.

For Johnson, the long workweek is a necessity. "That's how you got to support your family and stuff," he said. He is able to save money and provide a "comfortable" lifestyle for his family, he added. He figures one day he might even be his own boss.

"Maybe someday I'll have my own little business on the side," he said.

Johnson said he doesn't have any complaints about his job and hopes to stay longer, even if the cleaning contract changes hands again.

"Tell y'all the truth," he said, "I just love my work."

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