By Chris Rogers
Allan Johnson was just an elementary school kid in Preston, Minn., when he first dreamed of becoming a police officer. Former Fillmore County Sheriff Don Gudmundson’s had visited Johnson’s school to speak about his job, and the young boy couldn’t stop talking about it. All through high school, Johnson went on as many ride-alongs as he could. A few years of school and training later, Johnson realized his childhood dream. “I just said I wanted to be like him and help people,” Johnson said of Gudmundson’s visit. In 2015, one arrest ended Johnson’s near 20-year career. He officially left the Winona Police Department (WPD) this spring, and late last month, Mayor Mark Peterson and Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack awarded him with the Police Purple Heart and Police Medal of Meritorious Service. Johnson is still figuring out what comes next.
Johnson came to Winona looking to move up in his career. He wanted to get into investigations and become a field training officer. In his 10 years at the small Caledonia Police Department, he had gotten a chance to help train some new hires and conduct some investigations, but the opportunities for advancement were limited, Johnson said. Winona was a bigger city with more action, and maybe, more opportunity.
Officer Johnson was still relatively new to the Winona force when he and Sergeant Jay Rasmussen were called out to Fleet Farm, at 6:41 p.m. on December 22, 2015, for a shoplifting report. The subject, 31-year-old Austin Michael Rieks, had allegedly stolen a grey, long-sleeve shirt, and, according to the criminal complaint, was carrying a large folding knife in his pocket. Rasmussen and Johnson talked to Rieks. Rasmussen took the knife, and he and Johnson were going to search him for other weapons, when Rieks took off running, according to court records. Rieks only made it 10 feet or so before Johnson tackled him. The men fell to the ground of the Fleet Farm parking lot, and Johnson’s leg broke in three places. “I’m not actually sure how my leg got broken like that. It happened so fast,” Johnson said. Rasmussen stated, “Allan fell backward with [Rieks], and as he fell down, Allan’s leg got tangled with [Rieks]. The force of [Johnson’s] body dropping and [Rieks’] body dropping — snap.” During the medal ceremony, city manager Steve Sarvi described what happened next, “The suspect continued to struggle, and even with a severe injury, officer Johnson continued to assist the other officer in handcuffing the combative suspect.” Rasmussen said that Rieks was still trying to get away and Johnson was howling in pain, but he held onto Rieks’ left arm and Rasmussen cuffed the other arm.
Johnson said that Rieks was struggling to get away, not trying to attack him, and consequently Rieks was charged with obstructing the legal process rather than assault on a peace officer. That charge, along with charges of theft and property damage were dropped in a plea deal, but WPD officers reportedly found a sizable amount of methamphetamine on Rieks. He was sentenced to 68 months in prison for third-degree possession of a controlled substance and fleeing an officer on foot. He had prior convictions. Johnson was taken to the hospital for the first in what would become a series of surgeries.
Johnson’s tibia, fibula, and ankle bones were broken. At first, he thought, “Six to eight weeks and I’d be back to work.” And, at first, it seemed like it might work out that way. He was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve with a good prognosis.
In February, his doctors realized the bones were not healing properly, Johnson explained, and then they diagnosed him with a rare, incurable disorder: complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). According to the Mayo Clinic, the precise causes of CRPS are not well understood, but it tends to happen after injuries, surgeries, amputations, strokes, or heart attacks. CRPS can have wide ranging affects on parts of the body far from where the injury occurred. The condition gave Johnson excruciating pain, and a host of other strange symptoms. Johnson’s legs became discolored, his sweat glands stopped working, his hair and nail growth changed, and his saliva glands did not work right. The pain was so bad Johnson could not walk. Initially, Johnson said he was taking 273 pills every three weeks and getting shots directly into his spinal cord. “I couldn’t walk unaided for 10 months. I went from a wheelchair, to a walker, and eventually to a cane,” he said. Now, Johnson walks without a cane, but he cannot run and steps are a challenge. “At my kids’ events I can’t walk up the bleachers. I need something to hold on to, and I’m really slow going up the stairs,” he explained. “There’s a lot of stuff that has changed.”
There are plenty of stories about people who push themselves in rehab and beat the doctor’s predictions, but sometimes, people devote themselves to physical therapy, and it doesn’t work out. “The whole time the doctors were saying it wasn’t looking good, and I was trying really hard to meet the [WPD’s physical] requirements,” Johnson stated.
Johnson can walk now thanks to a little box surgeons implanted at the base of his spine. The box, a spinal cord stimulator, sends electric pulses that interrupt the pain signals coming from his legs. “You know that tingling feeling when your arm falls asleep? Basically, I have that on both legs from the waist down,” he stated. He has it all the time. “It took a while to get used to. It was quite annoying at first,” Johnson said. Every 10 years, he will need a surgery to replace the battery. At night, he wears a charging belt that recharges the battery through his skin. Johnson laughed, “That’s kind of weird.”
For months, Johnson said he could not walk well enough to get around retail stores. He waited in the parking lot while his children went in and got what the family needed. “I sat in the truck and thought, ‘This sucks because I’m the parent. I’m supposed to be providing for them, and I need help.’” Later on, Johnson used the store’s motorized scooters. He said he got dirty looks.
Johnson has not been able to work since his injury, and he said his family was relying on his wife’s earnings and workman’s compensation. A friend created a GoFundMe page — an online fundraiser — for him.
“I didn’t want to ask anyone for help. I wanted to be independent, and I couldn’t,” Johnson said of life with his injury. “Now, I’m a little more at peace with it.”
Over a year since his diagnosis, Johnson officially left the WPD this April and said goodbye to his career as a police officer. He could not meet the physical standards for the job. “I might not ever be able to run again, and that’s one of the things I have to be able to do.” Being a police officer is physically demanding work, and many departments require officers to meet physical standards, such as minimal performance on vertical jumps, sprints, distance running, and sit-ups and push-ups. After months of accommodating his injury, the Winona County Sheriff’s Office terminated a deputy who could not work patrol shifts due to complications from an off-duty fracture.
Sergeant Eric Engrav said of police officers, “You have people who do a good job at work and enjoy their employment, and then you have people where it’s really their identity… Allan was one of those guys; he lived and breathed the law enforcement community. It was his identity. For it to be cut short for him, it was so sad because he was so enthusiastic for his work.”
“I had a hard time grieving that job,” Johnson said. “That’s all I’ve ever known and done.”
Asked what he thought, in hindsight, of the arrest that injured him, Johnson said, “For all the times I’ve had people resist arrest or try to fight with me, that particular night felt like any other night.” Rasmussen agreed; until Johnson’s leg broke, it seemed routine. “It was a freak accident,” Rasmussen said. It could have happened to anyone.
“Of course, in law enforcement you don’t want to think about that stuff too much, because it’s the reality that anyone can get hurt,” Rasmussen continued. “And it’s a job where, if you get a physical injury, it can be career-ending.”
Johnson is not the only local officer to suffer severe injuries in the line of duty, Engrav said. The sergeant described one officer who broke his leg in multiple places while wrestling with a subject. “He missed a lot of work. I know he still has pain occasionally. Nobody knows about it,” Engrav stated. Another officer had major damage to his hand after struggling with a subject who tried to escape custody. “You don’t get to say, ‘Damn it, I broke my hand. I have to stop fighting because my hand’s broke,’” Engrav said. “You have to keep fighting until the person is secured.”
“Law enforcement is not all about fighting people, but when it is, we need our officers to act,” Rasmussen said. “I was proud of Allan for not giving up, for continuing to fight the fight. He didn’t stop being a cop just because he was injured,” he added.
Johnson spoke with the Post between physical therapy appointments, and he is slated to have an occupational therapy assessment called a functional capacity evaluation. “That’s going to determine how disabled I am and what types of jobs, if any, I can do,” Johnson explained.
Johnson praised his family’s support and understanding. He thanked his former co-workers, too. WPD officers packed the room when Mayor Peterson awarded him the medals. “I was really shocked by that,” Johnson said of the honors.
Johnson has moved to Rochester, now, where his wife works. “I’ll miss the people of Winona and the department. The department is full of really good officers,” he added.