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Phoenix officer honored for the first time on 80th anniversary of line-of-duty death

In May 1944, David “Star” Johnson was the first Black Phoenix police officer to die on the job, and the second-ever among Phoenix Police Department ranks. For decades, his death was not recognized as having been in the line of duty.

Phoenix police unveiled a historical marker near east Jefferson Street, close to where Leonce Navarre, an off-duty detective, shot Johnson during a traffic stop.

Sgt. Vincent Cole, the department’s historian, said it felt appropriate to honor Johnson by doing so on Thursday — 80 years to the day when after the shooting, Johnson made it to a nearby hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.

“Today this marker joins the rest that are across the city that act as a reminder that Phoenix police officers put their lives on the line every single day,” said Cole.

Interim Police Chief Michael Sullivan credited both him and retired Lt. Rob Septembre for leading the push to recognize Johnson.

“I truly believe if it wasn't for the tenacity of [those] two, we wouldn't be here today,” said Sullivan.

Because the department couldn’t locate Johnson’s kin, Sullivan presented the pair with a replica of the marker instead.

“This area looked very different 80 years ago,” Sullivan said. “So I think it's kind of ironic that this marker honoring someone who for 80 years, for the most part, was forgotten is going to be in one of the most traveled areas of our downtown, seen by thousands every day.”

A department spokesperson said information about Johnson was sparse and hard to find, likely why his death went unrecognized for so long.

Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.