Lessons from Quantico: La Habra captain brings leadership, wellness knowledge to department


The top of the list included family, friends and his Weimaraner, followed by Orange County’s warm weather and In-n-Out.

These are the things La Habra Police Capt. George Johnstone missed most when he bid farewell for 10 weeks for a unique opportunity to improve himself and the department he works for.

Johnstone, 47, was one of more than 200 law enforcement leaders from around the world selected to participate in the FBI National Academy’s 263rd class in Quantico, Va.

The professional development program is reserved for 1 percent of the world’s law enforcement leaders, drawing students from dozens of states and 23 countries including India, Latvia, Germany and Japan.

The only Orange County law enforcement professional selected to participate in this session, Johnstone also was the first from La Habra to attend the FBI National Academy in 15 years.

In many cases, it can take up to three years to get in, but Johnstone was accepted eight months after he applied.

“My first thought was it was much sooner than I expected,” he said. “I was surprised. It wasn’t supposed to happen for at least a year.”

Johnstone was in the middle of several projects at work and had yet to prepare his family – a wife and two daughters, ages 15 and 11 – for the nearly three months he’d be gone.

“I was almost panicked thinking about closing out projects at work and thinking about the arrangements that needed to be made at home and with my family,” Johnstone said.

Everyone stepped up, both at work and at home.

“My appreciation goes out to the chief and the City Council for their support, but more so to my family for being able to cover my absence for 10 weeks,” he said. “My wife, mother and brother had to get one teenage girl and one pre-teen to all their sporting events, school events and daily life events.”

La Habra Police Capt. George Johnstone went through a 10- week training program at the FBI in Virginia.

La Habra Police Capt. George Johnstone went through a 10- week training program at the FBI in Virginia.

But his colleagues, and family especially, knew how important this training would be — it was something Johnstone had on his law enforcement bucket list since very early in his career.

The Damien High School alumnus decided to become a cop after serving as a cadet with Chino PD and accompanying officers on several ride-alongs.

Johnstone served as a reserve officer with Chino PD for a year and a half before joining La Habra PD 25 years ago.

“I wanted to put those who take advantage of others in jail, and ensure people aren’t victimized by those out looking to do bad things,” he said.

As he rose through the ranks with La Habra PD going from patrol, to K9 handler, to investigations, then serving as a sergeant, lieutenant and now captain, Johnstone’s motivation for being in law enforcement broadened.

“I’m more service-oriented now because the majority of our calls are not about making arrests,” he said. “They’re about going out in the community and solving problems.”

Just as his inspiration for serving in law enforcement evolved, Johnstone hoped the FBI National Academy would help his leadership skills do the same.

The academy boasts a curriculum that enhances the professional development of law enforcement leaders and better prepares them for the complexities of the job.

The course feels collegiate from the way classes are organized right down to the rooming arrangements — a quintessential dorm room with two twin beds and a shared bathroom.

Johnstone —a loyal Boston Red Sox fan thanks to having a mom born and raised in Bean Town — roomed with a New York PD captain — a Yankees fan.

Any baseball lover knows the inherent problem with this arrangement.

“He was sure the FBI had specifically researched this to make us roommates,” Johnstone said. “It provided for some fun conversations and taunting.”

Despite their baseball rivalry, Johnstone learned he had much in common with his roommate and the dozens of other law enforcement leaders in his classes.

“In one of the classes, I was able to sit next to my roommate, who is an NYPD captain of 35,000 officers, then there was me as a captain with 71 officers, and next to me was a Texas chief with seven officers,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what size your department is, we are all facing very similar challenges in community relations, transparency and building trust in the community.

“This training really showed how important it is for the community to be involved in policing and how policing needs to be involved with the community.”

The academy courses Johnstone enrolled in focused on leadership, media relations, social media, speech and the threat landscape of the cyber world.

In addition to classwork, which students showed up for every day wearing 511 cargo pants and green polos, the students were required to meet rigorous physical fitness standards.

They regularly would run in snow flurries and 20-degree weather (did we mention Johnstone really missed Orange County’s climate?), and were challenged with high-intensity impact training.

“This training really brought me some self-realization, especially in health and fitness and how important that is not just for the individual, but for the entire department as well,” he said.

Johnstone earned a black brick for cycling 263 miles on a stationary bike (he’s got the pictures of his mileage to quiet any doubters) and the coveted yellow brick for completing the notorious Yellow Brick Road.

The 6.1-mile run is a Marine-constructed obstacle course through the woods and up several hills. Runners have to trek through streams, climb walls, scale rocks, crawl under barbed wire and navigate a cargo net.

Johnstone took on the Yellow Brick Road with a 101-degree fever and a sinus and respiratory infection.

“I didn’t want to go to the doctor and be quarantined,” Johnstone said. “My time wasn’t great, but there was no way I was going to take the chance of not getting that brick.”

La Habra Capt. George Johnstone earned the coveted yellow brick for completing a 6.1-mile course and the black brick for logging 263 miles on a stationary bike. Photo by Miguel Vasconcellos/Behind the Badge OC

La Habra Capt. George Johnstone earned the coveted yellow brick for completing a 6.1-mile course and the black brick for logging 263 miles on a stationary bike. Photo by Miguel Vasconcellos/Behind the Badge OC

The importance of health and wellness were further underscored when one of Johnstone’s colleagues was hospitalized after suffering severe headaches.

Tests confirmed the New York officer would need emergency surgery and subsequent treatment for a cancerous brain tumor, Johnstone said.

His FBI academy classmates raised money to help his family with food and hotel stay costs as the officer goes through treatment.

“Prior to leaving, he requested his family drive him back to the academy grounds to say good-bye to his friends and help collect his clothes and other things,” Johnstone said. “The class, nearly all 236, lined the hall of the dorm entrance and saluted him as he walked out.”

On the weekends, Johnstone went on several excursions — some of which were required — including visiting Washington D.C., the Newseum and the Holocaust Museum, and touring the New York Police Department and 9-11 Memorial.

During week two, his 11-year-old daughter, Julia, visited for some historical sightseeing, and on week five, Johnstone was able to return home for a weekend visit to see his family, his dog and order that In-n-Out burger he had been craving.

Since Johnstone returned to La Habra PD in March, he has shared a physical fitness program he hopes will be adopted by the entire La Habra police force and has held a leadership training for the city’s department heads.

His ultimate goal is to help the department continue to evolve and embrace a culture in which the reward for a job well done, is the job itself.

“We want employees to have that internal desire to perform at their best, knowing that there is nothing better than representing a very special department, doing a very special job.”