Where it all started: Former Roughrider basketball player returns to command police academy
Thirty years separate Gareth Braxton-Johnson’s first Yavapai College journey as a 17-year-old Roughrider basketball player enjoying his first taste of freedom and the “quintessential college experience, ” and his current one as the commander of the Prescott Campus-based Northern Arizona Regional Training Academy.
The proud YC and Apollo High School (Glendale) alumnus, who has enjoyed a long tenure with the Cottonwood Police Department, currently as its patrol commander, can’t help but marvel at his return to the community college where he says he spent two of the best years of his life.
“It’s pretty special to come back to Yavapai College,” Braxton-Johnson said of his two-year appointment as commander of NARTA, which trains recruits for law-enforcement agencies statewide. “I have really fond memories of the campus. Obviously it has changed a lot.”
The former Roughrider small forward and first-generation college student reminisced about Sunday breakfasts at the Waffle Iron, the thunder-and-rain sound effects in the “Storm Center-- ” as Walraven Gym was nicknamed at the time -- and standing-room-only crowds that supported what was a hugely successful basketball program. “It was a great atmosphere. It really was neat seeing the community backing we had then. It didn’t matter if we were doing a community outreach event in area elementary schools or doing clinics, there was always tremendous support.”
Braxton-Johnson still owns a piece of personal Roughrider history in the form of a page from a program that features game-face photographs of the team that made a playoff run his first year (1993) and was ranked as high as No. 22 in the nation his second year. He remains close friends with many of his former teammates, coaches and training staff and regularly returned to YC to play in alumni exhibitions.
Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, was Braxton-Johnson’s next stop, for two more years of basketball, for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and internships with a local prosecutors office and juvenile detention center. “Law enforcement had always been a fallback plan of mine,” he said, explaining, “I’ve always had a belief in right and wrong and I believed I could do a pretty good job at it (policing).”
Braxton-Johnson attributes his strong moral compass to his parents. As early as elementary school, he said, he couldn’t abide bullying or other forms of mistreatment. “It just wasn’t a good feeling. I couldn’t sit idly by. I would typically find myself looking out for people, trying to intervene, provide comfort or just be a friend.”
After college and a stint as a semi-pro baller, Braxton-Johnson joined the Scottsdale Police Department. He served six years there, mostly in patrol, before landing a school resource officer position with the Cottonwood Police Department. “I’ve always had a fondness for education. I consider myself a lifelong learner so it was just a natural draw for me.”
Since joining the Cottonwood PD, Braxton-Johnson has been in and out of school as a public servant, a student and a teacher. He earned a master’s degree in educational leadership at Northern Arizona University, taught in NAU’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, earned a graduate certificate in criminal justice education from the University of Virginia and graduated from the FBI National Academy. He recently was accepted to the Harvard Kennedy School of Executive Leadership. “In some form or fashion I always seem to find myself around education, particularly higher education,” he said.
As NARTA Commander, Braxton-Johnson will oversee at least four classes of cadets. He relishes the leadership role, which he is fulfilling concurrently with his commander position with Cottonwood Police.
“Just like coming back to Yavapai College, it’s a homecoming of sorts. This is where I started, in a police academy setting before I was a sworn police officer. It really does reinvigorate you after a period of time to see the academy’s success and have input in shaping future law enforcement officers and eventual agency leaders. It’s a way to give back to law enforcement at the latter stages of my career.”
After commanding NARTA and attending the Harvard Kennedy School, Braxton-Johnson intends to take the next step on his career ladder – become a police chief. Until then, the father of two is content to inspire a new generation of police officers, serve and protect Cottonwood residents and wax nostalgic every now and then about where it all started.
“If you would have told me 30 years ago I’d be back at Yavapai College and be in this position, I couldn’t have imagined it. It’s pretty amazing where life will take you and ultimately bring you back.”