Joe Razza was a runner.
Daily, the town native could be spotted dashing up and down the hills of Johnston while off-duty.
The former Johnston police chief stepped down last year as his health declined rapidly and unexpectedly. On Friday, Sept. 29 — following the announcement of his death — Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee ordered the state’s flags lowered in honor of the late Joseph P. Razza.
He was 54 years old.
Razza had only been the town’s top cop for a couple years, taking over for retiring Chief Richard Tamburini.
“He was a quiet man with a huge presence,” Tamburini said Saturday. “He was not a man to ever step back from a challenge or let something wrong go unchallenged. He cared enough to act. Rest in peace brother Joe.”
Razza was full of energy, friendly and approachable.
In 2022, the diagnosis became clear, and Razza had to step down from leading the department. He asked for privacy and it was granted.
His position was filled and Razza had been fighting. The illness moved fast and it claimed him just nine months after he was officially forced to leave his post (current Johnston Police Chief Mark A. Vieira took the chief’s oath in January).
“Saddened to learn of the passing of former Johnston Police Chief Joseph Razza,” Gov. McKee posted online Friday. “Our thoughts are with the entire Razza family and the people of Johnston. I’ve directed Rhode Island state flags to be lowered in his honor.”
According to a Johnston Sun Rise personality profile published in January 2021, Razza’s late father Pasco cut meat at local markets and ran “Big Ray’s” Farmers Market. As a kid attending Johnston Public Schools, and even into college, Razza made extra money selling produce door-to-door.
Razza attended URI for a year, transferred to CCRI and eventually graduated from Roger Williams University, with a bachelor’s in criminal justice and an associate degree in business administration.
“My parents taught me at a very early age that if you wanted to succeed in life, it required determination and hard work because nothing in life was unattainable,” he told the Sun Rise in 2021.
Razza was a stellar athlete; notably competitive on the basketball court. He was inducted into Johnston High School’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
At first, Razza struck out while applying to police departments across the Ocean State. Eventually, in 1995, he took a job as a Juvenile Program Worker at the Rhode Island Training School. He worked in private security, but finally landed his first police post in Jamestown. He went to the academy and took his first sworn officer oath later that year.
Three years later, he moved back home to Johnston.
“I hesitantly left the picturesque shores of Jamestown for the ever-flowing traffic on Atwood Avenue,” he told the Sun Rise. “Although my time in Jamestown was brief, I truly enjoyed the community and its people.”
Back in Johnston, he started like everyone else, as a probationary officer. He worked graveyard shifts and earned promotions (he made sergeant after six years).
He told the Sun Rise that he liked those stripes; being a sergeant was “where the rubber hits the road.”
“There is not a more important position in a police department than a frontline supervisor – the sergeant,” Razza said in 2021.
By 2017, he made deputy chief.
On Aug. 31, 2020, former Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena swore Razza in as the department’s eighth chief. Immediately after, his wife Mandi pinned on his badge.
“A lot of people, especially the devoted men and women who make up the Johnston Police are going to wonder what kind of chief I will be, and what I will be asking of them,” Razza said as the day of his promotion. “I will tell them that integrity has been and always will be my mantra, as I will continue to lead with dedication, devotion and honor to the people of this truly great town, and I will expect the same from them.”
On Friday, following the announcement of Razza’s death, current Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. remembered the former chief (Polisena Jr. was vice-president of Town Council while Razza served as chief; he swore in Razza’s replacement in January).
“The loss of Chief Razza, especially at such a young age, is a heavy blow to Johnston,” Polisena wrote. “During his time as Chief, he was instrumental in not just keeping our town safe but also solving everyday problems for residents. He was always available to meet with residents, listen to their issues and help improve their quality of life. The key to any leadership position in government listening (is) to those you represent. Chief Razza was the ultimate listener. It was a pleasure to work alongside him during my time on the council. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Mandy and the Chief’s entire family.”
As a new editor in town, Razza showed me his collection of Rhode Island police department patches, which he had framed. They hung on display downstairs at the Johnston Police Department. Those patches were far more than mere bits of fabric to Chief Razza.
“Johnston Police Chief Joseph Razza honorably served the residents of Johnston for 25 years, dedicating his life to protecting and serving the people he so fiercely loved,” Vieira said. “He was born and raised in Johnston and was a true pillar of our community. His commitment to the Johnston community was unmatched as he was exceptionally accommodating to residents, business owners, and community organizations.”
Vieira recounted the department’s recent accomplishments, owed in large part to initiatives started under the former chief.
“Under Chief Razza's leadership, the Johnson Police Department increased its social media footprint and expanded the department's community engagement initiatives, further unifying the community,” Vieira recalled. “He also served as the town's EMA Director and facilitated a successful vaccination site during the COVID-19 pandemic keeping the residents of Johnston safe. Chief Razza's resiliency, integrity, and self-motivation undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the Johnston Police Department. Chief Razza was not only my close friend, but my most valued mentor throughout my career. As a department, we will carry forward his legacy of honor, compassion, and service.”