ASU names new police chief

portrait of Michael Thompson

Michael L. Thompson was named chief of the ASU Police Department, Oct. 31, officially taking command of the department charged with keeping the university’s four campuses safe.
Photo by: Courtney Pedroza

Michael L. Thompson was named chief of the ASU Police Department, Oct. 31, officially taking command of the department charged with keeping the university’s four campuses safe.

In a conversation with ASU News, Thompson, who joined the department in 2008 and holds advanced degrees in administration leadership and educational counseling, reflected on his career in law enforcement and described his vision for a department that is more closely engaged with students, faculty and staff.

ASU News: Tell us about your background in law enforcement.

Thompson: I started with Mesa Police Department in 1988, and I worked there for 20 years. I was actually a reserve officer prior to 1988, so all in all, about 22 years. I did everything: patrol officer; I became a field training officer, trained people for about four years; got promoted to detective and worked property crimes; went into what is called persons crimes and handled aggravated assaults and kidnappings and all of that. Then I was promoted out of detective to sergeant and worked a variety of assignments as a sergeant: jail sergeant, bike sergeant, community action team supervisor, school resource officer supervisor, which is really where I got my passion for working in education. I was a patrol sergeant, of course. I was on the lieutenant's list for Mesa, but the opportunity arose here at ASU. I applied, and here I am.

ASU News: What drew you to police work in the first place?

Thompson: I started off on the engineering track. I was a draftsman. I actually worked for the City of Mesa engineering department. I updated city maps where water lines and sewer lines and gas lines were. But I quickly learned that I didn't enjoy being chained to a desk all day long; that I enjoyed getting out of the office when I had to go out and actually get some measurements. I think my dad also was a good influence on me as far as police work goes. He was not able to be a police officer because he had polio when he was a kid, and his physical disability prevented him from doing any kind of military or police service work. But he instilled a respect for the police in me. We were always in awe when the police came into the neighborhood. It was just a noble career. I thought that it was something that aligned with my values and my beliefs growing up, and I felt like I was contributing back to the community that I grew up in.

ASU News: Is there one experience that crystallizes what your career as a police officer meant?

Thompson: I think the most rewarding things that I remember from my police career were the times when I felt like I was making a difference in somebody's life. I remember one particular incident where I went on a welfare check of some children. The mom had some substance abuse issues and left them alone quite often. I got there and the children allowed me in the house.

She had a baby that was probably about ten months old at the time. I found the baby crying in a crib with the most atrocious diaper rash because the baby hadn't been changed since the day before, at least. There were actually cigarette ashes and cigarette butts in the crib. The baby was laying in them. I changed the child's diaper, called Child Protective Services, started some of the resources rolling. The baby was crying, hungry. But I couldn't find a clean bottle. I couldn’t find any food for the kids to eat.

Being a father myself and having children that were around that same age, I knew what to do. I was just absolutely astounded that somebody would treat their children that way. We ended up getting the kids relocated. I think that they're in a better place today. That was a moment that really stood out to me.

I got shot at once. I was pulling onto a scene where a guy had barricaded himself in a house. He shot at my car with a high‑powered rifle. I could hear the bullet come across the hood of my car. It didn't hit me, but it sounded like somebody was tearing a sheet of cardboard. Then I heard the report of the rifle right after that, and then the other officers yelling at me to get out of there. I immediately jumped out of the car and took cover behind a block wall. Those are the things you don't come home and tell your spouse right away! You let time pass a little bit, and then you say, "A few months ago, this thing happened …"

I felt like I usually had the communication skills to talk to people and help them recognize that we had to go down a certain path, and we didn't have to make it hard, and that I’d help them as best I could. I always felt like I could establish a rapport with people pretty easily.

ASU News: Not everyone in law enforcement holds two master's degrees. What was your driving interest in education?

Thompson: When I graduated from high school, I went right into working for the City of Mesa. I was going to night school when I decided to become a police officer. At the time, you didn't have to have a college degree. You just had to have a high school diploma.

To be quite honest with you, I was working with other officers who came to the police department with bachelor's degrees, four‑year degrees, and I felt very jealous of them. I didn't have those opportunities. My parents didn't have a lot of money. Nobody in my family had ever graduated from college except for a great‑grandmother, whom I didn't know. I felt like there was just this big missing piece of me and I really wanted to get that degree.

I got my associate's degree and a few years later I started working on my undergraduate degree and then on to a master's degree, and during the course of that program I developed a passion for education. The world opened up to me. I was learning things that I wasn't going to learn on my own and seeing the world in a different way. It really ignited a fire in me.

When I finished my first master's degree, that was in educational counseling and human relations, I went into another master's program, which was a master's of administration with an emphasis on leadership. My goal is to get a PhD eventually.

ASU News: After your career in Mesa, what brought you to ASU?

Thompson: I've always loved ASU. I grew up in Mesa. As a little kid, I went on field trips here. I actually attended ASU for a little while, too. I was in the fine arts program. That's another thing you probably don't know about me: I was a composite artist for the Mesa Police Department. When I would come to campus for my fine art degree that I was working on at the time, I just remember coming onto campus and thinking how special it was to be able to be here. I felt it was an honor and a privilege to be at ASU. I didn't realize how many people just took that for granted. To me, it was a big deal. When I had an opportunity to come back and work at ASU, I jumped at it.

ASU News: What’s the difference between a city police department and working in the university environment?

Thompson: Working at a university is community policing at its pinnacle. You really have to be engaged with the community. You are working with the same core group of customers over and over and over. If you're not providing the kind of customer service that they expect, then you're going to lose credibility with them. In a municipal agency, you still treat people with courtesy and respect, but you don't get to be as engaged with them.

Then we have a whole other spectrum of issues and concerns and requirements that we have to meet on a university level that a municipality doesn't have to worry about. If you're dealing with somebody on campus that happens to be a student and they're living in a residence hall, you have three or four layers of folks that you would deal with, as opposed to going to an apartment complex and talking to somebody and you're done. It's much more complex than people think.

ASU News: ASU Police Department has in recent months found itself in the headlines, and not always for the best reasons. What do you think the challenges are within the department that you need to address?

Thompson: The biggest challenge that I’m facing, and it's going to take time to address it, is the need to change the culture of the department. We do a great job of keeping the campus safe, but we need to become more engaged with the campus community. I think that picturing the ASU police department as a smaller municipal police department is a mistake. As I just explained, there are many more facets to it than just being able to respond and do something and be reactive and then that's it.

We have to be so engaged. We need to be so engaged with the community that we are able to get out in front of issues. If somebody is having emotional issues, if somebody is having substance abuse issues, if somebody is afraid of somebody on campus, we need to be hearing about all of that stuff and building the relationships with the communities that we're serving so that it's reported to us before it ever gets to the point of being an issue that we’re reacting to. We need to start getting out in front of things. It’s going to be about listening to the community.

ASU News: How do you engage in that way? What are some of the practical steps?

Thompson: I think that it means that we're a lot more visible. We need to be more active on social media; we need to participate in the meetings organizations hold around campus, make sure that we're being invited to different functions. We should be serving breakfasts on Reading Night and things like that rather than being there only for security reasons. We need to do our security job, but we also need to be woven into that fabric of the community. There are a million opportunities out there. We need to start taking advantage of them.

ASU News: You have been acting chief since July. What are some of the changes you have already been able to put in place?

Thompson: We’ve made a lot of the improvements. We’ve invested in our field training officers to make sure we can train officers properly as we build staffing. We’ve reached out to work with Tempe and brought the Tempe Police Department on board on all of our large‑scale activities. We went out and knocked on doors at the beginning of the school year and talked with students living on campus and their neighbors to try to set some expectations for good, neighborly relations during the school year. There is much more collaboration.

Since spring time, we hired 15 officers. We have five brand new recruits starting the academy in November. They should be graduating from the academy in the spring, and then they have their field training program. By the fall of next year, we should be fully staffed.

ASU News: OK, but you also were part of the command staff for the past two years. Why should people expect much more to change?

Thompson: There's a difference between being the commander or assistant chief and now being the chief. When you work for a police organization, there's an exchange of ideas. But when decisions are made by the chief, that's what you go with. Now those decisions are on me. I have to make the decisions that I feel are best for the university and for our organization. There will be changes. I think it’s fair that people might think that things won't change, but I guess it's just up to me to show them.

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