SYCAMORE – From breaking up bar fights to investigating human rights violations in Bosnia, Don Thomas has seen a lot in his 40-year law enforcement career. He even supervised a team of 17 international police officers during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Last month, Thomas announced he will retire as chief of the Sycamore Police Department on Jan. 2, 2015. He’s held the position since 2001.
“I want to assist the city in finding a good chief,” he said. “I want to do my part in keeping Sycamore safe.”
Thomas worked for the Huntley and St. Charles police departments before coming to Sycamore. He is an assessor for the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program and was a Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies Assessor from 1995 to 2010.
A graduate of the FBI National Academy and the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command, he holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Aurora University and a master’s degree in public administration from Northern Illinois University. He has taught criminal justice classes for the University of Maryland and local community colleges.
Thomas spent some time discussing his career and police work with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.
Oleson: Did you always want to be a police officer?
Thomas: No. I spent five years in the seminary to be a Catholic priest. I was in my fifth year when I decided that vocation was not for me. I then had a variety of jobs; I sold magazines, worked construction, worked in a warehouse. I eventually took a test for both police and fire, and I ended up being hired by the Huntley Police Department, and I really liked it. I’m really delighted I became a police officer.
Oleson: Describe your training.
Thomas: My first day on the job, I’m 23, and I show up in uniform in Huntley. They gave me a gun, showed me how to use it two or three times, told me never go into a bar fight alone, and “don’t shoot anyone unless they aim a gun at you.”
Oleson: What do you like about police work?
Thomas: I liked the autonomy of being a patrol officer. I liked doing something respectful, meaningful and interesting. It was fascinating. I found myself in situations I had never imagined: shootings, stabbings. I once arrested a man in Huntley who had shot and kidnapped a Chicago police officer. Even in a small town, a lot of things happened. There were only six of us and we covered it 24/7, so we were usually by ourselves.
(At St. Charles) I had a variety of jobs: deputy chief of operations, administrative coordinator and CALEA accreditation manager. It was important that I could change my job every couple of years. It keeps you fresh and interested.
Oleson: Tell me about the 1996 Summer Olympic games in Atlanta.
Thomas: I was there for three weeks. I used my own vacation time. I worked the Lake Lanier venue. I was responsible for spectator safety and venue asset security. It was an interesting and challenging experience. I got to see a large organization. I got to see a lot of the events, as well as working them.
Oleson: How did you go to Bosnia?
Thomas: There was a war there from 1992 to 1995. ...I went over there because I had some investigative experience. I was in charge of the Brcko District. There are no vowels in the middle of that. I had an office of eight investigators and six translators. We investigated corrupt judges, police officers and officials. We also assisted victims of international trafficking of women.
It was the most fascinating and eye-opening experience of my career. It was also heartbreaking.
I did enjoy my time in Bosnia. The people were wonderful. I had a two-year contract, but I had to leave after one year for family reasons.
Oleson: Were you glad to come home?
Thomas: America is the safest country in the world, and the easiest to live in. The danger and excitement level lessened, but I was happy to be back home.
Oleson: What are your biggest accomplishments as chief?
Thomas: The police department has grown from 20 to 31 police officers. We were able to build a new police station. I am most proud that over the last number of years we hired a number of highly motivated, educated young men and women in the ranks. We had one woman when I started, and now we have seven.
I’m also proud of the fact that we have been assessed by the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program. We received a favorable assessment, and will shortly be awarded state accreditation. We will be the first police agency in the county to get this, and only the 18th in the state. There are many national accreditations, but the state accreditation is relatively new, and I’m proud of that.
Oleson: What changes have you seen?
Thomas: In 40 years, the technology of policing has changed enormously. When I started in 1974, most cops carried a six-shot revolver and most didn’t have a hand-held radio. They were in the car. Now, every car has a computer and cops carry hand-held radios with multi-channels, cell phones and high capacity, semi-automatic weapons.
Even with the new technology, the job remains the same. When you call for help, a human being shows up at the door to handle a variety of problems 24/7. It may be small, from someone throwing an egg at your house, all the way to a violent encounter. I have a lot of respect for the men and women who are in the cars even in small towns. They see everything that happens in a big town, it just doesn’t happen every day.
The bar fights have calmed down. There are fewer of them now. Taverns are being run more professionally. They won’t put up with it. They have too much to lose if someone sues them.
When I started, 130 to 150 cops were killed a year by bad people. Now, through training, body armor and a dramatic decrease in violent crime, the average number of officers killed by bad people are like 50 to 60 a year. Today, more cops are killed in car crashes than in felonious activities.
Oleson: What do you plan to do in retirement?
Thomas: My wife, Susan, and I will travel. We have kids and grandchildren to see.
Oleson: Did any of your kids become police officers?
Thomas: Susan is a career high school teacher. None of our five kids became teachers or police officers. It wasn’t that we complained about our jobs.