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Q&A with outgoing Little Rock Police Department Chief Stuart Thomas 

click to enlarge Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas

Arkansas Times reporter David Koon sat down with retiring Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas, who ends his 35-year career with the LRPD on June 27, to talk about his career. Here's the Q & A:

AT: I read somewhere that you got your start as a cop by coming to the department to complain about a car breakin? 

THOMAS: Yes, I don't recommend it. But I did. 

AT: Which part, coming to complain or getting your car broken into? 

THOMAS: Either one. It's not an easy experience. I was a much younger man at the time, and my appearance was quite different. I had an MGB convertible, and somebody cut a hole in the roof, even though the door was unlocked, and rummaged through the center console. It was on a snowy night, and the police took the report over the phone. I just didn't think that was right. I wanted fingerprints and detectives like on TV, the whole nine yards. So I came down to the police department and started at the front desk, explaining my situation. I wanted to talk to whoever was in charge. One thing led to another and I happened to wind up visiting with a police captain who was, oddly, working nights. At the time, he was going to college during the day and working at night. I explained to him all the things that were wrong with the world and the police department and my world in particular. He graciously listened to me for awhile. Finally, he said: "Obviously you have some very strong ideas. Why don't you come down here for a year and try it, then see if you still have some of those same opinions?" I said something to the effect of: "How hard can it be to drive fast to the donut shop? Sign me up!" He actually had an application there. One thing led to another, and I filled out the paperwork and went through the process, and ultimately the department offered me a position. ... I lived with my mother at the time. She basically said: "They called your bluff. I don't particularly want you to do this, but you either need to shut up or go down there and do it." I came to the department and was very quickly immersed in things I'd never seen or done. I quickly found that I enjoyed the work. The people were nowhere near what I thought they were. I made my year and decided to stay, and I've had a very fortunate career inasmuch as I've had the opportunity to do a lot of different things. It's stayed interesting. Thirty-five years, I've pretty well done it. 

AT: You've done a little bit of everything here at the department: patrol, detective, internal affairs and administration. Does any of it stick out in your mind as the best of times? 

THOMAS: I don't necessarily know. I've still got a few months, so maybe the best of times are ahead. But I think I felt the most productive and the most satisfied when I was in homicide. To me, that's just the ultimate assignment. There's a certain amount of satisfaction when you're able to put that together. You're dealing with families that have gone through the worst possible thing that can happen to them. While you don't enjoy it, you do enjoy the opportunity to offer them some solace. I think I enjoyed that some. It was probably the most taxing. I was in homicide for two and a half years. I got promoted to sergeant and left homicide. It was physically and emotionally the most draining, but I think it was the most satisfying job. 

AT: In the movies, the old detectives always have the one that got away. The one that still nags at them. Do you have one of those? 

THOMAS: Not when I was in homicide, because I didn't have any that got away (laughs).

AT: Of course. 

THOMAS: But, yeah, really, all of them. To this day. You have a sense of incompleteness with the ones that go unsolved. It doesn't matter if it's a high-profile case or not. You want to solve them all. You want to give some resolution to families. You can appreciate, I think, the uncertainty and the anxiety the relatives have when they have situations where we haven't brought it to a conclusion. You carry those with you. You wish you could solve them all. You hope someday something will turn. But on the main, you keep plugging away and you solve far, far more than you don't. 

AT: You already retired once, in January of 2004. Why did you retire the first time and what brought you back? 

THOMAS: I retired the first time because I had the dream situation: I went to run a golf course (laughs). It was one of those "how can you say no" situations. It was a great job, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But the situation at the department changed. The chief called me and asked if I'd come back to a business job. I'm of the generation that you just don't say no to the chief of police. So, where the position [of police chief] vacated, I just felt like I wasn't finished. I applied, and I was fortunate enough to be selected as the chief. 

AT: Has being chief been everything you thought it would be? Harder or easier than you thought it would be? 

THOMAS: You know, you have good days and bad days. I've been fortunate in my career. I've worked for a couple of chiefs and some very, very good assistant chiefs over the years. I spent nine years as an assistant chief, and I was able to see how they work on a daily basis, how they managed operations and how it affected them. But until you are in that position, I don't think you truly appreciate it. You're the ultimate arbiter. Everything that comes to the chief of police is a recommendation. It's advice. Ultimately, the chief has to make a decision, and you have to make those decisions in a neutral, businesslike manner. That's not always popular. It's not always popular with just about any segment, whether it's the press, the employees, whether it's the citizens in general, one group or another. Rarely does any decision meet with universal approval. There's always somebody that sees it a different way. You're ultimately alone in that process. You have to do the best you can with what you have. Where you enjoy the job is seeing it all come together in the right way: people doing the right thing, working hard, producing good results. You have disappointments. You try to address those. But on the main, I can't complain. It's a great working environment, it's a great job, it's a great city. 

AT: So, why retire now? Why not two or three years down the road? 

THOMAS: I'm old! I am 58, and I think if you look back at my predecessors, they all left before that age. I got to looking at the pictures on the wall, and I realized that I was probably older than anybody since the pictures were black and white. I've done 35 years in law enforcement. That's a nice, round number. Eighteen of those years, over half, I had the word "chief" associated with my name. Those are dog years. Regardless of anybody's perspective of how cushy an assignment is, those are hard years. I would like to do some things for myself. I'd like to play a little golf. I'd like to play with my electric train. I'd like a few days off. Things that I rarely get in life: Fourth of July off. How good is that? I think the timing is good. It gives me a chance to de-escalate while I'm still healthy, to enjoy myself a little bit and have a little leisure time. 

AT: You think when something happens in Little Rock, you'll still sort of sit up and start thinking about making decisions? 

THOMAS: Oh, no (laughs). I will recognize the difficulty of the situation. From the outside looking in, I will appreciate and understand how good or how bad the day may be for some other people. They will always have my sympathy, my support and my admiration. But I'm going to think about other things. 

AT: You know, the Boy Scout Campsite Rule is to leave things better than you found it. Do you think the department and the city is in better shape now than when you became chief? 

THOMAS: Well, I don't know that I can say that, because in my position, I rarely make direct impact on anything. It's the people that are actually doing the work that produce results. I do think that the department, from the standpoint of technology, staffing and facilities, we're in much better shape than we were five, six, seven years ago. That's largely due to the 1-cent sales tax the voters passed a few years ago. We've been able to hire officers, we've been able to upgrade our technology and equipment. I think we're positioned very well to face whatever challenges come in the future. In that respect, I think we're a lot better off. We've maintained our accreditation through three cycles while I've been chief. I'm very proud of that, because that's not always easy. Our personnel have come through every time. So I think we're positioned very, very well. Now, "better," I'll leave to other people to make their subjective judgments. Everybody has their own opinion of what's good, bad or indifferent. But I think the department is positioned very well. 

AT: You talked about technology. I don't guess being a cop bears much resemblance to what it was when you started in that respect. 

THOMAS: When I started, the radio had two channels. There was no such thing as a cell phone. The computers that existed were those big, chunky mainframes with black screens and the green type. In the patrol car, the blue lights had a choke rod. You pulled it and they rotated and went on. They were either on or off, and that was it. You look at a patrol car these days, with the laptop, with the in-car reporting, with Internet access for photographs and information that can be transmitted to the laptop, high-definition digital optics in there for recording of contacts, infrared devices, radar, GPS. The technology that's in one patrol car now probably exceeds everything that the department had, collectively, when I started. It's remarkable. And the practices, procedures and policies have changed. I think that's a compliment to my predecessors, who worked very hard to improve and expand the department during their tenures. 

AT: Do you have any memorable failures or successes during you time here? Setbacks? Things you didn't get done that you wanted to get done?

THOMAS: You'd like everything to be done. You want to be the Olympic gymnast who sticks the landing with arms up at the end of a vault. So I'd like for the buildings to be completed. The last class to be completed so we're fully staffed. I'd like to finish on that note. But we're so close right now that I feel very good about that. The disappointments? You're always disappointed when you don't solve something — when you have unfinished business out there. You're always disappointed when your personnel, regardless of how well trained or how directed, sometimes they will fail you. We try to rectify that as quickly as we can, but it's disappointing when you have those lapses in ethics. But, on the main, day in and day out, our personnel have always made me proud. They work hard, they try to do the right thing. Sometimes it doesn't always work out. But when you look at the volume of transactions we do — 145,000 calls a year, 8,000 arrests, 25,000 tickets, and hundreds of thousands of individual contacts — and you look at the complaints, or the failures versus the successes and the commendations, it's astonishing how professional the officers are, how well they deal with adversity, and how they keep coming back time and time again and doing the right thing. I mentioned once before, but the one thing that struck me: Several years ago, there was a tornado that came through Leawood and went up over Cammack. I happened to be the first officer on the scene because it was two blocks from my house and I was home when it came through. The first three people that I saw there were off-duty Little Rock Police officers. They weren't called. They just knew that there was a problem — a bad situation. They were professionals and this is what they did. They immediately responded without any consideration for their own issues or problems. They knew it was a disaster and they responded. It's that kind of spirit that the employees have that keeps you buoyed through a career. You see those things happen. You see people who are in a position to do the right thing, and they do it more often than not. That's where you draw the pleasure from the job, to see that happen. 

THOMAS: You know, I was just thinking. I'm so old that I can remember when Max [Brantley, senior editor of the Arkansas Times] used a typewriter (laughs).

AT: That's pretty old! He's been using a word processor for a while now.

THOMAS: There you go.

AT: You know, you talked about those ethical lapses among personnel. There have been some kind of high-profile use-of-force cases while you were chief. The shooting of Eugene Ellison, Lt. David Hudson videotaped hitting a suspect, the Josh Hastings shooting. I know you might not be able to talk about specifics in any of those incidents, but are you confident that the use-of-force investigations that have been done on your watch have been as thorough and impartial as they could be?

THOMAS: Yes. I'm confident that we try to do the right thing, and we try to do it professionally. We try to go back and evaluate to see if we could have done anything differently. We have an enormous number of contacts and an enormous number of situations that law enforcement officers deal with, and sometimes the situations become extremely difficult. I wouldn't necessarily categorize one of those situations [previously mentioned] as an ethical lapse. For me, an ethical lapse is more along the lines of criminal behavior, where we've had to discharge and send people to the penitentiary. But when you get into situations where things are quickly moving or hard to contain or control, and you're having to make an immediate decision based on circumstances that are very, very fluid, you have to make a critical decision immediately. We have the opportunity to evaluate that without that criticality. You look at everything surrounding it. You try to make a complete case. And you try to provide the prosecutor with everything he needs to know. You try to do it the same way you would do any other incident similarly situated. That doesn't necessarily mean that an act is criminal, and the prosecutor, when they issue their decision, they have a comment on that. They'll say there's clear evidence. A lot of times, people may or may not agree. That's certainly a perogative, and that's what you expect. But we ultimately try to provide as much information as we can in the course of an investigation, to ensure that our training is correct, our approach to situations is correct, our equipment and our processes are correct. [Use of force is] not the outcome that you ever want. Sometimes, what gets lost in the fog of these situations is that a deadly force situation is the absolute worst thing that can happen to a police officer in their career. It's devastating. There is a tendency sometimes to think that officers just kind of walk away from it. They don't. They carry that for the rest of their lives. They were ultimately faced with a situation where they or someone else may die, and they've got to go back to work at some point. They have to go back to work with that knowledge: I nearly got killed. But I've got to go back to work and do the same thing all over again. They live with that emotionally forever. They deal with it — with the outcome of their decisions. They may be litigating things for years to come. It's the worst possible outcome. It's not anything anybody solicits. You try to provide support, you try to provide training, you try to provide in other areas after the fact. But you do not want, under any circumstances, a situation where people are inclined to overreact. Now, the corrective methods that you apply may be different from what people think, but you try to do the best you can with the situation that you have. But given the number of contacts that we have, given the nature of the arrests, given the nature of the offenses in the city that we deal with, the actual number of those incidents, fortunately for us, is relatively few. Zero is where you'd like to be, but unfortunately there are situations where other people's actions dictate the response.

AT: Have you ever been in one of those situations? Ever fired your weapon in the line of duty?

THOMAS: No. I got close once. The irony of the situation was, the man's gun was empty. He'd just robbed a convenience store. He came out of the convenience store, gun in one hand and money in the other, and here we were on the parking lot waiting for him. Generally speaking, when confronted by an armed robber with a weapon, you're on edge to begin with. He was not obeying commands to drop the weapon. You focus in very tightly on the weapon in a moment like that. To this day, I couldn't identify him if I saw him walking down the street, but I can tell you exactly what the barrel of his gun looked like, down to the grooves. I know exactly what that gun looked like. The unfortunate thing was, it being dark, I couldn't tell he didn't have bullets in it. But I was in the position where I made a decision that if the weapon reached a certain point of level, I was going to fire, because he was not responding. Fortunately, he finally let go, and I didn't have to make that decision. But how would it play that I had shot and killed a man who had an empty gun? You talk about controversial. I guarantee you it would have been controversial.

AT: When you're talking about a decision there, you're talking about five seconds, 10 seconds.

THOMAS: You are moving fractionally. You are in a situation where the unfortunate reality is: If you're late, you lose. These are extremely difficult situations. It doesn't matter how much you train. You can't always adequately simulate that reality. These things happen in a quick second. A person's gun comes out, then you react and respond. It's a very difficult situation. You hope it never happens, but that's one of the unfortunate realities of law enforcement.

AT: Some people say that maybe police shouldn't investigate use-of-force complaints against — or shootings by — other police officers, the argument being that the results are bound to be biased. What do you say to that argument, that cops shouldn't investigate other cops in those situations?

THOMAS: The question would be: Who should? We conduct investigations of law enforcement officers and police-involved shootings in the same way that we investigate anything else. The officers are Mirandized. I see statements where people say: "Well, the officer's statement seems coached." Well, for God's sake, he's got a lawyer. I can't disregard the Constitution. If I'm preparing a case where the officer could conceivably be prosecuted, that officer is afforded the same legal rights that anyone else is. So we have to Mirandize, we have to protect the scene, we have to gather the evidence in a legal way that will withstand scrutiny by the courts, we've got to be able to introduce everything to the prosecutor in a practical fashion that they can subsequently use if they make a determination that a crime has been committed. We have to do that in that way. That's our job. I think if you'll talk to the prosecutor, I think we do our cases pretty well, comparatively. I don't think we predetermine. We have sent our police officers to the penitentiary. We have made those cases. But it's not just deadly force. We make cases on allegations of theft. We make cases on any type of criminal allegation against a police officer. We're going to investigate those. If we can make a case, we're going to make a case. That's our job. If the suggestion is, another agency should investigate, and that somehow is going to result in a different perspective, police agencies are police agencies. Where do you go, and who has jurisdiction? We all know one another. Police agencies have relationships. The FBI investigates the FBI's shootings. What is this "someone else" to investigate? The prosecuting attorney comes to the scene of all police-involved shootings to investigate the process and ask questions. We try to be as coordinated as possible with the prosecutor in these cases. We have to provide them with the legal means to take action if it's appropriate. I think sometimes observations are outcome-driven. People see things and they say, "Well, that shouldn't have happened." Well, no, it shouldn't have happened. In the ideal way you want to go, [police involved shootings] should never happen. But that doesn't mean it was wrong or criminal. You see articles where people say, "This or that was murder." Murder is a specific crime. It has elements that you have to prove. We have to look at it from that statutory aspect and say, If there is a charge, what is the appropriate charge?" That's where we work with the prosecutor.

Even as I leave and I live in this city, and will continue to live in this city, I'm very comfortable and confident that the department has the capacity to monitor and police. We've reached out when we thought we should reach out and utilized other resources in investigations, and I think that will continue.

AT: Are you part of the discussions on who will be the next chief?

THOMAS: No, not really. That's up to the city manager. That's why I've tried to have enough lead time. I think the manager would like to have a smooth transition and minimize the interim time. You're just kind of treading water in those in-between times. Certainly if he asks my opinion, I'll give it. But it's just one of 190,000 opinions in this city, and it should be treated accordingly.

AT: They say every president leaves a letter for the next guy in his desk in the Oval Office. If you're going to leave a letter in your desk for the next guy, what will it say?

THOMAS: Well, if I left one in the desk drawer and put it in the newspaper, it wouldn't be much of a secret (laughs). But there will be a note. And once we go off the record, I'll tell you what it'll say.

AT: It's cold out there tonight, and there will be young officers out there on the streets in their cop cars. What do you say to a young person just starting out as an officer?

THOMAS: Particularly if they're starting with us, you have the opportunity in this organization to do anything you want. I hope they'll look at me and see — and I tell recruit classes this — I started where they started: in the academy at the Little Rock Police Department. I hope I've worked hard and was productive at different assignments. That led to a very fortuitous career. I hope the men and women coming along will see that as an example — that you have an opportunity in an organization this large to pursue just about any type of law enforcement specialty you want. The sky is basically the limit, whether you want to be a detective or a school resource officer. Whatever you might want to do, this organization has that opportunity for you if you work hard and try to make a record for yourself as a professional.

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