Even though Department of Public Safety Assistant Chief John Thomas is a Bruin, he admits his ties with USC go much deeper than those with his alma mater.
After growing up in the neighborhood surrounding USC’s campus, patrolling the area around the university as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department and now serving as a top DPS official, Thomas calls USC home.
“Even as a UCLA student, I spent most of my time studying at USC — but I didn’t wear my [Bruin] gear, obviously,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I studied in Doheny Library, VKC … USC was more my home.”
Thomas’ familiarity with USC began during his childhood. He grew up near campus, and, even after moving to a different part of Los Angeles, spent every summer up until college with his grandparents, who still live nearby.
As a child, Thomas said that USC was entirely different from the neighborhood he lived in — a place he could go to feel safe.
“Students take it for granted, but it was like night and day stepping on that campus. The first time [I walked on campus] was like walking into Disneyland for the first time,” Thomas said. “[In the neighborhood], people slept in bathtubs because they were afraid of stray bullets coming in through their walls — this kind of stuff happened all the time.”
USC’s impact on the neighborhood itself was incredible, Thomas said. The area around campus had a movie theater, a grocery store and an arcade in the University Village that he and other members of the community visited often. Many areas in South Central Los Angeles didn’t even have one of those, he said, let alone all three.
The greatest impact USC had on Thomas, however, was motivating him to excel academically and strive toward higher education. Thomas said that being surrounded by an academic environment made him see college as a real option.
Eventually, he became the first person in his family to attend college, going to UCLA and majoring in political science.
“I don’t say it lightly as a Bruin, but if I hadn’t lived in close proximity to USC, college would not have even been on my radar,” Thomas said. “It would have been just words from my teacher. It wasn’t a tangible thing. I would not have been taking AP classes. I would have been like so many of my peers who just wanted to get out of high school.”
After graduating college, Thomas enrolled in the LAPD Police Academy. During Thomas’ 21 years at LAPD, he monitored the same neighborhood he grew up in: South Central Los Angeles. Thomas worked in patrol, undercover narcotics and gang units. He also collaborated with former LAPD Chief William Bratton — the man many say revolutionized law enforcement strategy in the city — as his adjutant.
After fulfilling his goal of working at LAPD for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant, Thomas decided he wanted to go into a different branch of law enforcement. He worked for a brief time at the University of the District of Columbia but soon decided to return to his roots, becoming a captain at DPS four years ago.
“In the first meeting [at DPS], I looked at all the officers and said, ‘There is no place on this campus that I am not familiar with. The buildings may have changed, but I know every inch,” Thomas said.
“I know all the hiding places,” he added. “I used to climb the trees outside of Moreton Fig as a kid.”
Two years ago, Thomas was promoted to assistant chief of DPS, the position he holds today. His job includes overseeing patrol operations, communications and investigations. He says that his knowledge of the area — both from his time at LAPD and his childhood — has greatly influenced the work he does.
At DPS, Thomas said he aims to educate students about law enforcement and build relationships with officers and students in less traditional ways, ultimately showing students that DPS is there to help them.
Thomas emphasized the need for transparency between officers and students at USC, something he said arises from his own personal experiences. While living as a minority in South Central Los Angeles, Thomas said he was often detained because he “fit the description” of a suspect and that he was threatened for asking why he was detained.
He is determined to make sure that no student feels mistreated at USC.
“This is your department, and if you feel like you were not treated properly, there are avenues for you to pursue,” Thomas said about his relationship with students. “For me, it’s personal — I haven’t been beaten, but I have been threatened and I have been handcuffed without justification just for asking, ‘Can you explain to me why I was stopped?’”
“No one is meant to feel that way,” he said.
Now, Thomas said he sees the difference in the neighborhood that he grew up in, calling it considerably safer than it was even 10 years ago. Crime has gone down significantly, there are no open drug or narcotics markets, and gang activity has gone down — progress Thomas said can be attributed to USC and its relationship with the community.
Looking to the future, Thomas said he hopes to build a stronger relationship between DPS officers and students, as well as make DPS more professional and continue to drive down crime in the community.
Thomas also hopes that USC will continue its relationship and work with the low-income communities in its neighborhood, something he said he feels President C. L. Max Nikias and the university are accomplishing — and something, he said, that is vital for the people who, like him, grow up with USC.
“Living around USC was monumental for me and so many other kids,” Thomas said. “It had an impact on my life and it will continue to have an impact on countless other lives.”