DPS Chief John Thomas wanted to change the police, so he joined them

Photo from USC News

John Thomas’s office captures every significant experience in his life. His shelf teems with the awards and honors he earned as a police officer. A framed photo of him shaking hands with former president Barack Obama hangs near the door. The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of Los Angeles Police Department figures, reflecting his passion for history.

Thomas is the chief of the Department of Public Safety, where he is responsible for overseeing more than 300 personnel who work 365 days a year. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, he was no stranger to USC when he joined DPS back in October 2006. Prior to that, he served in the LAPD for 21 years.

He considered attending law school after college, but felt compelled to join the LAPD because he believed it was the best way to make a tangible, everyday difference in people’s lives. He said that his own negative encounters with the police also contributed to his desire to improve the dynamics of police interactions with members of minority groups.

“I used to get stopped commuting for school between Westwood and South Central,” Thomas said. “I remember clearly an officer telling me that I had no business being anywhere west of La Cienega.”

During his time with the LAPD, Thomas was a part of the department’s Gang Enforcement Detail in South Los Angeles, and completed undercover narcotics enforcement assignments. He was tasked with infiltrating drug rings, purchasing narcotics and organizing search warrants. One of the locations he monitored in East Los Angeles was a hub for heroin, which he said exposed him to how deeply crime could damage communities.

“The worst thing I saw was the impact [of drug crimes] on kids,” Thomas said. “The kids would have to walk to school surrounded by heroin needles.”

Thomas thought that universities could be doing more to address the social issues linked to crime and help at-risk youths by providing them with opportunities and resources. To this end, Thomas retired from the LAPD as a lieutenant and decided to pursue a career in campus policing. After retiring, he became the deputy chief of police for the University of the District of Columbia for a year before moving back to Los Angeles He said that his role with DPS is very different from his previous role with the LAPD.

“We’re constantly educating the transitory student population,” Thomas said. “I think we do more educating than enforcing.”   

However, for Thomas, the job of DPS chief comes with dark and difficult moments. In recent years, certain crimes — such as the 2014 murder of Chinese graduate student Xinran Ji — have caused USC’s administration to augment security measures around campus. Thomas said he takes any tragedy that happens personally, and says he’ll never forget when he had to speak with Ji’s parents.

“No parent sends their kid to any university and expects that. Instead of coming to a graduation, they’ll be coming to make funeral arrangements and claim the body,” Thomas said.

After that incident, Thomas realized that DPS shouldn’t practice a “one size fits all” approach to educating students about crime. He understood that the department should account for differences in students’ cultures and mindsets. Thomas emphasized that this mentality is especially important now, amid tension around President Donald Trump’s new administration. Thomas’ priority is to ensure that each individual student feels safe and that their constitutional rights are being protected.

Going forward, Thomas’ goal is for USC to be recognized as the safest urban campus in America. He believes the best way to achieve this is by improving relationships between DPS and USC students, DPS and the local community and USC students and the local community.

He is a big proponent of programs like the Neighborhood Academic Initiative and the DPS Cadet Program because he believes that any area’s level of safety depends on its inhabitants having a good quality of life.

“We need to make sure that everybody who lives around USC feels like they have a stake in USC — that there’s something special about being part of this campus community,” Thomas said.