Featured photo: New GSO Police Chief John Thompson
He’s been on the force for almost 20 years, but newly sworn-in Greensboro Police Chief John Thompson knows he’s different from his predecessors.
“Even though I’ve been in the organization a long time, I’m a little different from Chief [Brian] James,” Thompson said. “He grew up here and had a lot of family connections. I’m not from Greensboro or North Carolina. I grew up in California and bounced around a bit. I don’t have the history that Chief James had.”
Nor does he have the baggage accrued by former Police Chief Wayne Scott, who held the position from 2015-19. Even in demeanor Thompson appears to be different. Whereas James was quietly stern and even somber, Thompson seems more introspective, understated. Not as gregarious as Scott but not as serious as James, maybe a midpoint.
And that’s okay with Thompson, who said that, for him, becoming police chief wasn’t about the title. It was about the ability to enact change within the department.
“I don’t really have an agenda,” Thompson said. “It sounds funny when I say this, but I don’t have an ego. It wasn’t about the position, it was about making change. I feel like I can sit at the table with anybody.”
‘An opportunity to be innovative’
On Dec. 16 Thompson officially began his tenure as Greensboro’s police chief. The city chose Thompson after conducting a national search in the wake of James’ retirement in May 2022. James took over as UNC-Chapel Hill’s police chief in July. Interim Police Chief Teresa Biffle is set to retire soon, according to Thompson.
Prior to taking up the mantle, Thompson was an assistant chief and acted as the bureau commander of the patrol division. He joined the GPD in 2003 after beginning his career in law enforcement in 1998 with the Asheboro Police Department. During his time with GPD, Thompson has also worked in the planning and research division and resource management division.
Using his experience from all three departments, Thompson said his focus will be on finding creative solutions to policing that don’t always involve punitive measures.
“I think I have an opportunity to be innovative and change some of the ways that we’ve done things in our police department,” Thompson said.
He mentioned his work creating the Homeless Assistance Resource Team a few years ago and talked about bolstering the co-response model as well. He even stated that he’d like to see non law enforcement responses to certain mental-health calls.
“We’re not trained mental-health professionals,” Thompson said. “But we were the only option.”
When it comes to the issue of homelessness, something that Thompson has worked on for years, he said he wants the department to move away from enforcement as much as possible. When asked about the new ordinances passed by city council this year, Thompson said that those kinds of decisions are out of his control.
“A lot of people blur the lines between police and legislative bodies,” he said. “Our job is enforcement, but what I want to make sure is when we do enforce, that we are not creating additional harm, but we’re providing help. Enforcement only if necessary; that’s been a shift in our organization.”
Thompson’s goal to move away from strictly enforcement to a more holistic approach to policing is in line with the ways that departments across the country are rethinking their roles in a post-George Floyd era. Thompson said he’s keenly aware of it, too.
“It’s going to be critical to meet with people in spaces and say that we’re at the table not just for superficial reasons,” he said.
‘I don’t exist without the community’
In February, Thompson plans on having community meet-and-greet sessions and hopes to have them throughout his tenure.
In terms of practical applications of a post-George Floyd police department, Thompson said that he’s interested in looking at ways to curb violent crime down at the community level.
When asked if violent crime is as bad as has been repeatedly reported in recent years, Thompson said that the department saw a spike in 2020 and in 2021 with a record number of homicides in 2020. This year, in the violent crime categories — which include homicide, aggravated assault, simple assault and sexual assault — there has been a decrease and the numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Still, the department has seen 41 homicides this year, and that’s 41 too many, Thompson said.
“We have an issue and we definitely need to tackle it,” he said.
Part of the solution lies in a $2 million grant that the department recently received that will go towards bolstering historically disenfranchised neighborhoods by pumping in resources like job training and education. Thompson also said that improving areas of the city where violent crime occurs can help deter it. That involves fixing streetlights and improving parks, but also taking into account tree canopies in certain neighborhoods.
“These are all factors that are not just police or enforcement driven,” Thompson said. “It’s about what resources can we provide?”
Other programs Thompson is interested in include Cease Fire out of High Point that connects repeat offenders with resources to get them out of the cycle of violence. Thompson said that he is aware of Cure Violence also, but that is something the city’s new office of community safety will be in charge of looking into.
But these programs need officers to head them, and that’s been an issue for the department. Like many other law enforcement agencies in the country, the Greensboro Police Department is facing a staffing crisis. According to Thompson there are currently 115 open positions and many of the leaders in the department, including Biffle, are retiring soon. He understands why enrollment is down, too.
“The public sentiment of our profession, specifically after the murder of George Floyd, and how the community feels about our profession is a factor,” he said.
The economy is such that those seeking jobs have the upper hand too.
“They have the bargaining chip,” Thompson said. “They could go someplace else and that makes it difficult to attract individuals.”
The department has looked at different incentives to recruit new employees like signing bonuses, additional time off and mental-health incentives.
“Anything is on the table at this point,” he said.
In addition to increasing staffing, Thompson’s other goal is to be accountable to the community.
“I don’t exist without the community,” he said.
It’s going to be difficult however, given the conflicting ideologies about policing that exist.
“I think where there may be a conflict is in the community and what different areas of the community want,” Thompson said. “I want to balance those expectations in the community…. Some people say they want to abolish the police department, and then you have others who, during the protests, said that everybody should have been locked up and we should have called in the military. I’m trying to strike a balance with the community and what’s best with the community.”
Still, even with these mounting challenges, Thompson said he’s happy to be here.
“What I learned as I moved up through the organization is that as you move up, you have more of an opportunity to have greater impact in the decisions you make, the policies you make, and connection with the community. Now I get the opportunity to really have influence and impact not just me, or the patrol division, but our organization as a whole and how they interact with the community.”
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