Ken Thomas couldn’t even legally carry a loaded gun his first few months with the Kent Police Department because he was just 20 years old.
“Another officer had to carry my gun to the police academy,” Thomas said in a phone interview Wednesday about his police debut in 1989.
Twenty-two years later, Mayor Suzette Cooke has named Thomas as Kent’s new police chief.
“I grew up with the Kent Police department so to be the chief is a dream come true,” said Thomas, who hit his 22nd anniversary Jan. 16 with the department. “I’m honored to be given the opportunity to lead a great police department.”
The 42-year-old Thomas currently serves as captain of the 185-member department. He is credited with leading Kent’s community oriented policing unit that has resulted in reduced residential burglaries and auto thefts. Thomas will be sworn in as chief within the next two weeks.
Thomas replaces Steve Strachan, who resigned in December to serve as chief deputy of the King County Sheriff’s Office.
“Thomas’s leadership excellence and his ability to build strong relationships with diverse communities makes him an outstanding choice to lead our police department,” Cooke said in a prepared statement. “Simply put, Ken is the right choice for our community and the right choice for the department.”
The other finalists were David Frazer, the McFarland, Calif., Police chief; Jeffry Sale, the Cheney Police chief; and Michael Villa, the Tukwila Police assistant chief.
Thomas and the other finalists were interviewed last week by three panels representing Kent’s diverse community, public safety professionals, and business and civic leaders. Kent is the sixth largest city in Washington with a population or more than 114,000.
“While each candidate’s breadth of experience and commitment were impressive, Ken Thomas was the overwhelming top choice of each of three panels,” Cooke said. “The panelists like the direction the department is going; the officers like the direction the department is going. We all want to keep the current momentum.”
City Council President Jamie Perry said the entire council supports the selection of Thomas.
“He’s going to do a great job and he’s got the experience we need,” Perry said.
With a strong mayor form of government, Cooke does not need formal approval from the Council to hire city department heads, said Michelle Witham, city
community and public affairs manager.
The salary for Thomas is still under negotiation, Witham said. The pay range for the Kent Police Chief is $107,856 to $151,044, depending on experience. Strachan was paid 151,044 a year, the top of the scale.
Thomas grew up in Yelm as the son of a state Department of Fish and Wildlife game warden. His uncle and grandfather also were state game wardens while his other grandfather was a Spokane Police officer. His brother is a Des Moines Police detective.
“I love police work and have a passion for policing,” Thomas said. “Ever since I was a young kid I wanted to be a police officer.”
In the late 1990s, Thomas decided he wanted to become a police chief and returned to school. He holds a master’s degree in organizational development from Central Washington University in Ellensburg. He also is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.
As an officer and sergeant, Thomas worked in patrol, as a narcotics detective and supervised the major crimes detective unit. As a patrol lieutenant, he supervised the Neighborhood Response Team, the special investigations unit (gangs, narcotics), the special operations unit (bikes and marine patrol), the field training officer program, crime analysis and was commander of the SWAT team.
Thomas, who is divorced with two boys ages 14 and 12, serves as the community service chairman of the Kent Sunrise Rotary and is the 2011 president-elect for the club. He also works as a volunteer Western Hockey League off-ice official at Seattle Thunderbirds games at the ShoWare Center. Although his duties vary at each game, Thomas often works as a goal judge who turns on the indicator light when a team scores.
“I hope so,” Thomas said about continuing to volunteer at T-Birds games. “But my availability might be a little less.”
Thomas plans to focus his initial work as chief to create stability in the department. Several Kent Police captains and lieutenants have left for other jobs or retired over the last six months.
“The department has undergone so much change,” Thomas said. “I want to provide leadership so we have more normalcy and calmness.”
Despite the personnel changes, Thomas remains confident in the strength of the Kent Police.
“I think we’re very, very pleased with the direction the department was going under Strachan and I want to build on that momentum and success as well as find new ideas to be even more effective,” Thomas said. “I am not a status-quo guy. I am an innovator. But the officers need a little break.”
Thomas expects young leaders to step forward.
“We’re not broken,” he said. “We’ve got outstanding officers and great young leaders. This is a police department that is in really good shape.”