20 January 2023
GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Just leave it to a 7-year-old to put things in perspective.
John Thompson was just hours into a job that represented the pinnacle of his law enforcement career: chief of the Greensboro Police Department.
He had just gotten into his department-owned Chevrolet Tahoe which his predecessor had driven. His daughter was in the back seat.
“And so this Tahoe has push-button parking, drive, reverse,” he told me while describing the SUV’s transmission controls. “And I can’t figure out how to put the car in reverse. I’m pushing the button, but it’s a pull button.”
“And after a minute or two, my 7-year-old daughter in the back seat chimes in and says, ‘Dad, shouldn’t a chief know how to drive a car?’ And so, as a parent at that moment, I had to bite my tongue and say, ‘yes, that is true.’”
He’s since learned how to put the Tahoe in reverse. In fact, you could say he’s pushed a lot of correct buttons professionally in his nearly 25-year law enforcement career.
He grew up in Northern California in a family of eight children.
After completing a two-year New York City mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his journey shifted to North Carolina to join family.
His sister had settled in the Asheboro area. That connection combined with an interest in law enforcement led him to become an officer with Asheboro’s police department in 1998.
Not even two years on the job, he responded to a call that turned out to be—to this day—one of the most memorable of his law enforcement career.
In September of 1999, a man with a grudge against the Lowe’s home improvement chain set off a pipe bomb in the company’s Asheboro store. It critically injured a woman who was shopping in the store’s paint section.
“I remember responding to the scene, seeing the victim,” he said. “I think the most shocking thing was one, being young in my law enforcement career and (two) a bombing is something that is not common anywhere.”
In 2003, Thompson would take that and other Asheboro memories to Greensboro where he became an officer in a department that would soon suffer what he calls, “setbacks.”
“(There were) issues in the Department with former Chief David Wray,” he said.
Chief Wray ended up resigning amid allegations he used an elite intelligence unit to secretly investigate black officers. One of those officers accused the unit of placing a tracking device on his car. The allegations and the investigation that followed amplified what had been a decades-long lack of trust between Greensboro’s black community and the police department.
For John Thompson, it was a period that brought the department down from being what he considered to be among the “premier” law enforcement agencies in the country. Morale within the department took a hit, and so did the department’s standing in the community.
But things improved during the tenures of chiefs who would follow.
Thompson says former Chief Ken Miller moved the department forward in technology. Chief Wayne Scott stressed community engagement.
And then Chief Brian James pulled it all together during the pandemic and the protests after George Floyd’s death with youth outreach programs, among other initiatives.
“The most significant thing I took from him (Chief James) is he really had a thoughtful and calm leadership style,” Thompson told me.
Thompson’s style isn’t that dissimilar. He’s quiet, calm, and doesn’t smile much.
“I would say I’m kind of unassuming, but I’m really excited for our organization,” he said. “I would, hands down, put our agency against any other agency in the country.”
And like all those agencies across the country, Greensboro’s Police Department’s facing challenges, especially when it comes to staffing. The department has 120 sworn officer positions open.
“There are a lot of programs we offer being a larger agency,” Thompson said when I asked how law enforcement can encourage more young people to enter the field. “We have a drone team. We have a bomb team. We have a lot of specialized units throughout the organization that provide a variety of career opportunities.”
Violent crime and youth crime continue to be large issues despite Greensboro’s numbers going down in just about all categories including a 34% drop in homicides since setting a record in 2000.
But Thompson feels two things will help the department meet all challenges moving forward: communication and compassion.
“That’s probably the most crucial aspect, the communication with all our stakeholders, the community, the religious groups, the business groups,” he said. “We’re dealing with people and at most times these people are dealing with some of the most tragic things that will happen in their lives. And so for us, as an organization, it’s recognizing that when we take the uniform off, we’re people too.”
Somehow, I have a feeling his 7-year-old daughter would agree.