A frame containing the personnel file and a picture of a former Toledo police officer hangs on the wall of one of the most consequential offices in the city of Kalamazoo.
It’s the office of Karianne Thomas, a 25-year veteran of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety and, as of last November, its first female chief. The photo is of her grandfather Forrest Guhl, who died in 1977.
“I think he would have been shocked,” she says. “I had all brothers, and I’m the one that ends up in the military and as a police officer.”
Much has changed since Thomas’ grandfather’s days on the beat in northern Ohio. Pot laws are liberalizing, the norms of gender identity and sexual orientation are morphing, and public condemnation of sexism and racism is shifting the cultural landscape.
And at a time when police seem to be both more needed and more under a microscope than ever, Thomas says she is focusing on how KDPS officers perceive and engage with the Kalamazoo community as it and they adjust to these changes. She believes that understanding the community they work in — its history and its individuality, the good and the must-do-better — creates an empathy within her officers that’s necessary for them to do their jobs well.
She has a simple philosophy: “We are all different, we are all unique, and we all have the same rights to be here.”
Up through the ranks
A transplant to Kalamazoo by way of Tecumseh, Michigan, Thomas doesn’t shy away from her immigrant family roots — she loves Scottish pub ales and gave her two children Scottish names — or her experiences climbing her way up the ranks to the chief’s office.
Thomas joined the Army in 1985 and served for 15 years. She wanted to be a lawyer — a prosecutor, she insists, maybe a judge advocate general. She says she never intended to be a police officer, though.
“My grandfather had become a police officer in Toledo, and I had some cousins (in law enforcement),” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, I can do that for a while until I have enough money to go to law school.’ And, boom, here I am.”
She spent a year and a half with Western Michigan University’s police department before joining KDPS, which is, per capita, the largest such department in America that combines police, fire and emergency medical responders.
“It’s paramilitary, and I love the military,” Thomas says. “I said to myself, ‘I can do that.’ You can do police, fire and EMS. Cops are adrenaline junkies. We’ll run into burning buildings, no problem.”
Still, she pushed herself through to each promotion, from working the crime lab at gruesome crime scenes to serving as an inspector in internal affairs and then, five years ago, to deputy chief.
“I grew up in this department,” she says. It’s where she met her husband, now a retired detective, with whom she has two children who are now in college. “Every major thing in my life has happened while I worked for this department.”
And despite spending four years as a deputy chief, she didn’t necessarily have her eye on the top job. “I was counting down to retirement,” the 51-year-old says. “Then I decided I didn’t want to go yet.”
In November 2017, KDPS Chief Jeff Hadley announced he was leaving to become chief of the Chatham County Police Department in Georgia, and Thomas was chosen to fill his shoes.
“There was no one else we looked at,” Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema said in an interview that month with the Kalamazoo Gazette. “She has been preparing for this position for quite a while. It really made great sense to appoint her.”
Being the first
While much was made about her being the first female chief in KDPS history, Thomas wanted it known that she was qualified for the position by merit, which is important for any chief in order to exert authority and implement policies. What she didn’t realize, though, says Hadley, was just how significant that first–female distinction is.
“It’s important for the chief’s ranks to be diversified,” says Hadley, a white male. “Not only for role models, but it also changes the conversation in the room, whether it be African-American or Hispanic or female. It changes the conversation at the head of the table.
“It never mattered to her that she was the first female chief — at least it didn’t initially register with her. I said, ‘Karianne, you have to embrace that. You’re a role model now, certainly with little girls.'”
Because not everyone grows up with three brothers and five uncles or hardens herself as a “linguist interrogator” in Army human intelligence or receives a mother’s instructions that women who are told they can’t do something because of their gender should most definitely go for it.
On her desk, the one her grandfather now overlooks, sits a reminder of how things have changed: a foam caricature of a female police officer wearing a short skirt, high heels and a badge on the wrong side of her uniform, a relic that might have come from a 1950s police conference.
Thomas laughs at its absurd irony as she points it out.
When Thomas joined KDPS, not all of its police stations had female locker rooms. There was an atmosphere that made women feel less welcome to pursue their careers, she says.
“I didn’t tell the department I was pregnant until I was seven months pregnant with my first child. I thought there would be negative effects to it,” she says. “Sometimes I felt I had to do a better job to do a good enough job. Whether that was true or not, that’s what was in my head.”
“My way of dealing with male-dominated family or work situations was firmly established before I got here. I’m conscious about holding those doors open.”
Empathy and trust
There are other doors that Thomas is working to keep open too, such as making sure the department does not shut the door on painful incidents in its past.
A year before the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked widespread protests against alleged police racism and gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement, Kalamazoo police were grappling with evidence that racism was influencing the department’s own policing.
A 2013 study of KDPS traffic-stop data showed African-American drivers were being pulled over at higher rates than others — and more frequently taken out of their vehicles, handcuffed, searched and arrested.
At the time, Thomas, a year into KDPS’ senior administration, “was steering the ship as much as I was,” says Hadley, who was KDPS chief at the time.
“She had a front-row seat, was at the table for all the decisions in terms of how do we move beyond the study and move the department forward. She was always the person to hold people accountable,” he says.
One of the department’s first actions was a new “consent to search” policy, Thomas says, requiring that officers have “a reason you want to look in that car,” instead of going on “a fishing expedition.” While an unwarranted request to search a vehicle is not illegal, Thomas says, “that doesn’t make it legitimate. And we want to be legitimate. It’s the trust.
“It’s a slippery slope. It only takes one thing for (the public) to say, ‘See, they are doing it like everyone else does it.’ I’ve got a pretty high standard, and I expect the same from everybody else, and they know that.”
Thomas isn’t shy about talking of historic and ongoing racism and how it negatively affects communities and about the policies she says will address it at an institutional level.
“When we see that behavior, we address that behavior,” she says. “Bad apples don’t want to work for a department that’s going to make them toe the line.”
Thomas is both pragmatic about KDPS’ role in the community’s changing cultural landscape and demanding of the department. She says she needs to convince her department not only that policy changes are necessary, but that such changes require breaking from decades of policing dogma. At the same time, she has to convince the community that KDPS is changing, and some say she has work to do in that vein.
“Our police department has not arrived yet,” says Shannon Sykes Nehring, a Kalamazoo city commissioner and a vocal opponent of police overreach. “As we start to dig into the data, my hope would be that she (Thomas) is very transparent in the process. I’m optimistic that she will be.”
New recruiting tactics
Thomas keeps the police radio in her office on while she’s working. It’s an adrenaline-spiking soundtrack that reminds her of her time on the street, something she doesn’t want to lose touch with.
But now her focus is fixed on numbers — specifically, how many officers are needed on the street now and in the future. Handwritten on the white boards on her office walls is a complex table showing years and positions — a chief’s math for solving both tactical and strategic equations to build up the force and fill expected retirements four years from now.
KDPS had 205 sworn officers four years ago and 227 earlier this year, and Thomas wants 241 by the end of the year. About 60 percent of the city’s budget goes to public safety, and those city funds are augmented by federal and state grants.
Thomas’ department currently has enough money to reach her hiring target but lacks enough of the right candidates, she says, partly because younger generations prioritize a work-life balance that public safety departments can’t provide and partly because of what Thomas calls the “national climate for policing.”
“People realize just how serious this job is and (that) one action can end their career and their life, and a lot of people aren’t willing to take that risk,” she says.
In a relatively new strategy that Thomas says other departments are emulating, KDPS conducts a rigorous selection process and pays for new recruits to go to the police academy rather than having the candidates pay for the training themselves.
Currently, only 15 percent of KDPS officers are female and 18 percent are minorities, and while Thomas can’t legally use demographic quotas for hiring, she says this new recruiting process attracts candidates with “more diverse opinions” and “more diverse life experiences.” In the past, she says, candidates came from a pool of academy graduates who could afford the $10,000 fee and 16 weeks without work to attend the academy, and, more often than not, they were white and male.
“Now, we’re doing it our way,” Thomas says. “I create my own pool. We hire the heart and train the brain.”
Thomas says another of her priorities is to recruit new officers who hail from the Kalamazoo area, because they best know the areas they’ll be tasked with keeping safe. She believes this will help reduce the chances that police will be seen “as an occupying force.”
It’s part of an ongoing effort for the department to evolve after the findings of the 2013 racial profiling study, which Hadley, the chief at the time, says was unpopular in the department. “A lot of officers felt indicted,” he says. “They took it personally.”
The department, however, looked for and implemented ways to change. When the Ferguson incident occurred and the lid blew off policing across the country, says Hadley, the department realized that it had already made strides.
“It really was affirmation of our work. We were ahead of the curve by a long shot,” says Hadley. “We had a lot of good, solid work behind us before Ferguson.”
But Thomas still must continue to innovate, preparing the department and its officers for a world that changes quickly.
For example, next month Michigan voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana use, and in 2011 Kalamazoo voters approved making small marijuana offenses the lowest of police priorities.
“We just bought two new K-9 police dogs, and neither one is going to be trained in marijuana,” Thomas says, “because you can’t untrain them.”
“We are already thinking that far forward.”