When I first joined the police department I met a lot of different people. There were very energetic people, there were tough guys, there were meek reserved men and there was one regular guy.
He wasn’t one of the giant muscle bound types that you might expect to see in uniform. He was a normal size guy with a smile and boyish charm. Always quick to ask a question or provide some information about a location or person in town, it seemed to me that he knew everyone.
Who is that? I asked my training officer. “That’s Tommy Thompson, he’s a good guy” I was told.
Over the course of the next few weeks; as I learned the ropes and customs of police work as well as the boundaries of the town and the millions of processes that are part and parcel of the job I got to see all these different types of people in action out in the street.
Each cop has their own way of interacting with the public; some were all business, getting directly to the point about a traffic violation or facts in a report. Others would ask questions in a way that sounded more like a request than required information. At times people would ignore the questions and go on and on with whatever line they were trying to get past the officer.
As I concentrated on figuring out what the best way to talk to people was; to get the information I needed as well as the information that they didn’t always want to tell me, I saw this Tom Thompson take a totally unique approach: He spoke to people as if he were standing in his living room talking to a friend.
His tone was even and inquisitive. He didn’t make threatening comments, instead, if he didn’t get the information he was looking for he asked another question, then another and another.
Eventually the person would say something that was not in line with everything else they had said previously and Tommy would call them on it. It looked almost like the old TV detective Columbo.
“I thought you said you were never over here,” he would say.
When the person he was talking to stumbled over this point Tommy would point that out to them in a direct, but informal way. Amazingly many of these people would admit the truth, at which point Tommy would say something like “I thought so, well you’re under arrest”.
I never forgot that style of questioning, and in fact I found it very powerful. As I developed my own style I incorporated many of those techniques into it, relying on questions and statements of fact to confound the suspect and trip them up.
That was a talent that many people didn’t recognize, and in fact, based on what we see on TV as the way a cop should talk to people, it was the exact opposite. The reality was that it worked.
Not only did Tommy get people to tell him what they did, they never complained about him. I don’t remember many citizen complaints against Officer Thompson for his language or demeanor. Tommy treated everyone like they were deserving of respect.
Another thing I picked up from Tom was the interest he showed in what the person did for a living. In the course of processing someone on a warrant or shoplifting arrest or whatever he would simply talk about their lives. I watched as people would answer him in a conversational tone, often revealing details of their lives that provided additional information they would not have revealed otherwise.
At the time I didn’t know if Tom was doing this on purpose or if it was just as part of his personality, but on many occasions if the person’s name would come up later as a suspect and we were trying to find him- Tommy would say “He works at the Brielle Welding store.”
It was this unassuming style that was just Tom being Tom that allowed people to open up. Once they told him something he remembered it. This concept; allowing people to just talk when they don’t feel like they are being interrogated, is a tremendous tactic, and I have also incorporated that into my style.
As I look back on it now Tom was a real old fashioned community cop. He loved the work and he was good with people. The way he conducted himself was not the way other cops conducted themselves, it was more relaxed, more personal and in m any ways it was more effective.
So my wife asked me why I was writing about Tommy Thompson, especially since he retired a while ago and I only see him now at PBA Christmas parties. My answer is a simple one: I’m reminiscing and looking back fondly at the career I loved and the things that made it pleasant. Tom Thompson was one of those things.
A police department is really a cast of characters, a diverse group of personalities and individuals, all moving mostly in the same direction, bonded by the work. They become like family; there are feuds and arguments, disagreements, and a lot of inside jokes and teasing, but because of the work a bond does develop. Tom ultimately was a brother to everyone and the description of Tom I first got when I asked who he was – “He’s a good guy” was absolutely who Tom is, a good guy.
Almost everyone in the department has a story about something Tom did for them to be helpful or just because he was that type of guy. My own first experience with this part of Tom’s personality came when I was on the job about 3 years. My truck had a muffler that was falling off. The guys in briefing were busting my chops about it and the sergeant was reminding me that as cops our vehicles should be in good repair since many officers would ticket someone with a faulty muffler. He was right and I was trying to figure out how I would get it fixed ASAP.
At the end of the shift I changed into my street clothes and walked out into the parking lot only to see Tommy underneath my truck; in uniform, wiring the muffler up.
He climbed out from under the truck and wiped the grease from his hands saying ”That should hold you until you get it fixed”. I was really surprised, I hadn’t asked him to do that, he simply saw a brother in need and did what was necessary to help. And that is the essence of Tom Thompson, he is a good guy.
So, as I look back on my career I remember the good times, the good people and the lessons I learned and I am grateful for those things. I am very lucky to have Tommy Thompson as a friend, as are all cops that had the privilege to know him and work with him; and in fact every police department and community would be better off with more Tommy Thompsons on the job.
Let me know what you think.
– Joseph Pangaro is a retired Ocean Township police officer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org