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Friday, June 24, 2022

Robert Thomaser Q&A: Departing Assistant Police Chief from LA to St. Paul on His Career

Robert Thomaser’s career in law enforcement was booked by the cases that led to protests and how officers do their jobs: Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

In between, Thomaser returned to his hometown of St. Paul and eventually served as an assistant chief under two police chiefs – Thomas Smith and Todd Axtell. As Axtell completed his term as chief, Thomaser completed his time at the St. Paul Police Department, where he finished second.

He recently sat down with Pioneer Press to talk about his career and the St. Paul Police. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity:

In which part of St. Paul did you grow up?

My family started at Cretin-Derham High School in Highland Park. When my mom and dad got divorced, we moved to the East Side. I was a paper boy. Harding went on, graduating in ’85.

I decided to go into policing and saw what it takes to become a cop in the state. At the time, it was an expensive, lengthy process. The LA County Sheriff’s Department was hiring from all over the country and they sought out people from the Midwest because of their work ethic.

I went to the LA County Sheriff’s Department and I was actually at the academy in 1991 when Rodney King happened (Los Angeles police officers beat him up during his arrest).

As a Midwest kid working in the LA County Jail, that experience opened my eyes. If you’ve ever seen those videos of Crips and Bloods fighting each other through bars, that was the time. After five years I came home.

Why did you leave California?

I’m a hometown kid, I didn’t like living in California. I liked the quality of life here in the city. I hired in St. Paul and went on the Eastern District Patrol.

How long have you been on patrol?

about four years. Later I was promoted as Havildar and worked in the Western District. I was the officer in charge of Operation Red Rocket and Operation Sunrise, undercover drug operations in Frogtown. Narcotics were driving other crimes in the area as well. The crime index fell so much that we had to write a letter to the FBI (which collects crime statistics) to explain.

I worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration Taskforce (on loan from St. Paul Police). Later, I was the commander of the narcotics and vice unit in the police department. With the advent of the Internet and cellphones, a lot of crime was being isolated, and we were constantly trying to develop our own strategy to keep up with it.

How was your time as Assistant Police Chief?

Todd Axtell had a vision for how he wanted this department to police the system, and I was part of his team to implement the changes. One was changing our search policy (to be more restrictive, excluding people searching in the most violent cases). We are measuring the risk to the community and the people who work.

For the good-hearted police officer on the street trying to catch someone who’s wronged someone else, I’ve made their job harder (by restricting vehicle chases). But we made the change for the right reasons, for security reasons. Trying to connect that conversation with the executives he’s supposed to do was a challenge. But I think we’re able to connect the “why” of what we’re doing.

You were the face of the police department during some difficult budget discussions before the city council. how was that?

I really believe a lot in the mission that our frontline officers are doing. My role at the agency allowed me to advocate for the mission—and that was to hold people accountable for what was wrong in the city, and to stand up for those who were suffering. For this we should have sufficient resources.

We’ve never really been able to talk enough about what results we’re trying to achieve. And the crime rate that exists now is not the outcome I think we should have for St. Paul. I think we could have had much better results in St. Paul with the right investments.

World Nation News Desk
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