Chief Karianne Thomas, who stepped down today after 27 years with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler on Tuesday about her experience with the country’s largest public safety department that combines police, fire, and medical response; policing protests throughout the summer; COVID-19; and her pre-retirement “bucket list.”

Chuck Wexler: Your department is fully integrated, with police, fire, and medical response under one roof. How has your experience in that structure been?

Chief Thomas: We are the largest integrated public safety department in the country. We always have to be trained in law enforcement, firefighting, and as a medical first responder. When you get in that cruiser, your fire gear is in your trunk.

The amount of training and specialty certifications needed creates an environment that is very high-energy and high-achieving. People say that when you leave this department, you’ll never work harder than you did here, and I think that’s because you’re constantly switching between the three disciplines.

As you work your way through your career, especially when you go to administrative roles, you’re trying to keep up the skill set in all those different areas, knowing that your next promotional opportunity may be in an area you’re not getting a lot of practice in.

This is very interesting department. It’s much easier to be chief if you’ve grown up in this environment. If you’re coming from the outside, you might know a lot about policing, but not know much about the other two disciplines. It’s exciting, but it’s very complex.

Wexler: How does your department’s culture differ from an agency that is just a police department?

Chief Thomas: Until around 2002, we had traditional firefighters who stayed with fire after our 1983 merger. Once they were all retired, every single person had grown up in this public safety environment. So people stopped taking sides, while you might see “police vs. fire” rivalries at other agencies. We’re so integrated here that you don’t see that rivalry.

Wexler: Does the medical response training help when your officers respond to calls involving people with mental illness?

Chief Thomas: I think it gives you additional tools. More than 50% of our officers are CIT trained. They often respond to the same individuals on medical calls and calls about someone in a mental health crisis, which could turn into an attempted suicide-by-cop situation. They have both that caretaker role on medical calls and protector role on law enforcement calls, and they definitely bring those skill sets from one call to another. I think it makes them more successful on those calls.

Wexler: Did you have mentors in the department?

Chief Thomas:   We didn’t have a lot of females in the department then. I think my military experience helped me survive some of those middle years, which were rough in a culture that was more male-dominated than it is now.

Wexler: How has COVID-19 impacted your agency?

Chief Thomas: Being first responders in all three disciplines, my police officers are also responding to fire and medical calls. So I’m sending them into situations that are more high-risk for COVID than those normal law enforcement calls. The exposure level was really heightened during this time frame. We had to make a lot of staffing changes so that we would always have officers in reserve in case we did have an outbreak. We have been fortunate and have only had four officers test positive.

We were pretty stringent about our protocols, but some of those have fallen by the wayside since the protests started. It was very difficult to manage those protests under COVID protocols.

Wexler: How have the protests been in Kalamazoo?

Chief Thomas: The very first protest here, on May 29, probably had around 4,000 people, which was about 10 times more than we had anticipated. We had planned for a large event, but it was nowhere close to what we expected.

At one point we had to send in our crowd management team outfitted in riot gear, because we had a cruiser surrounded with three officers inside. They were out there for 13 minutes, got our officers out, and there were no arrests and no injuries. But social media and the media blew up, because people found it offensive that we had officers in riot gear.

When I look back, that situation is really when everything started. I have an obligation to put my officers in equipment based on the work they’re going to do. Never did I think that putting those officers in that riot gear would’ve started such a storm here with our citizens, who found it truly offensive. They felt that officers in that gear scared them and that we had “amped up” the situation.  But at the end of the day, we had no arrests and no injuries. The officers were only there to perform that one task, and all other officers were in their duty uniforms.

But it just grew from there, with people asking why we were responding that way. It got amped up throughout the summer based on people’s opinions of that riot gear at the first protest.

That incident happened on a Saturday, and by Monday we were dealing with a whole different situation because the protests turned violent. We had looting and a lot of damaged property. We had to call up the National Guard and set a curfew the next morning. It unfolded so quickly over 72 hours.

Wexler: What did you take away from that experience?

Chief Thomas: I think my biggest takeaway is communication. We had been in the process of hiring a Chief Information Officer. We had always just done everything in-house as a specialty assignment. Our communication was not fast enough and thorough enough to explain what we were doing, why we were doing it, and when it was occurring. When I look back, I think maybe I could’ve eased some of the things that happened later in the summer by having that capability.

Wexler: Tell me about the clash between the Proud Boys and counterdemonstrators on August 15.

Chief Thomas: After those initial protests in May and June, when we had so much damage and destruction and so many officers out there, our community spoke out and said, “We want to be able to peacefully protest. We don’t want the officers out there. The officers are the flashpoint and cause the trouble by being present.”

So we took the approach of having the officers in the background ready to respond. We had made it through close to 11 protests until the Proud Boys came. We had intel that they were coming. A local pastor we work with organized a counter-protest and painted a different picture of what he was organizing. We did not expect the clash that occurred, because he did not tell us about some of the people he invited who would be armed. I had 111 officers ready to go, but it takes a few minutes to get them out there. The groups clashed before I could get officers on site.

People said we weren’t prepared. But we were prepared. It was a strategic decision about how we were going to deploy those officers based on what we had heard all summer long about how our community expected us to respond. Then the questions were, “Why didn’t you use tear gas? Why didn’t you call the National Guard?” Those were the same things they had asked me not to do ever again.

Our community also felt like we were defending the Proud Boys, because at the end of the day none of the folks we arrested were Proud Boys. The Proud Boys were here for 90 minutes or less with no weapons. They came in and out and caused a lot of uproar with the counter-protesters, but then they left and the counter-protesters stayed. They were the ones who ended up getting arrested. The narrative from there, which we could never get ahead of, was that we had protected the Proud Boys and shouldn’t have done that.

Wexler: How has the police reform movement impacted Kalamazoo?

Chief Thomas: It goes back to communication being our weak point, because many of the things being brought up in discussions about police reform are policies that we already had in place. We just got accredited about two weeks ago. We’ve done a total rewrite on all our policies and procedures and have been training on those. So it was about communicating that we already do 7 of the “8 Can’t Wait.”

We’ve been doing it for years. We started Fair and Impartial Policing in early 2014. We had changed our consent-to-search policy and we already had a ban on chokeholds. So when those things came up, we thought, “We’ve got this. We’ve been doing this.”

But no one believed us, because they hear on the national news that that’s not true. We had and still have a really hard time letting everyone know that we have one of the most professional public safety departments in the country. We try to stay on top of the trends. We’re always looking forward to see what we can do better to be a professional agency. But no one out there wanted to listen to that.

Wexler: I understand you have a “bucket list” for your remaining time with the department. What is on that bucket list?

Chief Thomas: I’m almost done. I put things on the list that I’ve done throughout my career during my favorite assignments, and then some things that I’ve never done. I was the day-shift sergeant yesterday. I went up in a helicopter today. I went out with the bomb squad and blew some things up at training. I did a search warrant. I took someone to the county jail and asked the sheriff to come take my prisoner, because as the head of an agency I expect the head of the other agency to receive the prisoner. I drove a fire truck. I processed a crime scene. I went out with the drug unit and did one more undercover buy.

I’m living my best two weeks. I’ve had a fabulous career, I’m leaving at the top of my profession, and I’m not going to let the last six month or 2020 define all the work we’ve done at the public safety department. I’m leaving this agency in the best place I could, and that’s something to be proud of.

I believe in what we do. I really believe that we cannot have lawlessness in this country. And right now we’re the only thing standing between the laws and lawlessness, and we’re taking all the hits. God bless these men and women who show up here every day and take these hits, and they want to do it for 10 or 15 more years. They’re doing everything we ask them to do, and it’s my job to be that wall for them with everything that’s happening politically. I did the best I could, gave everything I had, and left nothing on the table.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.