May 1, 2020

Determination and curiosity power ASU Police Chief Michael Thompson to his fifth degree — this time a doctorate

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

For Arizona State University Police Chief Michael Thompson, the fifth's time the charm: This May will be his fifth time in cap and gown.

And he hadn't even been expected to do so once: In high school, he was counseled to pick a trade when he graduated. But Thompson found a different path.

“I’m not a part of Mensa or anything like that. Far from it,” said Thompson, who will receive the Doctor of Education in Leadership and Innovation from ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College on May 11. “For me, getting this degree is all about determination because if I can do it, anyone can do it. This degree is about showing that capacity and potential are infinite. If you are determined, anything is possible.”

Son of an electrician

Determination was just about the only thing Thompson had growing up. The son of an electrician, Thompson says he was the among poorer students at a very affluent high school in East Mesa. That fact didn't go unnoticed by his high school counselor.

“My counselor sat down with me and said, ‘It doesn’t look like your family has any money to send you to college,’” Thompson recalled. “And so, she showed me some refrigeration school pamphlets and a few others for a truck driving school. I ended up leaving, thinking, ‘Wow, so that’s what she thinks of me?’ She just pigeonholed me in that moment.”

Thompson ended up attending Mesa Community College taking general core classes, but felt he was not worthy of attending a university. But that all changed when he joined the Mesa Police Department in 1988.

He performed a variety of jobs during his 20 years there, including supervisor of the School Resource Officer program. He was responsible for a dozen Mesa and Gilbert public schools, including one location where his former high school counselor was now the principal. Thompson said he was now the one dispensing the career advice.

“When I first got the beat, I explained who I was, what she told me when I was in high school and that it was horrible advice,” Thompson said. “She said that she was sorry and we ended up having a good laugh over it. That was the end of it. I didn’t have any burning desire to make her feel bad or prove her wrong.”

But prove her wrong he did.

A badge and a degree

Thompson knew that he could not advance within the ranks of the Mesa Police Department without a college degree. So he restarted his higher education sojourn in the early 1990s and received an Associate in Arts degree from Rio Salado Community College in 1995. He did that in order to test for a sergeant’s position. He got the job, and his first assignment was overseeing the department’s jail.

In order to climb the ladder to lieutenant, he had to have a bachelor’s degree. When the city sweetened the pot with a tuition reimbursement program through Northern Arizona University, Thompson leapt at the opportunity to get a Bachelor of Science in Education. It was an intense two-and-a-half-year program that he took with a cohort of a dozen other cops. 

In 2005, he studied for his first master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis on human relations. That involved taking a class with his then-pregnant wife, at the same time their blended family had six children at home. 

“It was a crazy time in our lives but it was a great bonding experience,” said Bernedette Thompson, who is a sixth-grade math teacher in the Valley. “It also surprised me and showed what a strong leader Michael is and how highly regarded he was in the classroom. He guided many discussions, and even the professors went to him for advice. That time together also demonstrated to me how comfortable he was in that environment.”

An upward trajectory

Thompson retired from the Mesa Police Department and came to work for ASU in May 2008. He initially thought he might teach, but a job came open for a commander’s position. He began studying for his second master’s degree in general leadership, which he collected in August 2011. Six years later, he was heading up the ASU Police Department.

One of the reason’s Thompson got the job, according to Morgan R. Olsen, ASU’s chief business and finance officer, is that wanted to pursue his EdD.

“I encouraged him to pursue it (his doctorate), observing that while it might not make him a better law enforcement officer, it definitely would help him serve the university even better,” Olsen said. “One of the things he made very clear during the interview process is how committed he is to the field of education and how much he valued being part of the ASU community.”

Thompson has developed a reputation at the university for friendly, efficient and smart policing.

“When I became the chief, I felt like the department did a good job taking care of the campus, responding to calls, solving things or making arrests. But we were not interwoven into the fabric of the community,” Thompson said. “We were a siloed piece off to the side. I felt like we were so much more than that.”

Thompson encouraged his officers to interact more with students, faculty and staff to find out about their daily lives, their concerns, and how the police can alleviate their stress. He also placed the department’s new K-9 officer, Dutch, in more of an advocacy role rather than patrol or conduct explosive-detection work.  

“Dutch opened a door where people would start coming up and talking to us,” Thompson said. “I’d tell my officers, 'There’s a student in front of you, so now talk to them. Ask them how school’s going. Ask how their studies are going. Are they ready for finals?' These are the things we need to be doing to become part of the community.”

Man petting black lab

ASU Police Chief Michael Thompson with Dutch, who joined the department in fall 2018 as the unit's first trauma dog. Thompson said the dog has helped open communications between officers and students. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

He also revamped the department’s records management and upgraded their radio dispatch and video monitoring systems. Thompson started a Special Victims Unit in 2015 to investigate cases involving physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence and crimes against children. 

The death of Thompson’s mother from cancer coincided with his EdD program in the summer of 2017, but he said the coursework kept him focused. That sacrifice was evident to Louis S. Albert, who taught Systems Leadership, Thompson’s first class. Albert, a professor of practice with Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the former president of Pima Community Colleges’ West campus in Tucson, called Thompson “a real person with a deep intellectual curiosity.”

“Michael’s bright, an avid reader and an extremely accomplished writer,” Albert said. “He stood out from the get-go. He has the kind of intellectual curiosity that I’ve seen in doctoral students but they don’t have nearly the experience he does as a leader. Quite frankly, I felt like we were in the presence of one of my guest speakers that whole summer.”

Policing during a pandemic

As Thompson was preparing for his dissertation, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation and all of ASU’s campuses had to pivot to a remote-learning model. It was a crisis unlike anything he’d ever since in his years of law enforcement.

“The No. 1 priority was the safety of our students and my employees because they are first responders,” Thompson said. “If the virus spreads throughout the department, then we’re all in trouble.”

He said the pandemic has taught him a lot about leadership. He demonstrates this by sending frequent emails to his department employees, which numbers 163 people.

“The emails let them know where we’re at as a department, what’s going on, what to watch out for, how to protect themselves, how to protect their families,” Thompson said. “In one email I suggested which products to buy and how to clean their homes. I want to convey to them how much I care about them and not to be afraid.”

That act truly speaks to her husband’s character, said Bernedette Thompson.

“Michael has a passion for life and a passion for other human beings,” she said. “He wants a better world for people.” 

Top photo: ASU Police Chief Michael Thompson will receive his Doctor of Education in Leadership and Innovation from ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. The degree is his fifth and will go along with his two master's, baccalaureate and associate degrees. Thompson came the university's police force in 2008 following a 20-year career in the City of Mesa Police Department. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now