UCLA’s new interim chief of police, John Thomas, is not only a veteran of nearly four decades in law enforcement but also an accomplished amateur historian.
Over the course of his career, he has had a few important opportunities to marry those two passions, correcting longstanding errors in how the LAPD had recorded the stories of two Black officers from decades earlier.
In 1997, when Thomas was a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, then-Chief Bernard Parks tasked him with finding photos from the LAPD archives to adorn the walls near Parks’ office. And he wanted images that would reflect the department’s diverse history.
“I became fascinated by the photos of all the individuals I found reflecting that diversity,” said Thomas, who is Black. “But for obvious reasons, I felt a stronger connection to those Black officers who laid the foundation for my career of service. Sadly, not much was documented about their careers, so I felt compelled to help tell their stories.”
Those stories now span more than 130 years: Robert W. Stewart, born enslaved in Kentucky, was appointed in 1889 and is credited as LAPD’s first Black officer.
Documents from that era indicate that Stewart had a stellar record; newspaper articles highlighted his popularity in the community. But in 1900, he was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, and although he was eventually found not guilty, Stewart never worked in law enforcement again.
In the mid-2010s, a decade after he had retired from the LAPD, Thomas caught wind of historian Mike Davison’s research on Stewart’s story. With Thomas’s encouragement, the LAPD reinstated Stewart in 2021 and then, in 2022, named a roll call room in his honor in the area where he had worked.
“I firmly believe that when we have a chance to correct history and bring about justice, we have an obligation to do that,” Thomas told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s never too late.”
It was while Thomas was still on the LAPD that he discovered a more recent historical oversight: The department had long recognized Oscar Joel Bryant as its first Black officer to be killed in the line of duty; Bryant was shot to death in 1968.
But Thomas’s research revealed that the distinction properly belonged to Charles P. Williams, a Black officer who was gunned down in 1923. At the time, Williams had been mistakenly categorized as white because the department confused him with another officer with the same name.
That revelation led the LAPD to hold a 1998 ceremony in Williams’ honor and to place a headstone at his grave, which previously was unmarked. The intersection of Sixth Street and Central Avenue, near where he was killed, was named Officer Charles P. Williams Square.
Thomas said he is honored that history has been corrected because of his research but he continues to recognize the injustices faced by those who came before him.
“There were so many obstacles that prevented them from being vocal at the time they served,” he said. “I feel a small sense of satisfaction paying back some of the great debt that these women and men made that opened the door for me and others.”
All of Thomas’ research, which has included meeting with the family members of the officers he studies, also has had a profound impact on the way he approaches law enforcement.
“I owe it to them, to the communities they came from and to the community that I’m from, to serve constitutionally and with honor,” he said, “while never forgetting what was endured for me to rise to a level unachievable to them — for no other reason than the color of their skin.”