Tommy Thompson

Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson retires Nov. 30 after 47 years on the force  all of it at Jacksonville Police Department. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Tommy Thompson’s police career could have ended in 1975, when he answered a call to a domestic disturbance and someone fired a shotgun at him.

“That was one of those nights when I wished I was back home watching TV or selling insurance,” Thompson told a reporter more than a decade later.

Thompson didn’t quit, and no one managed to kill him. On Nov. 30, the Jacksonville police chief will retire after 47 years as a police officer – all of it spent patrolling the same small town.

“I’ll just go home and entertain the wife and the dog, I guess,” Thompson, 68, said in a Monday interview.

A Gadsden native, Thompson came to Jacksonville the way so many young people do. As a Jacksonville State freshman in 1968, he listed business as his major. One class in criminal justice led to another, and soon he was an intern with the city’s Police Department – equipped with a uniform the city paid for and a gun and gun belt he supplied himself. By July 1971 he was a part-time officer, and in October 1971 the City Council voted to hire him full time.

Crime in the city has changed, he said.

“College kids back then would try any kind of drug,” he said. “Someone gives them a handful of pills and they say ‘OK’ and swallow them. It’s not as bad now.”

Thompson said the city over the years has had all the crimes one would expect in a small town: bank robberies, murders, assaults. Still, he said Jacksonville doesn’t have a lot of violent crime compared to a lot of other cities. Much of the crime that does happen could be eliminated if people would stop leaving valuables in their cars and lock their car doors, he said. Theft from cars is fairly common, he said, though the thieves don’t take a lot of risks.

“Very seldom does someone break a window out,” he said.

Over the years, though, an officer even in a small down does see – and get weighed down – by his share of violence. Thompson on Monday said one of his most troubling memories was of a Jacksonville mom’s murder of her own infant. Thompson took the crime scene photographs.

“You can’t believe what people will do to each other,” he said.

When Thompson took over as chief in 1988, a Star profile noted that he’d taken up photography as a hobby, then volunteered to do most of the department’s darkroom work. In the same article, Thompson described himself as an introvert and said one of the best things about Jacksonville was that rural serenity was just a few minutes away.

The “introvert” label surprised Mayor Johnny Smith, who in an interview this week said Smith’s greatest asset was his connection to the public.
“I never would have thought about him like that,” he said. “I always see him out talking to folks and getting in touch with the community.”

Among his top accomplishments as chief, Thompson lists the move to the current Public Safety Complex on George Douthit Drive, a $12 million facility that opened in 2017. The walls of Thompson’s office in that complex are bare, his closet full of plaques and certificates. He said there’s no point in putting holes in the wall of an office he didn’t intend to occupy long.

Among his framed items is a certificate from the state’s police academy. He was graduate No. 112 from the then-new academy in 1981, 10 years after his police career began. He said today’s police recruits are better-trained, but harder to keep in the job.

“They’re here until Oxford needs to hire. Or they apply for federal jobs or the Troopers or ABC,” he said, meaning the Alabama Beverage Commission.

Police pay in Jacksonville could be more competitive, Thompson said. Still, he’s only rarely been tempted to leave. He applied for the chief’s position in Gadsden, his hometown, in 1998, and was named as a finalist. He withdrew because of a legal dispute between the city and police at the time — presenting the possibility that any new hire would be ousted by a lawsuit.

There’s already a list of six finalists to replace Thompson when he leaves. The chief said the search is down to:

— Bill Wineman, the current assistant chief

— Jacksonville police officer Scott Hodge

— Anniston police Capt. Allen George

— Neil Fetner, an agent for ABC

— Falon Hurst, a Calhoun County sheriff’s deputy; and

— Capt. Marcus Wood of the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office.

Thompson said a replacement could be selected around the time he departs on Nov. 30.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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