The glass ceiling on the fourth floor of the Knoxville Police Department is no more. When Mayor Madeline Rogero appointed Eva Maria Thomas as the city’s new Chief of Police on June 21, 2018, the ceiling shattered.
The new chief is 55 and knows that she is a pioneer, a first for KPD. How does she feel about that? What does it mean to her? And how have the rank and file reacted to this historic change?
“I like to look at it this way … it’s icing on the cake. … Women (including me) have been a part of the policing profession now long enough to where we have worked our way up through the ranks, and it was time to have a female chief,” she says. “I am just in the right place at the right time. I think that the men and women I work with are aware of the significance, but I am fortunate that all my experience has been at the KPD (25 years) and they all know me, they know how I do business and they know what to expect from me – as well as what I expect from them. Everyone has been supportive.”
Chief Thomas also wears two other hats. She’s wife to husband Carl and the mother of two teenage sons.
She’s five months into this new job of wearing five stars on her uniform. So, how does it feel being the chief in the big office with an expansive view of downtown Knoxville?
“It is overwhelming, I will say, but in a good way, and there’s a lot more to the job than I thought. But it also does not feel like work to me. I enjoy it – working for the men and women of this department and for our community day in and day out.”
Thomas has steadily progressed through the ranks, from a first responder in patrol for three years, a field training officer and then promoted to sergeant in 1998. Seven years later, in 2005, she became a lieutenant and in 2011 was promoted to captain. She became the East District Commander in 2013 in the Patrol Division. In 2015, a big job landed in her lap – Commander of Internal Affairs (IA). She also was in the Criminal Investigative Division prior to being promoted to Deputy Chief in February 2018. Five months later came the mayoral appointment.
The mayor selected her to replace former chief David Rausch, who is now director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Interestingly, Thomas and Rausch both joined the department in 1993 and went through training together, along with deputy chiefs Ron Green and Kenny Miller. That was an impressive class in ’93.
Her family moved from Illinois to Lenoir City when she was 12. She graduated from Farragut High School in 1982 and then earned a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Tennessee. After college she worked in retail and was a manager at Target when she took the test to become a police officer.
The chief commands a force of 385 sworn officers and approximately 100 support staff. She is authorized to have 416 sworn officers and is looking to hire more now.
“I serve our community and the officers who work for me,” she says. “They depend on me to make the right decisions every day. My job is about communications and people. I consider myself to be a servant leader.”
As chief, she says, she is concerned for the safety and well being of every officer, every day. “I worry about them getting hurt and what it does to their families. I’m concerned about them. I’m a people person, and I hope they’re all happy.”
She’s up at 4:30 a.m. daily, working out at home and getting to headquarters around 8 a.m. She estimates she’s working 60 to 75 hours a week. Lots of meetings, inside and outside of the department. A lot of her role is public relations and speaking, and she says she’s “adjusting to that.”
Homicides this year are 30 percent lower than in 2017, and in addition to that her focus is on the opioid crisis/drugs and property crimes. When you ask her about priorities, she lists three:
- “Employee wellness, making sure they have what they need to do the job and working with them in times of crisis. Police officers can have PTSD like the military.”
- Helping our communities take control of what’s going on and engaging with them to help reduce crime.
- A new police department headquarters.
On her desk is a stuffed figure – The Grinch from Dr. Seuss. Chief Thomas likes to quote the late Dr. Theodore Geisel – Dr. Seuss – who died in 1991. She especially likes his final quote: “The best slogan I can think of to leave with the U.S.A. would be: ‘We can … and we’ve got to … do better than this.’”
As you leave her office, you can’t miss the three-word sign that hangs on the wall next to the door: “All is good.”
(Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday in KnoxTNToday.com and if you have suggestions about someone we should feature, email Tom King.)