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Laguna Beach

Barbara’s Column

New police chief introduced at City Council meeting


Police Chief Robert Thompson was formally introduced Tuesday night to the City Council and to Laguna Beach residents – at least those who watched the meeting.

“I am humbled and honored to be the newest member of your police department,” said Thompson. “Before I was employed, we (Thompson is married and the father of two children) were frequent visitors to the city. We spent quite a bit of time here, so when the opportunity opened up, it was something we were excited to pursue.”

Later, he said “I won’t disappoint you.” 

Retiring City Manager John Pietig introduced Thompson, who was hired to succeed Laura Farinella, Laguna’s first-ever female police chief.   

Thompson began his new job January 18, with little opportunity to meet the members of the City Council or the city staff, none of whom participated in the hire. Under Laguna’s form of government, the city manager hires (and fires) all staff with the exception of himself, the city attorney, the city clerk, and the city treasurer, both elected officials.

“I think when everyone gets a chance to get to know [Thompson] – he has a great personality and a sense of humor,” said Pietig.

“We look forward to him getting to know all of us and him getting to know the City Council members and the community.

“Things are a little challenging these days with virtual meetings, and not in-person, so we are going to have to work little extra hard to welcome the chief to our town and our community.”

Not so hard for Mayor Bob Whalen

“I had a chance to speak to the chief the other day and he thought nobody here in Laguna would know anything about Dixon, California,” said Whalen. 

However, C.A. Jacobs Middle School, a school in Dixon, is named for the grandfather of Whalen’s wife, painter Kirsten Whalen.

“He was the principal for years,” said Whalen. 

New police closeup

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Police Chief Robert Thompson

Tuesday’s introduction wasn’t quite as fancy as the reception for Community Development Director Marc Wiener got when he was hired from Carmel –gatherings of staff and residents to welcome newcomers are just one of the casualties of COVID-19.

But Thompson has been cruising City Hall, making himself known and getting to know his way around.

“On day two of week two, I found my office by myself (no mean accomplishment in the rabbit warren of hallways on the second floor) and I got to my car unassisted,” he said, 

Thompson was recruited from Dixon, Calif., a city of nearly 21,000 people near the state capital, where he was hired as police chief in 2017. 

He did not anticipate that he would be moving on in little more than three years, according to a story in The Reporter announcing his departure.

However, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans,” Allen Saunders wrote in 1957 – and it is still true today. 

Thompson’s wife, an executive in the telecommunications division of an engineering firm, received a job promotion. She was overseeing an office in Irvine, which required frequent trips to the area. 

The opening in Laguna meshed the two careers, an opportunity too good to pass up, but Thompson has nothing but good things say about the Dixon Police Department. 

He described the men and women in the department as confident, capable, and committed.

Thompson was selected from a talented pool of internal and external applicants.

“Rob’s success at working collaboratively with the community, his colleagues, and the police department really set him apart from other candidates,” said Pietig.

He has 26 years of experience in public safety. 

Thompson started his career in 1994 as a 21-year-old officer with the St. Louis, Mo. Police Department. Even earlier, at 13, he was an Explorer, a police program for young people interested in or curious about careers in law enforcement.

New police chief desk

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Chief Thompson started his new duties on January 18

After serving as a police officer for eight years, Thompson joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he was assigned to the Sacramento Division for 15 years.

Thompson’s duties at the FBI included working as a Supervisory Special Agent in the Fairfield Resident Agency. In this capacity, he served as a member of the Solano County Law Enforcement Administrators Association, an organization comprised of the Solano County Sheriff and all police chiefs in Solano County.

He then joined the Dixon Police Department.

In Dixon, Thompson was instrumental in establishing core values, engaging the community, and reorienting the philosophy of the police department members, according to Pietig’s announcement of his hiring. 

“I enjoy engaging community leaders, business owners, and citizens while creating an environment of public trust in the police department, and where employees feel connected to the community they serve,” said Thompson.

Pietig’s announcement also stated Thompson created career development programs to prepare officers for advancement, emphasizing the importance of investing in employees and the city’s commitment to their growth.

“He is dedicated to community-oriented policing, which we really appreciate and look forward to him continuing to implement here in Laguna,” said Pietig.

Laguna has long tradition of community-oriented policing, pioneered by Neil Purcell Jr., who was named Director of Public Safety, chief of both the police and fire departments in 1986. He retired in 1997. 

He informed all new officers that when they put on their uniforms, they must act in accordance with Laguna’s values, not their personal biases. 

Purcell was known for initiating nighttime police escorts to prevent “bashing” of gays walking in town from establishments in town. 

“It was revolutionary,” said former mayor Bob Gentry, whose name was almost always accompanied by ‘the first openly gay elected official in Orange County.’ “And it worked.”

Thompson holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in management. He is a graduate of the FBI Academy, has taught at the FBI’s Leadership Program, and has completed numerous post-graduate programs.

The Thompson family is planning to move to Orange County.

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