Laguna Beach’s new police chief shares his goals and what drew him to this community.
By Sharon Stello
New Laguna Beach Police Chief Robert Thompson enters this position at an interesting time for law enforcement, as people around the country are calling for changes in the way police departments are run. Thompson, who stepped into the role Jan. 18, understands that transformation at some level will be needed after conferring with a wide range of stakeholders in the community.
“Whether it’s Laguna Beach or Chicago or Detroit, I think 2021 is going to be the year where we, as law enforcement, need to reimagine what policing looks like in this country, in that county, in that city,” he says. “And all levels of law enforcement leadership are going to have to do some significant investment and reimagining in what police services are going to look like in the future. The one thing I know is [that] it can’t look like it was in the past.”
With more than 26 years of experience in public safety, Thompson most recently served as police chief in Dixon, a Northern California city with a population of about 20,000. And, while he started his career in 1994 as a police officer in
St. Louis—at age 21, the youngest on the force at that time—he transitioned eight years later to work for the FBI’s Sacramento Division before becoming police chief in Dixon in 2017.
“I liken … the FBI to working at Microsoft or Google—you know, a huge company with tremendous resources,” he says.
“… When I came to Dixon, it was like going to a startup. But I had the ability to influence more things in this role as a police chief, so I could really make an investment in people. … Creating an environment where people can be successful and are happy is the most rewarding part of that to me.”
Thompson planned to move with his wife and children, a 19-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, to Orange County. He began looking for jobs in the area because his wife needed to relocate for her position supervising an office in Irvine; she had been commuting. As Thompson explains, she had relocated for him, when he started at the FBI in Sacramento. “With my 8-month-old daughter, she moved out here before my graduation to a state she didn’t know a living soul in. So she moved 1,900 miles away from all of our family for me,” he shares. “And so, when she said, ‘Can you move 400 miles for me?’, I said, ‘yes.’ ”
But they are familiar with the area because she traveled to Irvine so often for work. “We’re very frequent visitors to Orange County, and one of our go-to spots is Laguna Beach,” Thompson says. “So I was a tourist in Laguna before I was a potential employee.”
What do you like most about Laguna Beach?
Robert Thompson: I think it has a very distinct personality that makes it unique in Orange County. I think it has a friendly, casual atmosphere that makes it a very inviting place to someone who is visiting and I was drawn to that.
What do you like about the Laguna Beach Police Department?
I think that it’s a very well-run police department that serves a community that’s very supportive of it. These are interesting times to be in the policing business and so, having a community—at least at its foundation—that supports law enforcement … is a very good place to start from.
Do you have a favorite part of town?
Heisler Park [and the Main Beach area] because it’s a living postcard, how well that area is maintained and all the art that’s along there. … The culture of Laguna Beach manifests itself on that beach.
What’s the last book you read?
In anticipation of this particular job, I’m just finishing up “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” by Travis Bradberry [and Jean Greaves]. … I’m a big believer in that sort of concept of self-evolution. You get to know yourself and then you realize what you have to do to sort of evolve to become a better person, a better leader.
Do you have any hobbies that you enjoy in your free time?
I’m from St. Louis, so I am a ravid, ravid St. Louis Cardinals fan. So, I reject on principle, any other baseball team, including the Angels and the Dodgers. I think, when you grow up like I did, in St. Louis in the 1980s and early ’90s, it’s just part of your DNA.