In the more than 29 years that the late Joe Thomas was associated with the Pine Bluff Police Department, he was responsible for a number of firsts:
• First black police officer
• First black assistant chief of police
• First black acting chief of police
• First black chief of police
Thomas died Thursday at the age of 88.
“I’m Assistant Chief of Police not because I’m smart or that I’ve got a degree but because Chief Thomas paved the way for all of us and we all benefited from him,” Pine Bluff Assistant Chief of Police Ivan Whitfield said Friday. “Chief Thomas left a lasting legacy for all of us.”
Although Thomas was first sworn in as a patrolman with the department on Feb. 5, 1966, his association with the department began much earlier than that. He had worked sweeping floors and emptying trash as a porter for a number of years when the department was all-white.
The hiring of Thomas, and later the late Alja “Pete” Pippens, opened the door for black officers who came after them, including the late Charles Atkins, who attained the rank of lieutenant, and the late Lee Silas, who retired as a sergeant, and others like Whitfield and Deputy Chief Ricky Whitmore, who are still with the department.
“He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Whitmore said. “When I went up for lieutenant and didn’t make it, I went to him and apologized. When he asked me how long I had been with the department and told him six years, he said ‘you’ll make it.’ Joe put me in IA (Internal Affairs) because he trusted me.”
Whitmore served as Acting Chief of Police for several months after Pine Bluff Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr., fired then-Police Chief John Howell in 2009.
Records from the police department and the city’s Human Relations Office show that after being hired in 1966, Thomas was promoted to sergeant on Oct. 1, 1978, to lieutenant on April 27, 1983, to captain on Feb. 16, 1986, then to assistant chief on Jan. 30, 1989.
He was promoted to Chief of Police on Dec. 14, 1992 and held the position until he retired on March 24, 1995.
“He was such a gentleman,” said former Pine Bluff Mayor Jerry Taylor, who was in office when Thomas was promoted to Chief of Police. “I’ve never known any person that really knew Joe Thomas that didn’t like him.”
After Thomas retired, the building that houses the police and fire departments was renamed the Joe Thomas Public Safety building.
“I thought the world of him,” Taylor said. “He was a mighty fine fellow and a fine chief.”
Whitfield, who began his career with the police department in 1883, said Thomas was a lieutenant at that time.
“Rank didn’t change him,” Whitfield said. “He was one of the most humble men I’ve ever met and he’s done more for this community than the record will ever be able to reflect.”
Lt. Shirley Warrior was with the department when Thomas was promoted to chief in 1992.
“He was approachable,” Warrior said. “He had an open-door policy and anyone could come to his office and talk about a problem and that was the end of it.”
Sam Dockery, who retired from the police department and currently works for MECA (the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Association) said Thomas was “my first training officer.
“He was honest, aboveboard and wanted everything to be done the right way,” Dockery said. “He and I developed a really good relationship and he was one of the best people I ever worked for.”
Whitfield said that even after Thomas retired, he kept track of the department and young officers would frequently stop by Thomas’ house on the west side of the city to talk to Thomas, who was always willing to listen.
“He didn’t just love the police department, he loved his church, “Whitfield said. “He used to say that when he got sick, he couldn’t go to his Sunday School class and he really missed that.”
Thomas was a member of New Town Missionary Baptist Church, where the Rev. Melvin Graves is the pastor.
“You’ve heard of people who are dedicated to their church but Joe Thomas set the standard,” Graves said. “He was tremendously supportive of our church.”
Graves said Thomas was a church trustee for more than 40 years, and chairman of the board of trustees.
“He was involved in so many projects and we as a church are better because he came our way,” he said.
Rev. Graves described Thomas as “teachable, especially for a man of his age.
“He loved the word of God and he didn’t miss Sunday School and Bible study,” he said. “When he got to the age that he couldn’t come to Bible study at night, I started doing a Bible study at midday so that he could attend. He loved the fellowship.
“I loved that old man and nothing brought tears to my eyes more than when I heard of his passing,” Graves said.
Funeral arrangements for Thomas will be announced by Brown Funeral Home.