Final police chief candidate talks community


Thomas Phillips, the final applicant for the new Iowa State chief of police, gives his presentation on college policing in the 21st century during the open forum on Feb. 10. The forum was held in the Gold Room of the Memorial Union. 

Danielle Gehr

At the age of 18, Thomas Phillips didn’t know where his life was going.

Growing up in Flint, Michigan, a community he described as impoverished, Phillips, one of the four candidates for Iowa State police chief, dropped out of high school by 16 to work and saw no direction for his future. At least, not until he decided to join the Army.

This decision and the experiences that followed eventually led him around the world and to a career in campus policing all the way to the Gold Room of the Memorial Union.  

There, he presented at the last open forum for police chief Friday with hopes to one day be a part of the Iowa State community.

“I stumbled on a job in University of Illinois in Chicago. They were hiring police officers,” Phillips said. “I didn’t know. I’d never stepped on a college campus. I never thought I’d ever go to college as a young man.”

Since he became an officer, 20 years have passed. Phillips is the current police chief at Northern Illinois University.

Phillips believes there are three priorities when it comes to university police: the students, the campus and the community. The students, in his eyes, should be at the top of this list.

Transparency, community outreach and community input contribute greatly to keeping a good relationship with the student body in Phillips’ eyes.  

“There’s been a crisis of trust and legitimacy in police, specifically in minority communities,” Phillips said. “I know it, I see it every day. I watch it unfold.”

He brought up an example of the importance of transparency when he spoke of a man who was confused by why there were two officers when he was pulled over.

From the perspective of the man, two officers for a simple traffic stop seems not only strange but also intimidating.

What he didn’t know was the purpose for this is to reduce officer fatalities. Phillips said a large portion of officer deaths are a result of routine traffic stops.

What seemed like an intimidation strategy was really just an officer looking out for another.

Phillips plans to have some kind of “town hall” to get community input. He wants the community to feel like it has a voice and for the department to improve based on the wants of those it serves.

Another aspect to keeping good relations that Phillips introduced was maintaining a guardian mindset as opposed to a warrior one.

He believes that while officers need to be a mixture of both, the guardian aspect needs to be the most prominent with an understanding that their duty is to “protect and serve.”

“We can be warriors when we need to be, but we work on a university campus also,” Phillips said. “Our primary mission is to protect the students.”

Phillips said the three largest concerns of parents when sending their children to college are if will they get a good education, if they can afford a higher education and if they will be safe.

In order to ensure students are remaining safe on campus, Phillips is looking to speak with student leadership about contribution to community safety.

He believes the rapport that Iowa State Police currently has with the community is strong, but he also thinks there is still room for improvement.

Phillips finished by emphasizing again the need to build trust and legitimacy, saying “we need to invest in it.”

“Whether I’m selected or not, it has been my honor and privilege to come to this campus,” he said.