Robert Thomasser’s career in law enforcement was bookended by cases that led to protests and how officers do their work: Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
In between, Thomasser returned to his hometown of St. Paul and eventually served as assistant chief under two police chiefs — Thomas Smith and Todd Axtell. As Axtell finishes his term as chief, Thomasser just wrapped up his time at the St. Paul Police Department, where he was second in command.
He recently sat down with the Pioneer Press to talk about his career and the St. Paul police. The interview is edited for clarity and conciseness:
What part of St. Paul did you grow up in?
My family started out in Highland Park, across from Cretin-Derham High School. When my mom and dad got divorced, we moved out to the East Side. I was a paper boy. Went to Harding, graduated in ’85.
I decided I wanted to get into policing and looked at what it took to become a cop here in the state. At the time, it was an expensive, long process. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department was hiring from all over the country and they sought out people from the Midwest because of the work ethic.
I went to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and I was actually in the academy in 1991 when Rodney King happened (Los Angeles police officers beat him during his arrest).
As a Midwest kid working in the L.A. County jail, that experience opened my eyes up. If you’ve ever seen those videos of the Crips and the Bloods fighting each other through the bars, it was that time. Five years later, I came home.
Why did you leave California?
I’m a hometown kid, I didn’t like living in California. I liked the quality of life here in town. I ended up getting hired in St. Paul and went to the Eastern District patrol.
How long were you on patrol?
About four years. I later got promoted to sergeant and worked in the Western District. I was the officer in charge of Operation Red Rocket and Operation Sunrise in Frogtown, which were undercover drug operations. Drugs were driving other crimes in the area, too. The crime index dropped so much we had to write a letter to the FBI (which collects crime statistics) to explain.
I worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration taskforce (on loan from St. Paul police). Later, I was commander of the narcotics and vice unit at the police department. With the advent of the internet and cellphones, a lot of crimes were occurring differently, and we were constantly trying to evolve our tactics to keep up with that.
What was your time like as assistant police chief?
Todd Axtell had a vision of how he wanted this department to do policing, and I was part of his team to implement the changes. One was changing our pursuit policy (to be more restrictive, except when seeking people in the most violent cases). We’re measuring the risk to the community and the people doing the pursuits.
For the good-hearted police officer on the street who’s trying to catch a person who has done wrong to somebody else, I’ve made their job tougher (by restricting vehicle pursuits). But we made the change for the right reasons, for safety reasons. Trying to connect that conversation with the officers who have to do that job, that was a challenge. But I think we’ve able to connect the “why” of a lot of what we’re doing.
You were the face of the police department during some difficult discussions about the budget before the city council. What was that like?
I really very much believe in the mission that our frontline officers are doing. The role that I had in the agency allowed me to advocate for the mission — and that was to hold people accountable who were doing wrong in the city, and standing up for people who were victimized. We have to have enough resources to do that.
We never really got to talk enough about what are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve. And the crime rate that exists right now is not the outcome that I think we should have for St. Paul. I think we could have, with the right investments, far better outcomes in St. Paul.