From the streets of LA to civilian leader, commander brings wealth of experience to new TPD role


She talked with the young Tustin officer as he carefully wrapped the evidence before submitting it.

Then making her way to her office, she looked at the large screen mounted on the wall, taking note of the small blips representing patrol cars moving about a maze of streets on a city map.

The monotone crackle of dispatchers over the radio summoning officers to a call intermittently interrupted the quiet of her office.

Tustin PD Cmdr. Kat Thomas loves it all.

The sights and sounds of the police department evoke feelings in Thomas that confirm she is exactly where she is supposed to be.

“It makes me realize I’m not done yet,” Thomas said. “I’m not done being around law enforcement.”

Thomas briefly thought she might be ready to retire and return to a career as a marriage and family therapist, which was her life before entering the police academy more than 20 years ago.

But after 21 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, Thomas instead decided to take on the challenge of a new role: Tustin PD’s newest civilian commander, a position she started July 11.

Thomas oversees 53 employees in civilian roles including the records department, police services officers, dispatch, property and evidence and the Tustin PD’s community services officers.

“The department would not function if not for the civilian employees,” Thomas said. “Yes, the officers generally get the most attention out in the field, but the civilian employees are here making sure everything runs smoothly.”

Tustin Civilian Police Cmmdr. Katarina Thomas. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Tustin Civilian Police Cmmdr. Katarina Thomas.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

An introverted kid who preferred reading Jane Austen novels and participating in summer book clubs rather than playing sports, Thomas wanted a life in public service but was unsure she was cut out for it.

As a teen in 1976, she thought about joining the US Navy, but was quickly shut down by those closest to her — her family, friends and boyfriend at the time.

“I just felt this strong feeling that I wanted to serve,” she said. “But women didn’t really do that at the time, and I guess I allowed other people to control my dreams back then.”

However, Thomas also had another passion — learning the intricacies of how the mind works and decoding the mystique of human behavior.

She earned her bachelor’s degree at Cal Poly Pomona, and then followed up with a master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton.  She became a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Thomas wanted to become a doctor, and earned her doctorate at San Diego State University of Integrated Studies.

“I just like people, and I like talking with people,” she said. “I think the human mind is fascinating.”

She pinpoints her interest in becoming a marriage and family therapist back to her school yard days.

Although a self-described bookworm, Thomas was friends with everyone — the brains, the jocks, the popular and not.

And she often found herself as the go-to source to settle playground disputes.

“I was always playing referee, even then,” she said.

While working as a marriage and family therapist in Covina, Thomas also maintained a side job as a bartender.

On many nights, LAPD officers would come to the bar after their shifts and swap stories over Bushmills on the rocks.

“This is around the time of the LA riots,” Thomas said. “I remember thinking, ‘There’s a lot of danger associated with this job, but it’s funny how much they enjoy it.’ There’s this thing about police work — it has to be in your heart.”

The LAPD officers often tried to convince Thomas to join the ranks. She was apprehensive about whether she had the physical ability and assertiveness for the job.

“They constantly told me, ‘We can teach you that part,’” Thomas said. “But they saw something in me they thought would make a good officer.”

It was her work with troubled youth that finally tipped the scales toward a career in law enforcement.

Thomas had developed a mentoring program called VICTARY: Violence Intervention and Counseling Targeting At-Risk Youth.

In one case she was working on, several youths in a high-crime area were staying tight-lipped about a homicide that occurred in the neighborhood.

“I wanted to know, ‘Why aren’t these kids talking? What is it in their mind that is convincing them that this is OK? I decided I wanted to be on the front-end of this,” she said.

At age 34, Thomas entered the police academy.

“I ended up with stress fractures, tendonitis and all kinds of things, but the whole point is at the end of it, you make it,” Thomas said. “You heal and you get up and you keep going. That’s what it comes down to.”

In her years with LAPD, Thomas served in a variety of assignments including patrol, school resource officer, field sergeant and detective.

She also worked in workplace risk management, internal affairs and in the Ombuds Section.

Every time she was assigned a new partner on patrol the reaction was the same: “I was wondering when they’d have us work together. Let me tell you what’s going on.”

It was on-the-job counseling from the seat of a patrol car, and Thomas was OK with that.

“That led me to the Peer Support program with LA,” she said. “I’m really proud of how the program has developed over the years.”

Peer Support, another passion of Thomas’, is something she plans to be involved in with and looks forward to continuing to build on the successful peer support program already in place at Tustin PD.

In her decades in law enforcement, Thomas has a lot of stories — tales that sound straight out of a television crime drama, and others more likely to be found in an R-rated flick.

“There’s always a joke about how you know you’re invited to parties just for the stories; just to be there if ever there is a lull in a conversation,” she said.

While the new commander said she’ll always hold those years as a sworn officer in high regard, she is focused on serving in a new way.

In her first few weeks with Tustin PD, Thomas has been putting in time in the evenings and weekends to ensure she meets everyone she now supervises and learns about their individual roles in the department.

She hopes to also grow the department’s civilian team and serve as a valued mentor.

“This is my future,” she said. “I’m still learning and getting into it, and I love to learn, not only the job but also about our people.  It’s all very exciting.”