Chief takes memories of people into retirement

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK — When Thomas Karnes started his police career in Lincoln Park, he hoped a “Golden Rule” approach would be the unofficial department policy.

On his final day after 30 years with the department, Karnes gladly reported that was the case.

“I started out in this job thinking you’ve got to treat people the way you want to be treated,” Karnes said. “Sometimes people forget about that, and officers in particular can lose sight of it, but these guys care about people.”

That philosophy wasn’t always easy, Karnes said on the eve of his retirement from the Lincoln Park Police Department that he joined in 1981. Warm feelings about people didn’t come easy during difficult times.

“The downside is seeing the downside of humanity as a whole,” Karnes said, citing child murders, a rampaging man shooting from a tower — “parents hurting their kids, fathers hurting mothers.”

Property crimes and theft of money may have changed with technology but bad behavior remained consistent for all too many.

On the other hand, the job provided reaffirming rewards that kept him going through three decades.

“The good, small deeds, small kindnesses where people go out of their way to help someone else,” Karnes said, “…I’ve seen those circumstances. There’s enough good out there.”

It’s a balancing act, Karnes said, of knowing that police are often maligned by the very citizenry they protect, but the appreciations make up for the insults.

“When you receive complaints all those years, that one little ‘thank you’ comes through that can make a difference,” Karnes said. “When officers went beyond what was needed, just helping people, can go a long way.”

Karnes had no idea when he began that he would serve so long, or become department chief in 2004. He began at age 23 assuming he could retire after 25 years, but when that anniversary came and went he remained committed to the work, and to the men and women with whom he served.

“What stands out the most is how hard these police officers worked,” Karnes said.

Typical of downriver departments the Lincoln Park force went through difficult years of budget-challenged staffing and uncertainty, including a period eight years ago when 15 of 18 command officers took early retirement.

In those moments he saw the best qualities of his staff.

“It completely wiped out our command staff,” Karnes said. “In order to make the department work well, those officers that were left had to carry the load for about nine months: double duty, double shifts, teaching the new guys. That’s what I’ll remember.”

Teaching the new guys will fall to Lt. Brian Hawk, a 20-year department veteran who last week took over as interim chief pending a permanent appointment. Karnes said he was confident that the right officer will continue in his wake, just as he looks to make a new, post-police life for himself, continuing his involvement with the Lincoln Park Exchange Club among other projects.

“Give someone else a shot at being chief,” Karnes said. “As I look at it, I could have continued for another 11 years, or force myself to do something different.”

He leaves behind a well-trained command staff and department that — no matter the economic ups and downs of the city — is filled with officers that do the profession proud, he said.

“They’re always out there when you need them,” Karnes said.