Meet Chief Thomas, Wellesley’s New Director of Public Safety
In October 2021, President Paula A. Johnson welcomed C. Meshia Thomas to Wellesley as the College’s new director of public safety/chief of police.
Thomas was previously the chief of police at Virginia Union University, an HBCU in Richmond, Va., where she oversaw all aspects of public safety, and she previously served as police captain at Vanderbilt University, overseeing professional standards and accreditation; as captain at the University of Chicago; and as a lieutenant and investigator at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Informed by her experience at a number of higher education institutions, Chief Thomas brings a fresh perspective on community engagement and public service to the College,” Johnson wrote.
We connected with Chief Thomas to learn more about her background, what led her to Wellesley, and her hopes and plans for the future of campus safety.
Aidan Reid: How did you get into this field?
Chief C. Meshia Thomas: Before I completed my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Bethel University, I took a sabbatical from college for a few years. And because I grew up with a parent who was an educator, I knew at some point I needed to get back to my studies and I had to make some decisions about my future. I realized I wanted to teach, coach and work with children. I knew if I found a job on campus; it would inspire me and, in some instances, allow me to return to complete my studies at a reduced cost. I saw the ad for a dispatch/communication officer position, and I applied for consideration. I was subsequently hired as a dispatcher.
After a year in dispatch, I was encouraged to consider the police academy and become a sworn officer. I then attended the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy in Donelson, Tenn. I graduated and became a police officer at the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK) where I worked for approximately 12 1/2 years. I was fortunate as I moved up the ranks there and enjoyed a very successful career.
Reid: Why Wellesley College?
Thomas: I enjoyed and appreciated early on in my career the ever-changing nature of providing safety and security to the campus community. My favorite quote is “Service is the rent we pay for a room on this earth.” That helps me recognize the responsibility I have to this big world. Being a part of the solution and helping other people, being kind, helpful, appreciating and valuing others’ opinions, lifestyles, and cultures. All while being authentically me! If I show up every day with this mentality, then every place my feet touch, I will leave a trail for others to follow.
Wellesley College is making an impact locally, regionally, and globally. Why not consider leading the way through public safety and police at a time such as this with an institution that has continued to provide a dynamic educational experience for women who are changing the world?
"My favorite quote is 'Service is the rent we pay for a room on this earth.' That helps me recognize the responsibility I have to this big world. Being a part of the solution and helping other people, being kind, helpful, appreciating and valuing others’ opinions, lifestyles, and cultures."Chief C. Meshia Thomas
Reid: How do you approach building and cultivating community on campuses?
Thomas: I recognized early on in my career that I didn't want to just be robotic with my role as police officer. I felt compelled to work with people across campus and so I became active with the Community Relations Unit (CRU) where we focused on providing educational programming to the campus community. While working in the CRU; I focused on activities and programs for students, staff and faculty and served on campus safety initiatives/committees, became a liaison for several groups and organizations (Including women’s sports, sororities, the LGBTQI Commission and Commision for Blacks). I also taught R.A.D. Self Defense, volunteered for YWCA of East Tenessee, and served on the Sexual Assault Crisis Center Board. Other areas within the police department that I was assigned included: investigations, patrol supervision and community relations as a supervisor and officer.
My inspiration was working with students, collaborating across campus with faculty and staff to promote safety initiatives and to help maintain a safe campus environment for all. It allowed me to find innovative ways to connect the students with our team and still disseminate information that helped to keep them and others safe. I was fortunate to have worked with some incredible leaders in this industry who believe in best practices and not "doing things the same way just because.” This inspired me to visualize myself in a position that would affect change and the only way I knew I could do so is by opening myself up to a career trajectory that would place me in a leadership capacity in a role that has been historically male dominated.
Reid: What is one important aspect of your job that most people don’t know much about?
Thomas: In my current role as chief/director of public safety and police, I am responsible for the leadership and administrative oversight of the department. It is also my responsibility to create an environment where people feel safe, and to foster an atmosphere where community members feel fully comfortable turning to Public Safety in difficult moments. Pulling together the right teammates, people who understand the uniqueness of public safety in this environment is crucial. To do this work, I must be willing to establish relationships both on and off campus with key local agencies, like Wellesley Police, Natick Police, and others.
There are other campus communities and peer institutions and local campus safety directors and chiefs with whom I must be open and receptive to learning from and working with. It is important that I work across campus with partners and other stakeholders as well as students, faculty, and staff to help facilitate safety initiatives that are conducive to Wellesley College and help to identify and establish best practices to help shape the department’s ability to function and provide a foundation for the future.
Reid: What measures do you plan to take to improve the relationship between Wellesley students and the campus police?
Thomas: One of my most important tasks is earning trust and finding common ground in the work that we do and the support we give to our students, staff, and faculty. We need to be open and receptive to the changes that we see across the country and recognize that campus police and other law enforcement agencies can do this work better.
We start by first accepting individual and collective responsibility for our actions, and listening with intent and purpose to further understand. To do this, there must be avenues where dialogue can exist and be freely exchanged, such as public forums, training opportunities, and collaborative efforts to provide safety initiatives where students, staff, faculty have buy-in and share information. A Public Safety Student Advisory Committee is another great opportunity for us to work with students and other representatives on campus to help develop initiatives, review policies and procedures, empower the public in the spirit of community oriented public safety, and further facilitate communications between relevant parties as it relates to public safety at Wellesley College.
Another area that is important is that we create a better product. Our team must be more diverse and innovative in our thought in order to provide the right services for our community. When we are trustworthy and respected by our community, the impact has a ripple effect on the entire campus. And even when we make mistakes on our worst day, our community is confident that we have their best interests in mind in all that we do.
Reid: What are some of the next steps in Wellesley’s approach to campus safety?
Thomas: We are listening to the students and our colleagues across campus. As you know, campus police and public safety is a 24-hour-a-day operation. We are always available to respond to the needs of the campus. We have recognized that because we are always available, we are often tasked with requests that are not really tasks our sworn police officer should be doing.
As we are rebuilding our team and department, we are considering staffing models that represent clear lines of responsibility for our sworn and non-sworn personnel.
Another area is our student employees. We will be revamping all areas where students are impacted. Parking, transportation, and lockouts are areas where we want students who are committed to working with our team to provide necessary coverage and resources.
The safety of the Wellesley College community during an emergency is predicated on advance planning, as well as familiarizing the campus and stakeholders about how the plans will be implemented. Emergency preparedness is another area that I believe needs some lifting. In times of disasters or a crisis, it is imperative that we are prepared to respond and facilitate information to mitigate further risks to our community. We will be evaluating our current policies, procedures, training and plans relating to emergency preparedness.
Reid: What do you want the community to know about your approach to this leadership role?
Thomas: I am confident you will see a more active and engaged chief/director of public safety. I have so much passion for this work. I know it is a calling, not just a job, for me. I appreciate the men and women across this country who are doing things the right way and working hard each day to deliver law enforcement services with integrity and pride. Those who are respectful of others and who safeguard the dignity and rights of all individuals.
I am proud to serve with my colleagues in higher education and continue to positively impact the lives of others. I am available by phone, email, and/or text. I will respond, and when I do not know the answer, we will work together to figure it out. I am open to feedback and working together to resolve issues and concerns.
"One of my most important tasks is earning trust and finding common ground in the work that we do and the support we give to our students, staff, and faculty. We need to be open and receptive to the changes that we see across the country and recognize that campus police and other law enforcement agencies can do this work better."Chief C. Meshia Thomas
Reid: You are raising four teenagers. How do they feel about your job and how does that affect the way you approach it?
Thomas: They are awesome! They are often very concerned and vocal about what they hear and see regarding law enforcement and public safety. We openly discuss appropriate responses and scenarios. They provide great feedback on what they hear from their peers. They are very much concerned about my safety as well. So, as I focus on the well-being of all of the Wellesley community members, I also think of how I want my children to be treated. And I want to make sure that my team and I come home to our families and that the parents, students, staff, faculty and administrators are confident in the work we do to maintain the safety and security of Wellesley College.
Reid: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Thomas: In all of my experiences at several institutions of higher education, I have met some amazing people with whom I share friendships today. Some of them were themselves students who have now gone on to do incredible things.
I am thankful for the ability to mentor and provide support to students. At one particular university, as an officer on patrol, I would stop by periodically to check on the residential assistants and let them know I was on foot patrol checking all residential housing. During that time, I would talk with one student in particular, and a few years later he graduated and became a police officer. He is now an extraordinary officer with an impeccable career, and I look forward to calling him chief/director one day soon. I have so many stories, new friends, students who are now themselves adults with families who are outstanding citizens.
I am looking forward to working with my colleagues here at Wellesley College as we look for ways to keep our campus safe and provide the resources needed to support the institution.