Police Chief Tom King’s Reign Ends After 23 Years
You’d be hard pressed to find something Chief of Police Tom King hasn’t experienced in his 35-year career in law enforcement — everything from shotguns being pulled on him to helping senior citizens chase bats out of their homes. His 23-year reign as State College Police Chief will come to an end with his retirement August 31.
Hidden in the back corner of the State College police station, his office is unassuming. A large, wooden, L-shaped desk cluttered with papers sticks out from beside the door and it’s clear his work is never done. Light shines onto the desk through the windows wrapping around the office, which sits right by the Schlow Public Library — two pillars of public service shoulder to shoulder.
The only noticeable difference between his office and any other in the building is a floor to ceiling display filled top-to-bottom with recognition of his service. Stacked with awards, it’s home to plaques and accolades from groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.
“I would say it was in about seventh grade. When I started junior high we had a career fair. There was no life event that happened and it wasn’t passed down, I just knew from then it [policing] was what I wanted to do,” Tom said as he leaned back in his chair.
“Were both from Uniontown, so we knew of each other because we went to the same church but went to rival high schools and he’s three years older than me. We didn’t really hang in the same circle but I had a crush on him. Whenever Tommy King ushered in church, I made sure I paid attention,” his wife Kelley reminisced.
After graduating with a criminology degree from IUP in 1980, Tom started his career as an officer in his hometown. When he started at Uniontown in 1980 — the same year Pac-Man was released — technology was a new concept to a lot of professions.
“Uniontown started with foot beats. You’d walk for a couple of hours and they had call boxes every few blocks that would light up and you had to find a phone to call the station. Now it’s a text.”
Tom worked in the Uniontown police department for six months before he decided to make the move to Penn State area. He liked the university community and the fact that State College had a bigger department with more room for advancement.
He started at the State College Police Department on July 27, 1981 and became chief in April of 1993, making 2016 his 23rd year as head of the department. Kelley moved to State College in 1981 as well, but to finish her schooling.
“I was here going to school when he had already become a police officer, we knew of each other and both ended up at the Shandygaff one night. I was with a group of people celebrating a birthday and he was with a group celebrating a birthday. We started talking, started dating and two months later we were engaged! His mom was like, “Why so soon?”,” Kelley laughed through the phone.
It’s safe to say it worked out well.The two married on July 9, 1983.
Since the 80s, technology has changed the way a lot of police work is done, and Tom’s career spanned through it. In retrospect, he says one thing that hasn’t changed is crime itself. The two biggest areas of crime that have stuck around are alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
“Alcohol was an issue in the 80s and it still is. Over the years I’ve seen the excessive use of alcohol has gotten worse and clearly it’s the biggest problem because it results in property damage and sometimes death,” he said.
Aside from the issues that arise in the community from alcohol abuse, Tom worries about the secondary effects it can have on students. King has seen some students drop out of Penn State due to excessive drinking. The darker side of crime that has stuck around in the area has been abuse in the home, but women are more likely to come forward on domestic abuse cases these days, Tom said.
“Domestic violence has always been a problem here but I’m proud of the way we’ve handled it…the way we handle it [now] is much more comprehensive than it was in the 80s. When I started, people saw domestic abuse as a family problem and not a criminal issue. People have realized even in a personal relationship you don’t have the right to abuse people, so now society recognizes it as not okay. I think we’ve made a lot more progress on domestic violence than alcohol abuse,” he said.
With 35 years of police work under his belt, King has many stories of success in the community. He cites a 1987 drug bust of a narcotics ring in State College as the case in his career that had the most significant impact on the State College community.
Kelley remembers Tom’s four years of undercover work as being the scariest time of his career for her. The two just had their first child and strange phone calls would unnerve her at all hours of the day.
“Actually when he became chief and had to assign people to it, we kind of talked about four years being a long time, it drags you down. I think for a while he started limiting it but some officers were okay with staying in longer, it just depends on the personality.”
The case with the most significant impact on Tom’s personally, he admits, is a case far too common in Happy Valley. On a December night in 1984, King received a violent sexual assault report and set to work for the next 18 hours to track down the criminal responsible on behalf of the young college-aged woman who came to him for help. A day later and with no DNA evidence available, King had the man arrested and later convicted of rape.
“He was about to leave town when we got him and I think he would’ve done it again if we hadn’t caught him. Luckily he got locked up for a very long time.”
As important as putting criminals behind bars is, it’s only a small fraction of what gets Tom out of bed in the morning. Ultimately, he’s in it for the victims.
“The most memorable part was being able to help that victim through the most traumatic experience of her life. Being able to connect her to resources and be there with her through the process and hearing from her years later. I know she’s excelling in her career and doing very well. When my daughter was born she sent me a baby gift and it showed me that the services we provided did some good,” he recalled.
Kelley, proud of her husband, said it isn’t a “cops and robbers thing” with Tom. “His approach has always been to help people, that was why he got into it in the first place.”
In 2009, The International Association of Chiefs of Police awarded Tom for leading one of three communities in the country with innovative ways of helping victims.
“How we treat victims is very important to me, even more important than locking up criminals as far as I’m concerned,” Tom said, “That’s one of my proudest accomplishments.”
He summarizes the police as a problem-solving business and says the problem that holds an officer back more than her or his skill set is a lack of passion. “We’re the bridge between the problem and the solution, there’s never a situation that we can’t help with.”
Tensions between police and citizens have been increasing in the past few years with fatal interactions between the two. Tom thinks the tension may be somewhat self-inflicted, adding that police don’t want to be stereotyped, but the people who are stereotyping them these days have been stereotyped themselves, so police are now experiencing the same feeling.
“I think that nationwide, in many of these cases that are high-profiled, the police have brought on their own problems. It’s not good when the police get too far away from their community and forget that they’re a part of it and not separate from it. When there are problems it’s usually inadequate training and accountability,” he said.
He wishes there was more positivity and celebration of the great things we have in State College. If he has any parting advice, it’s centered on this. “I would encourage the community to take a look and recognize what great things we have. We get focused on the negative a lot and at times the community needs to celebrate what’s great about it. There’s so many great programs and the university creates so much diversity. This has been a fabulous place to raise a family and I wouldn’t change the profession I selected and wouldn’t change the place I choose to do it in,” he said.
Kelley also retired from her job at Penn State in the Corporate Controllers office this year. There, she helped develop financial software for the university that’s still used today.
The Kings have two children together. Their son, Brad, also works for Penn State as a grant coordinator and their daughter, Kayla, lives in Virginia with her husband. “They’re his biggest cheerleaders, his biggest fans. That speaks to how much he was able to do with them for such a demanding job, he rarely missed anything that they did,” Kelley said.
One night that he was on the job, though, a riot broke out downtown. His family kept the police radio on to keep tabs on him but quickly were in over their heads after he failed to respond to another officer. “There I am sitting, trying to allay their fear and I’m wondering why isn’t he answering.”
After a few nail-biting moments, he finally got back on his radio and the family let out a well deserved sigh of relief. “We didn’t do that anymore,” Kelley chuckled.
The King’s have much less to worry about now that Tom’s career is coming to an end, but he won’t be completely out of the spotlight yet. He’ll on the brand new role of Assistant Borough Manager and head the Neighborhood and Community Services Department on September 1.
“I was at a crossroads in 1983 because I got hired by the U.S. Secret Service and was supposed to attend training in Georgia. I thought and thought about being all over the world doing what they do but I realized I wanted stability. I made a conscious decision that things are going well here and this was where I wanted to be and I’ve never regretted it. A name isn’t going to get you happiness.”