After the retirement of long-time assistant chief Julie Tolbert, Savannah-Chatham police had big shoes to fill.
The vacancy made way for a rearrangement of its departmental structure, splitting many of Tolbert and Chief Joseph Lumpkin’s duties to two new assistant chiefs, Robert Gavin and Kerry Thomas.
Gavin will manage metro’s Administrative and Management Operations Bureau, which focuses on keeping general departmental functions like resources, ethics, disciple, training, recruiting and the message the department sends out through its public information office.
Thomas will lead the Field Operations Bureau, which covers metro’s crime-fighting initiatives in the community including the Strategic Investigative Unit, End Gun Violence Initiative, Savannah Area Regional Intelligence Center, Reserve Officer Program and Crime Free Housing.
“In this design, the chief can focus on the running of the police department and the strategies for the community, and we can keep the cogs turning and the engine running,” Gavin said.
Both joined the police force in Savannah after careers in the Army. Gavin retired as a specialist, Thomas was a Tank Commander.
Thomas joined Savannah Police Department in 1988 and previously served as the Patrol Division commander, where he leads operations for metro’s six precincts, the Strategic Investigative Unit, End Gun Violence Initiative, Savannah Area Regional Intelligence Center, Reserve Officer Program and Crime Free Housing.
Thomas said when he started out with Savannah police, he didn’t plan on ever reaching the upper echelon of the command staff.
“Ironically, I’ve found a resume that I did many years ago and in the goals and objectives section I put ‘retire from SPD as a major.’ I had ambitions to be at least a major and retire as a major, but I’ve been truly blessed above and beyond that,” Thomas said. “To those whom much is given, much is expected. “I’m in this position because there’s a need for me to give back to the community, that’s the stance that I take.”
Throughout his time with the agency, Thomas has served in the Criminal Investigations Division, Forensics, Support Services, Patrol Division and as deputy director of the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team. He also served as a Weed and Seed law enforcement liaison, an advisor for the Savannah Police Department Explorers Post 411 and as a Mobile Field Force Commander.
Thomas said he was particularly proud of his work with the Police Explorer program, an initiative that aims to teach kids aged 14-20 the ins and outs of policing through hands-on activities.
“Dealing with the youth is one of those things I’ve always enjoyed doing,” Thomas said. “It’s very rewarding to see that you can take a group of kids there, give them that knowledge and skill set and see them perform successfully. It builds camaraderie amongst a group of people from different walks of life. They come together and begin to gel and understand what teamwork is all about.”
He even picked up a hobby through policing. While working in forensics, Thomas took pictures of crime scenes. He found he had a knack for photography, and began to develop his skills with a camera outside the department. Now, it’s a way to relieve stress and make a little extra cash when he’s not working.
“I figured it’d be a whole lot easier if I could get my subjects to move around and pose. I started branching out and doing photography on the side,” Thomas said. “It relaxes me.”
Gavin began his law enforcement career in 1994 and joined Savannah Police Department soon after. Most of his family are pursuing service careers, either in the military or through law enforcement.
When Gavin retired from the Army, he knew he still wanted to help people.
“I just wanted to find a different way to serve and continue doing what I was doing, and of course I gravitated toward this,” Gavin said.
Thomas has completed multiple law enforcement courses and is a graduate of the Senior Management Institute for Police in Boston, the DEA Drug Unit Commanders Academy in Quantico, Va., and the FBI’s Leadership Trilogy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a specialization in Homeland Security, a master’s in business and organizational security management, and a master’s in public safety administration.
Gavin said he had high hopes for bringing about change when he first started policing.
“You come in with this idea that you’re going to fix things or I’m going to save the world,” Gavin said. “I think a lot of officers come in wanting to do a lot, and you see quickly that change is very hard to make happen, so you have to realize that there are a lot more players involved. But I think you start realizing that you can affect change on the person you’re in front of.”
He’ll have a hand in many of the internal aspects of the department, from officer discipline to social media policy, and he said his career so far has prepared him for the job.
“I wanted to be involved in all aspects of the police department, and that’s one of the things I was able to do. I was on patrol. I was in investigations. I was on special operations and SWAT, and I spent several years in internal affairs and the management services part of the department,” Gavin said. “I know the functionings of the entire department, and I think that helps me do this job a little better.”