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May 24, 2022

‘Passion for justice’ sparked Thompson’s career path

After more than two decades with the Watsonville Police
Department – his entire law enforcement career – Lt. Darren
Thompson will don his blue uniform for a last time Wednesday before
trading it for the green and khaki of his new job.
Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

After more than two decades with the Watsonville Police Department – his entire law enforcement career – Lt. Darren Thompson will don his blue uniform for a last time Wednesday before trading it for the green and khaki of his new job.

Thompson will be sworn in as the newly elected San Benito County sheriff Jan. 3.

“I have no doubt he’ll serve the people of San Benito County with dignity and distinction just as he has (here),” said Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano.

Solano promoted Sgt. Terry Traub to lieutenant as Thompson departs.

Thompson, who grew up on Santa Cruz’s Westside and worked at Linda Vista Market on Mission Street while attending Cabrillo College, said a “passion for justice” sparked his desire to become a police officer.

“I was the grocery clerk who chased down the shoplifter, the kid on the playground who befriended the kids picked on by the bullies,” Thompson said.

When he applied to join the Watsonville force in the late 1980s, there were so many applicants that the written exam was held in the gym at Rolling Hills Middle School. But in 1988, at age 24, he got the spot.

Watsonville’s population has doubled since then, so has its police force, Thompson said. But the crime rate has come down, he said, crediting his fellow officers as well as the community, which made public safety a priority.

Thompson was part of the motorcycle unit for seven years — a job he enjoyed because it put him in close contact with the community. In the 1990s, he was a training officer, stressing professionalism and values to rookies in the wake of the highly publicized beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. The incident gave all police departments a black eye, Thompson said.

“Looking back, it’s a reminder we need to function as guardians of our profession,” he said.

In 1998, he became the department’s first detective dedicated to domestic violence, and within a few years was promoted to patrol sergeant. In 2007, he was upgraded to lieutenant, and put in charge of investigations.

He said he’ll tap that experience as sheriff, but he’ll still have much to learn, running a jail and a coroner’s unit, for example.

Asked whether he expected to win when he decided to run for sheriff at the urging of friends earlier in the year, Thompson broke into laughter. He considered himself the underdog – a perspective widely shared.

Thompson, who’s lived in Hollister for seven years but has never worked there, scraped into second place in a four-way primary race against candidates with stronger community credentials. But, with just 24 percent of the vote, he was well behind the frontrunner, then Undersheriff Patrick Turturici, for the runoff.

Thompson soon found a winning strategy though. He said he plays guitar with a Christian worship band, and shortly after the primary, was invited to perform at a NASCAR event at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma. During competition afterward, he watched champion driver Jimmy Johnson stuck behind the lead car. Then, the first-place driver made a mistake, hit a wall, and Johnson pulled ahead for the win.

Driving home, Thompson realized the race could be a model for his own.

“I decided I’d run as clean and smart a race as I could and if my opponent made a mistake, I’d go on by him,” he said.

Turturici’s campaign fell apart in late October amid allegations of unethical politicking at work, and Thompson won in a landslide.

“I stayed focused on my race, and took the checkered flag,” Thompson said. “Way back in June, I had the vision right.”

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