Throughout almost three decades in law enforcement, Sgt. Marilyn Thompson has often felt conflicted about how gender and race have impacted her career as a police officer.
“I’m a triple threat. Being a female is a threat. Being Black is a threat, and being a police officer in a threat,” Thompson said.
While attending leadership training classes at the University of Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute, Thompson compiled her personal experiences and relevant research into an academic paper.
“The paper dealt with the things I had to go through when I started in law enforcement,” Thompson said. “Things are better, but I had to deal with a lot of things in the police department, racism, and sexism. It resonated that I needed to write about what I had experienced.”
Though her paper, “Triple Threat: Black, Female, With a Badge,” was published a few years ago, the subject has found new relevance in the wake of national protests around the country. Her story has been told recently in The Trace and other media outlets. Thompson has received positive feedback from fellow police officers who see themselves in her story.
“I got feedback from a lot of females who are captains and chiefs. When they saw that article with The Trace, it got close to home,” Thompson said. “The people who are contacting me are saying they are glad someone was daring enough to tell our story.”
Thompson’s research has shown that more women, particularly Black women, can be advantageous to police forces. While women police officers still face discrimination and bias, they are often better at de-escalating dangerous situations and show sensitivity while working with diverse communities.
“It would benefit the police to have more female police officers overall,” Thompson said.
One of the young student patrol officers whom Thompson mentored in her early days on the university police force now serves as the police chief, Regina Wade-Carter.
“I was actually finishing up my undergraduate degree on the student patrol division, and she just took me under her wing and mentored me,” Wade-Carter said. “Sgt. Thompson knew it was my senior year at UA Little Rock, and I told her my career goals. She guided me through the whole process of working at the campus police department, and she always told me education was the key. It was good to hear that from another black female. She was just trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”
The UA Little Rock Police Department has 26 police officers with about nine women and 20 Black officers and additional staff members.
“You don’t often find as diverse a department as we have in the South,” Wade-Carter said. “Besides me, Sgt. Thompson is the only African American female that has rank in the UA Little Rock Police Department. She’s the only female sergeant and the only African American one as well. It’s hard to find a particular department with that kind of diversity, and I take pride in that. I know Sgt. Thompson has had offers to go other places, but she’s stayed because of the diversity and makeup of the department and what she has contributed.”
Even though many people in her family distrust the police, Thompson had positive experiences with police officers from a young age.
“In the African American community I grew up with, there was a general distrust of police officers, but I never had that, even when a police officer took my dad to jail when he hit my mom,” Thompson said. “He told me that he was taking my dad to keep my parents safe, and he would bring him back. I was 4.”
Another interaction with a place officer came when Thompson was 10, and an older cousin said they could make some money by gathering some crates from a nearby construction site. A police officer drove up and explained that Thompson was stealing, something she hadn’t understood from her cousin’s explanation. The police officer gave Thompson a dollar and told her not to do it again.
Thompson decided to become a police officer while attending college. Originally a computer science and accounting major at UA Little Rock, Thompson realized she didn’t enjoy studying these subjects. During a career fair, she spoke with a recruiter from the Dallas Police Department and then switched her major to criminal justice the very next day.
Thompson graduated from UA Little Rock in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a minor in psychology. She graduated from the Little Rock Police Academy in 1990, one of only three black women and seven women altogether in the class of 40.
A little after a year with the Little Rock Police Department, Thompson was in a car accident that badly injured both her knees. When she was ready to return to work over a year later, a friend told her about the UA Little Rock Police Department. Thompson joined in 1994 and is now celebrating her 27th year on the job.
“I love what I do,” Thompson said. “I love helping people. I love seeing a light in someone’s eyes. I’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
Around campus, Thompson is known for her community-oriented policing style. She is well known by students and employees alike and often leads workshops on campus safety and women in law enforcement.
“Sgt. Thompson is dedicated to her craft,” Wade-Carter said. “She takes her position seriously, and she is well loved and respected in the community, not just on campus but in the surrounding neighborhoods that we patrol. She cares and it’s genuine and people can see that. She will go out of her way to help an individual in need.”
In 2016, Thompson was named the university’s Police Officer of the Year. She has also been honored for her participation in the Drug Enforcement Agency’s National Prescription Drug Take Back program. In 2018, Thompson was one of five UA Little Rock police officers honored for their part in saving the life of a man found unresponsive in his vehicle.
When asked about how to improve relations between police and the community, Thompson said that better recruiting and training can make a big difference.
“It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but it only takes a few seconds to tear it down,” Thompson said. “We got to do better recruiting and better training in the police academy, so you can weed them out before they get on the street. Then you wouldn’t see cases like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.”