Willie Thompson, a Uniondale man who overcame his distrust of law enforcement to join the NYPD, is only days away from shedding his probationary status and fully joining the ranks of New York’s Finest.
And it never would have happened had he not met a pair of Nassau County police officers when he was a teen.
“They were definitely like father figures in my life,” Thompson said of his mentors, Daniel Johannessen and Bob Graves, both community affairs officers who run the Nassau police department’s Law Enforcement Exploring program.
The program gives teens a snapshot of life as a police officer — which, for Thompson, was met with some hesitation.
Thompson, 25, was adopted as a boy by his mother, Sally McCollough, a nurse who works the overnight shift at a Far Rockaway hospital.
He was more of a class clown than a troublemaker at Uniondale High School, but often was tempted to join gangs by his friends, he said.
Though he considered it, Thompson couldn’t get past the gang-initiation beatings or the objections from his mother.
Meanwhile, Johannessen started recruiting missions for the Exploring program in October 2007 at the school and met Thompson, then a 14-year-old freshman. It took the future cop two years before he joined, dragging his feet because of the mistrust of police that was ingrained in him by his friends at an early age.
“Every time they [neighborhood youth] see a police officer they think someone is getting locked up,” Thompson said. “In my neighborhood, even if you were just hanging out and a cop stopped us, you’re running just because. You don’t even have to be doing anything. That’s just how it was.”
Thompson’s mistrust of police began to erode after he joined the school’s military drill team and slowly began to build a relationship with Johannessen. It was his desire to be part of the Exploring program’s drill team that helped wear away his mistrust of police, he said.
Thompson remembers the stares he got in his neighborhood walking around in his Exploring uniform. One by one his gang-affiliated friends fell out of his circle, replaced with new friends in the Exploring program — with Johannessen and Graves slowly taking a larger role in his life.
“Before I met them, I didn’t have a steady head on my shoulders,” Thompson said. “I didn’t have a goal or a focus. I was just going through life without a direction.”
“He was always embracing of the program,” Graves said. “Any interactions we had with him, it was always full bore, with gusto. All the drills, all the role-playing exercises. Everything.”
Johannessen and Graves pushed him to become a police officer after he graduated high school, but Thompson declined to take the entrance exams for both Nassau and Suffolk police departments, fearing he would fail the test, Thompson said.
Then, in December 2012, his mentors tricked him into taking the NYPD entrance exam, telling him he was being fitted for a new uniform when they had really signed him up for the test, Johannessen said.
“Maybe he’s afraid to take it, but let’s just take him there,” Johannessen said, recalling the ruse. “He’s got a choice, he can either wait outside ... or, he’s going to go and take it.”
Thompson took the test, passed and eventually became an NYPD recruit.
“He stands out because he’s the one who showed up to everything. He’s the one that led them,” Johannessen said of Thompson’s Exploring group, explaining why the duo helped Thompson. “The ones that give to us, we’re going to give back.”
The pair each gave him $2,500 from their own pockets for supplies and uniforms to make sure Thompson made it through the police academy in College Point, Queens.
In a statement, acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter praised Johannessen and Graves for “exhibiting so many positive attributes which assisted Officer Thompson to become a Police Officer.”
Now Thompson is paying it forward — opting for the midnight shift patrolling housing projects in Harlem just so he can spend his days volunteering with the Exploring program.
He’s made about 50 arrests in fewer than two years on the job, including catching a graffiti artist, chasing down a Citi Bike thief, and making multiple drug arrests, NYPD officials said. He loses his probationary status and becomes a full-fledged officer on Saturday.
But the real challenge, Thompson said, is turning around the distrust of law enforcement among young people in the neighborhood — the same distrust he had when he was young.
“I understand exactly where they’re coming from,” Thompson said. “I want to affect the community, whether it’s the explorer program or whether it’s crime. I want to affect the community in some way. I want the community to know who I am, because my voice matters.”