San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman poses next to Capt. Thomas Underwood (second from left) with his family and Executive Assistant Chief Todd Jarvis (far right) at a ceremony marking his promotion, March 2017.
“A lot of it right now is just about getting to know the different people in the community,” Underwood said in an interview with KPBS on his day off. “I want to establish those relationships where people feel they can just pick up the phone if they have to.”
Underwood faces some challenges at Mid City, which covers communities including North Park, Normal Heights, Kensington, Talmage and City Heights, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the region and the frequent site of protests against police. (Although, except for a string of burglaries in Talmadge — which have since been solved — Underwood said his new assignment has been fairly quiet since he came on.)
The first thing you might notice about him is how young he looks, but Underwood has been with the department since 1993. The father of four and self-described coffee addict said he wanted to become a police officer after his twin brother became a cop in a different city.
“When he finally did get hired, I just saw, he bought a new car, had money to go out, and I just thought, ‘well crap, if he can do it, I can do it,’” he said, laughing.
Over the last 20-plus years, he’s held a number of roles with the San Diego Police Department, including with the southern and northern divisions, the gang suppression unit, training division, crime suppression team, sex offender unit, vice operations and professional standard unit, to name a few.
But Underwood says Mid City is his home. His first stint there started in the mid-90s, just after the substation opened. He explained back then, the caseload in a neighborhood like City Heights could be intense at times. He described following up on a vandalism call in 1997 that turned into a hostage situation. The suspect had driven back to a residence and was spooked when Underwood and his partner turned up. That’s when the suspect threatened relatives inside the house.
“And as we were in the house we saw that he had a 9-year-old boy with a knife to his throat, and so we were negotiating with him as kind of a stand-off in the house, and at one point the boy tried to grab the knife and we were able to jump on him and get him in custody,” Underwood said.
The situation could have resulted in a shooting, but no one got hurt. On a different Mid City call that next year, Underwood said that wasn’t the case. A suspect he was arresting at the time was wanted in another state, unknown to Underwood. When he put the cuffs on him, the suspect fought back and pulled a gun out of his waistband.
“And in the course of the fight, he ended up firing the gun, which went through him, and then into me, and then he was probably killed instantly at the time,” he said. “And then I ended up taking a round in the neck.”
At the time, his wife was pregnant with his twin sons. They’re now 18. He also has an 11-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
After having a bullet go through his neck and down his back, you’d think Underwood would’ve thought twice about returning to Mid City. But he said he returned to work a few months later and convinced his lieutenant — and his wife — that he wanted to stay at the substation a while longer. He later transferred to the southern division to get more experience, he said. He came back to Mid City later as a sergeant, and is now returning as a captain.
“I definitely never saw myself as a captain on the department when I came on, and then to find out I was going to the division I wanted to work, I couldn’t be happier,” he said of learning about the promotion.
Longtime community member and Teralta West Neighborhood Alliance President Maria Cortez said she was excited at the news too. She remembered when Underwood was a sergeant who attended the neighborhood meetings she led.
“He would write down notes and said, ‘Oh this is what’s happening with the community, this is how you feel about the gangs, well you know what, how about how would you feel if we would increase the patrols?'” said Cortez, who also works as a community safety assistant for the nonprofit City Heights Community Development Corporation.
That reputation stretches to Pacific Beach, where Underwood was a lieutenant before making captain. The community’s town council president Greg Daunoras said Underwood was effective in his role.
“He was a great source of information and a very, very approachable person,” Daunoras said.
Underwood said he’s working on creating an open dialogue with the community by making the rounds to community meetings in the neighborhood and attending a coffee with a cop event Thursday afternoon.
However, he wouldn’t allow the interview with KPBS to be filmed in his office because he felt it would be too “distracting” for the working officers. Instead, he sat for a two-hour interview on his day off and answered a series of community member questions submitted via social media.
The next question is, how long will Underwood remain at Mid City? The previous captain was there for just less than a year, and at least three of the names that rank above Underwood were a former Mid City division captain or lieutenant, including current Chief Zimmerman.
Pacific Beach’s Daunoras mentioned even in the division that serves his community, he has seen many supervisors come and go.
So, does Underwood intend for his portrait to move up alongside the photos of the commanding staff?
“No, I’m completely happy where I’m at,” he said with a chuckle. “I never even thought I would ever be a captain.”