Madera County Historical Society
Madera’s police force lined up for this photo in 1930. Second from the left is Walter Thomas, who was soon to become Chief. In the 1950s, Thomas encountered some political opposition and was demoted twice — once in 1950 and once in 1957. The lad in the middle is Thomas’ son.
It appears that petty politics finally got Walter Thomas. The Madera Police Chief was demoted in August of 1957 to Assistant Chief. After almost 30 years at the helm of the department, he acquiesced in the face of the political machinations of a few elected officials. On the surface, it looked like a raw deal, but it didn’t fluster Chief Thomas. After all, he had been through it once before. This was the second time the rug had been pulled from under him.
It is difficult to determine just when the political opposition to Chief Thomas began to coalesce. The record shows that by 1950, some members of the City Council began to cast baleful eyes his way. By late fall the political climate grew stormy, and on Nov. 6, 1950, the Madera City Council voted to relieve Chief Thomas of his position and replace him with Mike Elliott, a highly touted “boy wonder” from Oregon. Thomas was kept on as assistant chief.
The ostensible reason for Thomas’ shabby treatment was a desire on the part of the City Fathers to “modernize” the police department, but within 18 hours of their removal of the Chief, they had to reinstate him. It seems that “Boy Wonder” wasn’t all that he had claimed to be.
If Chief Walter Thomas held any bitterness, he didn’t display it in public. He went about his work just as he had always done, but apparently someone in City Hall had a long memory. History doesn’t tell us who was leading the charge inside the council chambers, but in 1955, Chief Thomas was under the microscope again. The forces of modernization were mobilizing once more.
Although Thomas survived the rough and tumble of that year, the dye was cast. It was simply a matter of time before he would be relieved of his duties again. That time drew near on January 16, 1957. The City Council, urged on by the District Attorney, hired a police expert from Berkeley, B.W. Sickler, to examine Chief Thomas’ police methods.
Sickler dug right in and was in the process of going through the department with a fine tooth comb when the Council received a bombshell of a letter from the Madera County District Attorney in which he proposed that Madera get completely out of the police business and contract with the Sheriff’s office for protection. The D.A. got no support for his plan, however, and Sickler went on with his work.
On February 12, 1957, the consultant presented his finished product, a 120-page report to the City Council. Curiously the document urged that a “rift between the department and the district attorney’s office be healed.” Clearly the county’s top attorney had an axe to grind with Walter Thomas.
On February 19, 1957, the City Council acted upon Sickler’s evaluation “with no more than the required acceptance,” since the councilmen had not read it! Chief Thomas bore the brunt of the criticism, as the consultant described Madera as “inadequately policed.”
For his part, Chief Thomas acknowledged that Sickler had pointed out some areas in which improvement was needed, but in some of his allegations, Sickler “didn’t know what he was talking about.”
The District Attorney, on the other hand, let Thomas have it with both barrels. He charged that his office had had to handle several felony cases as misdemeanors because of “inadequate investigation” by the Madera police. Then in a telling statement, the D.A. announced, “Now the people of Madera know why I’ve taken the position I have during the past two years,” and now Thomas knew for sure who his nemesis had been for so long.
The District Attorney went on to point out that the City Council really had only two alternatives. Turn the city’s police duties over to the Sheriff or hire another chief. They chose the latter alternative.
W. Horace Dowell was chosen as Madera’s Chief of Police on July 16, 1957. The 43 year-old lawman was lured away from the Santa Paula police force where he had attained the rank of Captain. Within days Dowell was in Madera, and on August 1, 1957, he put on a uniform and took command.
At his side, as his assistant, was former Chief, Walter Thomas, and once more the old Madera lawman displayed an abundance of class. He endorsed Dowell and urged everyone else to do the same, even Councilman Arthur Avellar, who had voted against the appointment of Dowell. In a public statement, Thomas called upon “all of the citizens of the town to get behind him (Dowell),” and expressed the hope that the “bickering would finally come to an end.”
Walter Thomas continued his service to Madera until his retirement a couple of years later. There is no evidence that he ever wallowed in self-pity or looked for sympathy. That just wasn’t in his character. Selfish pride didn’t get in the way of his concern for Madera.
One has to wonder if some people weren’t just a little embarrassed as they watched the former Chief take that high road, never to leave it.