La PORTE – Police Chief Thomas Owens announced Tuesday he will be leaving after 28 years with the La Porte Police Department, and denied that the controversy over a recent social media post that drew widespread backlash had anything to do with the decision.
Owens, appointed chief in October 2017, announced his retirement at the end of Tuesday’s Board of Public Works and Safety meeting.
“Without a doubt, the greatest honor of my career has been to serve as the Chief of Police for the City of La Porte," Owens wrote in a retirement letter, which was read aloud at the meeting by Mayor Mark Krentz.
"I’ve made La Porte my home and the citizens my family. I’ve had only two objectives during this [time of] employment, and that was to look out for everyone’s safety and do the very best that I [was capable]. I will miss the interactions with the great people of La Porte, as well as working with all of you. The city is moving forward in a positive direction because of the leadership, hard work and commitment that all of the city workers [possess].”
Owens has been in law enforcement for 31 years, the bulk of that with the La Porte Police Department. He leaves with an impressive resume, having worked as a Deep Cover Narcotics officer, Chief Detective Tactics instructor, rifle instructor, SWAT Team leader, senior instructor for the state of Indiana, patrolman, corporal, sergeant and captain.
“You’ve done a great job. I’ve certainly enjoyed working with you," Board of Works member Mitch Feikes told Owens. "You’ve really made a lot of great changes and your shoes will be hard to fill.”
Owens’ retirement is expected to be effective Oct. 1.
“It is bittersweet for me, but it is time for me to retire and transition into the next stage of my life,” Owens said.
The announcement comes at a time in which the chief has been surrounded by controversy.
In recent weeks, he has been the subject of heated criticism surrounding a social media post that spawned accusations of racism.
The Facebook post contained a photo claiming to depict U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar holding a rifle “at a training camp in Somalia.” The photo has been debunked as not being Omar, but a recruit from the then-U.S.-backed Somali Army from 1978.
After the photo was posted to Owens' personal page in late August, some members of the public responded with calls for his resignation, calling him a racist, Islamophobe and misogynist. Many others supported the chief, saying they'd known him for years and he was not a racist, and what he posted on his personal Facebook page should not affect his job.
Owens maintained he posted the photo to draw attention to the proliferation of “fake news” on the platform. He said he had intended to include a message that explained his reasoning behind posting the photo, but it was erroneously not included.
“I’m not sure if it was my error or Facebook’s error, but I added a message to the top of the post that said, ‘Really people, this is too far and not fair’,” Owens told The News-Dispatch after removing the post. “I do not stand for what that post was and I know it’s just more fake news.”
He deleted the post and put up a retraction, he said, explaining it went up without the intended message attached, he said.
Owens said Tuesday that the incident had nothing to do with his decision to retire.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with any of that stuff,” he said referring to the social media backlash.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. There’s nothing wrong with that – I’m still entitled to my freedom of speech. I explained what happened. Facebook is the most unreliable source of information,” Owens said.
Owens said the reason for his retirement is to move forward with another endeavor.
“I’ve been working with this company for over a year and half on a special project. About two months ago they offered me a full-time position. I can’t turn it down.” He did not disclose the name of the company.
The board voted to fill the vacant captain and patrol positions that will be left upon Owen’s departure from the department. Owens currently is serving in those positions as well.
A new police chief will be appointed by the mayor at a later date.