• U.S.

ELIZABETH WATSON: Reforming Our Image Of a Chief

11 minute read
Walter Shapiro

At 8 in the morning, the Houston police chief is doing what she does best: preaching the gospel of change. “It’s time to stop treating police officers as automatons,” Elizabeth Watson declares to 40 impassive police sergeants, the middle managers of her department, all but a handful of them men. “None of us want to go back to the control-oriented, negative-discipline sort of time.” There are a few nods as Watson, a forceful speaker, reminds them of the days when the informal police motto was “Nobody ever got fired for doing nothing.” All grist for her message: Watson is committed to the citywide adoption of Neighborhood Oriented Policing, the experimental program that her predecessor and mentor, Lee Brown, championed. “If we continue as we have done in the past,” she says, “we’re doomed.”

Thirteen hours later, Watson is co-starring with Mayor Kathryn Whitmire at a community meeting in Acres Homes, a high-crime black neighborhood. Whitmire and Watson are an odd pair, two very different feminist success stories. Dressed in bright colors, the two-term mayor is poised, polished and political. The chief, who in February became the first woman to head a major urban police department, is passionate, very pregnant and plainclothed in a black maternity dress. “The most important job in the police department is not my job,” she says, “but the uniformed officer on the street. And right now, unless he has your help, that officer feels stymied.”

A long day by anyone’s standards, and especially for a 41-year-old police chief who is scheduled to give birth to her third child next month. With Ann Richards just elected Governor and Whitmire as mayor, most gender-based expectations have been shattered in Houston. But the extreme novelty of her situation is not lost on Watson. “I find myself wondering if there will ever be another pregnant police chief,” she says. “This may be a one-time deal. Most people who make it to the rank of chief tend to be older and gray haired.”

Stubbornness more than ambition fueled Betsy Watson’s 17-year rise through the ranks — an odyssey that carried her from the days when she was expected to sew her own uniform in the police academy to an era in which the chief is inundated with baby showers. Despite her badge, Watson was mostly involuntarily shielded from hazardous duty. Her brief rotation to the SWAT team meant that she worked the radio. Her husband Robert, seemingly content with his own status as a police sergeant, had to coax her into bucking for each promotion. In 1980, when as a detective she was prematurely transferred out of the burglary division because she was a woman, Watson retaliated by taking the civil-service exam for lieutenant. She says, “I had extreme determination that I would be promoted out of that situation.”

That elevation — making her one of the top two women in the department — hastened her transformation from policewoman to bureaucrat. To help compensate for her lack of street savvy, Watson volunteered to supervise the night shift at one of the toughest substations. “When it was announced at roll call that I would be the lieutenant, there was a lot of booing and hissing,” she recounts. “It was very rocky at first. But it didn’t take long for a couple of sergeants to notice I was working very hard even if they didn’t like me.” By the mid-1980s, Watson had become a protege of Lee Brown, the city’s first black police chief, imported from Atlanta to shake up a scandal-scarred, good-ole-boy department. As one of Brown’s “kamikaze kids,” Watson radiated an I’m-brighter-than-you-a re aggressiveness with comments like “that’s a spurious argument.” But as assistant chief Tom Koby, a reformist ally, puts it, “Betsy’s a highflyer, a racehorse. Everyone who’s done battle with her, she’s kicked their butt.”

When Brown left Houston early this year to become police commissioner in New York City, Watson was one of a handful of internal candidates to succeed him. As deputy chief, she had directed the Westside Command Station, the site of Brown’s initial experiment in Neighborhood Oriented Policing. (NOP, sometimes sneeringly called Nobody on Patrol, is a set of procedures designed to reward police officers for taking more initiative instead of merely responding to radio calls.) Even though Brown now confides that he had been grooming Watson as a potential police chief for Houston or elsewhere, she was hesitant to go after the job.

From her perspective, the $93,000-a-year post seemed more albatross than opportunity. “The feeling was, whoever took the job was doomed to failure,” Watson recalls. “Police morale was as low as any of us had ever seen it, and community tensions were higher than any of us could remember.” With two young children at home (Susan, 9, and Mark, 5), Watson was painfully aware of what the promotion would mean to her family. “The trade-offs were obvious,” says her husband, who is nicknamed “Chase” within the family. Watson is a religious Catholic, and her brother John Herrmann, a chemical engineer with NASA, recalls that “she spent a lot of time at Mass praying over doing the right thing.” Watson even managed to convince herself that she had withdrawn her candidacy by telling the mayor, “It’s an awesome responsibility and a tremendous personal sacrifice, and I’m just not that noble.” But the message was lost on Whitmire, who needed to name someone from within the department. Still, when an adviser first suggested Watson, the mayor asked, “You mean they’d accept a woman?”

The answer — surprising to those with fixed images of Texas macho culture — was unequivocally yes. “I don’t think the fact that the chief’s a woman plays any negative role with the rank and file,” says Mark Clark, president of the city’s largest police union. “She worked her way to the top. She never had anything given to her.” The same refrain is heard during a gripe session with beat cops at a police station in a rough neighborhood. To them, Brown was anathema, an outsider, but Watson is almost family. About the harshest assessment of Watson came from a sergeant: “When she was a patrolman, she couldn’t ride the streets. So you can’t blame her for not having that experience. But you can blame her for not listening to those who do.”

When Watson was named police chief, she had scant expectation that she would rapidly become a case study in modern maternity. “The pregnancy was a surprise for us,” says Chase. “We worried that it would be an embarrassment. That people might say, ‘Wouldn’t you just know a woman chief would do this to us?’ ” Any criticism was deflected by Watson’s refusal to regard her pregnancy as an impediment, other than planning to take a six-week maternity leave after the baby arrives. Watson’s older sister, Karen Philippi, who is a manager with the Houston water department, likens her to “women who used to have their babies in the field and go on picking cotton.” True, but her condition did force Watson to reluctantly turn down a trip to California to appear on To Tell the Truth. The punch line, of course, would have been, ; “Will the real Houston police chief please stand up?”

Naturally reserved and intensely private, Watson seems bemused by the visibility that has grown in tandem with her condition. “I think Betsy’s having a wonderful time with it,” says Sarah McGaughran, her closest friend since high school. Other friends find it ironic that Watson has modeled maternity clothes in the Houston Post. “What amazes me is the notion of Betsy Watson as a fashion statement,” laughs Koby. “She’s always had the reputation for being the worst-dressed and worst-coiffured person in the department.” Hollywood could fix that. Lee Brown predicts that “they will make a movie of her life someday.”

It is hard to imagine a screenwriter doing justice to Watson’s real-life complexity. Her feminism, such as it is, does not fit cinematic cliches. Watson originally applied to the police department because working in its juvenile division seemed a more apt use of her psychology degree from Texas Tech than taking stenographic dictation at the city tax department. But when McGaughran heard about this career move, she asked, “Are you sure? Have you considered the cut of their uniforms?” McGaughran stresses that “Betsy and I are pretty traditional homebodies. This thing with the police department was just a progression. It wasn’t Gloria Steinem. She wasn’t doing it to prove a point.” Watson describes her anger when she was told in the early 1980s that she could not be a supervisor in an investigative division because it was “too tough a job for a woman.” But she rejected the idea of filing a job- bias complaint. “My sense was that if I were to throw a tantrum,” she explains, “it probably wouldn’t be an effective strategy. Catching flies with honey was a better approach.”

Her marriage also defies easy stereotypes. Betsy and Chase met in late 1973 when they were both assigned to the Houston jail, and they began dating the following spring. Since such fraternization was frowned upon, they used a police scuba-diving club as a cover. “We like to have the illusion that we keep our private and professional lives separate,” Chase says. “But the day we got married, Betsy got promoted to detective.” There were so many police officers at the 1976 wedding reception, Chase recalls, “that we had a sign to hang your guns at the door, just like the old West.”

At 6 ft. 5 in., with blond hair, Chase does not seem the type to win a Legion of Merit from Ms. magazine. “On weekends he’s wearing his cowboy hat and driving his pickup,” says Betsy’s brother John, who is their next-door neighbor in Clear Lake, just south of Houston’s city limits. “You’d equate that kind of Texan with a male chauvinist.” Wrong. Watson describes her husband as “extremely self-confident and self-assured. And my success does not jeopardize his own masculinity or feelings of worth.” But that power balance shifts the moment they walk through the front door. “At home, Chase is the center of the family,” John explains. “Betsy makes sure that Chase’s needs are satisfied.”

Watson’s entire social life revolves around her three sisters, two brothers and their families. They all — aside from a younger brother — live in Clear Lake, as did Watson’s mother until she moved to a nursing home this year. “When we get together, we talk about children, sales at the local stores and picking out floor tiles,” says Ginger Quinn, a younger sister who is a captain with — yes — the Harris County sheriff’s department. The entire family moved to Houston from Philadelphia in 1963 when Betsy’s father John Herrmann became a project manager for NASA, working on the lunar module. He died in 1976, but his influence lives on in his second-oldest child. “Growing up, Karen and Ginger were very outgoing, but I was shy,” Watson says. “Our father kept reassuring all of us that we could do anything we wanted to do. We were as smart as anyone we would meet in our lifetime.”

After nine months in office, Watson has had partial victories (a long- overdue 6% pay raise for the department) and bitter setbacks (the city council rejected a group of her nominees for assistant chiefs — two white males and a Hispanic woman). Alfred Calloway, a black councilman who opposed Watson’s choices, stresses that little of the opposition was directed at her personally. “There’s still an old Southern gentleman sort of thing here,” he says. “They might be giving her more trouble if she weren’t pregnant.”

Watson is not using her condition as an excuse to back away from controversy. At a recent council meeting, the police chief stood by her rank and file and politely dissented from portions of the mayor’s proposals to the state legislature. The issue was an arcane question of police arbitration procedures, but the symbolism was apparent. “You have no idea how rare it is for a department director to disagree with the mayor,” says councilman Vince Ryan. “I don’t think Whitmire was real pleased. But the only way she could fire the chief is because of a terrible gaffe.” Still, Watson is aware of the risks: “I remember saying before I took the job that I needed three years to retirement, and the average chief lasts two and a half.” She laughs and says, “I guess I’ll need six months somewhere.” Maybe not, for this police chief’s career seems pregnant with possibilities.

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