Despite unique circumstances, police chief insists she's an ordinary woman

October 28, 1990|By Linda S. Wallace | Linda S. Wallace,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

HOUSTON -- Elizabeth Watson was home being a mother to her son and daughter when she got the call. A Houston police officer had been critically injured, shot by a motorist.

Quickly, without changing from her dress, without waiting for her chauffeur, Ms. Watson drove to the hospital, arriving only minutes behind the ambulance carrying the body of Officer James Irby. By then, Mr. Irby's fellow officers were in mourning, wandering the halls.

Ms. Watson, facing the first killing of an officer during her time as the city's police chief, searched for words to comfort his family and friends but could not find them. And so the woman who normally is so cool, so calm, just fell apart.

"When I was at the hospital, I kept trying to think what I might do and say that would provide comfort and support for the family and to the officers who were so stricken and who had worked beside him," said Ms. Watson, her eyes misting.

"I found I was unable to -- there was nothing I could do except just fall apart. It was just terrible. It was awful. It was a helpless feeling."

Still, her actions showed that she put greater value on an officer's life than on her public image, said Mike Howard, president of the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union.

"She wasn't worried about putting on a full-dress uniform or dress-up clothes," Mr. Howard said. "She thought it was important to get there quick. Those other things didn't matter to her."

That is but one sign that the Houston Police Department is under new management and that their leader is very unlike her colleagues around the country.

Though she does not see herself as special -- "I am quite ordinary," she protests -- this chief, at age 41, is the only woman in the nation to head a major city police department.

This chief wears dark-colored maternity dresses, low black pumps and a smile to work every day. This chief is carrying her third child, due in December, and her pregnancy has been the talk of the town.

This chief will allow her eyes to fill with tears in times of deep emotion and strain. And she doesn't care what people think.

"What you see is what you get," she says.

But mostly, this chief wants to run this police department like no other police department in the world.

"We [in the Houston Police Department] tend to question something we are doing if everybody else is doing it," Ms. Watson said. "You know, 'Everybody does this, are we sure this is right?' "

In her first eight months as chief, Ms. Watson has faced difficulty from City Council as she has reorganized her command staff, and she has won support for a neighborhood-oriented strategy for police deployment, but still, nothing dramatic has emerged to shake up the profession. The subtle changes have blended into the routine.

Ms. Watson, for example, sets aside time to send notes to officers who have performed well. "When officers not only do the right thing, but the heroic thing, I have heard citizens say, 'So what, it is their job!' " the chief said.

So, Ms. Watson is writing thank-yous.

Ms. Watson got her first thank-you as a rookie police officer assigned to the juvenile division. Her path crossed that of a troubled girl arrested for shoplifting. She sat the child down for a long lecture that ended this way: "When you get caught again, you will go to jail. And I don't want you sitting behind bars wondering why nobody ever told you the price you pay for the trinkets you take.' "

A short time later, the girl's family sought out Ms. Watson and thanked her for turning their daughter's life around.

"I never forgot how good it felt," Ms. Watson said.

Ms. Watson was born Betsy Herrmann in Philadelphia to John and Elizabeth Herrmann on Aug. 25, 1949, the second of six children.

"I was painfully shy. Painfully shy," Ms. Watson said. "My parents were very protective.

"I guess I was shy partly because my older sister did everything for me. She protected me. She was always the leader. I never had to really do anything for myself. I was sheltered."

In 1963, the family left for Texas when her father took a job with NASA as an aerospace physicist.

As a child, Ms. Watson dreamed of being a botanist. But by the time she grew up, she had decided to get a degree in psychology. She graduated with honors from Texas Tech University in 1971.

She had a degree but no job. Her mother, Elizabeth, whose father and brothers have been Philadelphia police officers, convinced her that police work might be an exciting way to put her psychology degree to use.

Police work was something Ms. Watson thought that she would do until a better opportunity came along.

"I went into it thinking it was going to be quite temporary, partly because I had never considered law enforcement for myself and partly because there was no opportunity for advancement at that time. . . . There were really not that many opportunities [for women] to work outside one or two divisions."

Those two divisions were the juvenile center and jail.

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