Las Vegas Sun

August 24, 2019

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Henderson’s new police chief is breaking down barriers and bringing a new perspective

LaTesha Watson

Christopher DeVargas

LaTesha Watson is Henderson’s new police chief.

The mountainous sights of Southern Nevada are still new to LaTesha Watson, and sometimes she looks up “and it seems like a painting in front of me,” she said in a January interview from her office. “There are no mountains in Texas.”

During a search in which about 90 candidates across the U.S. applied to become the top cop at the Henderson Police Department, Watson, 40, was chosen as police chief in September.

Previously, she served in East Texas where, at 36, she was the youngest officer — in age and tenure — to become a deputy chief at the Arlington Police Department.

She remembers her father pinning her badge on her shirt during that 2014 ceremony and the police chief’s remarks highlighting her accomplishments.

The list seemed to belie Watson’s age. Her climb through the ranks was fast-tracked because of “a lot of sacrifices and long nights,” Watson says. It hasn’t been difficult, but it’s involved a lot of work.

Watson brought her work ethic with her during her recent arrival to the desert.

In her first weeks on the job, she spent long hours in front of “every officer, every unit and every section of the police department,” Watson said. “It’s easy to send an email and talk about yourself, provide some insight and allow people to obtain information about you,” but face-to-face interactions are better.

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As a little girl, Watson dreamed of being an attorney. As an argumentative child, it seemed like the natural choice.

For years into her adulthood, she pursued that path, earning bachelor’s (criminal justice), master’s (criminology) and doctoral (management and organizational leadership degrees). Watson is now working on her second doctorate.

Policing snuck into her life as a high school student when she interned with the Hutchins Police Department.

As an undergrad, she got a job with the Lewisville Police Department, where among her “multitude of duties,” she worked at the front desk and filed incident reports. The department wanted her to commit to becoming an officer, “but the goal was never to be a police officer,” she says. “Things always take a turn.”

Watson graduated and immediately moved on to her next degree. She jokes that she and her sister have enough degrees to cover the third, fourth and fifth generations of their family.

“The idea of going to law school began fading into a distant memory,” Watson says of her time at the University of North Texas. She took time off and enrolled into a University of Phoenix doctoral program as she’d realized, “I just didn’t have the knack, I guess, to be an attorney.”

When Watson directed her focus to law enforcement, being a cop wasn’t her first choice. A hiring freeze during her attempt to become a U.S. Marshal steered her into policing.

It was 2002 when she joined the Arlington Police Department. She was promoted to deputy chief in 2014 and held that role until Henderson officials called her late last year.

Watson has had many mentors in law enforcement, including retired Santa Monica, Calif., chief of police Jacqueline Seabrooks, but above all, she credits her parents for helping her become the woman she is. “My parental upbringing has allowed me to come into the profession and actually add value to it, make changes and mentor other people to get them where they want to be,” she says.

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During her first two weeks in Henderson, Watson scheduled 30-minute blocks to meet with her officers, and in some cases, they were extended up to three hours. “That’s the only way you’re going to build a relationship, and you can’t obtain trust if you don’t work on obtaining that relationship first.”

It became her highest priority, she said. Watson is now in the process of assessing the state of the agency to try to understand the operational and administrative side. “That will give me some insight as to where we go from here,” she says.

Obvious and immediate goals include crime reduction and looking for growth in community engagement, fortifying current relationships.

Watson subscribes to modern law enforcement philosophies. “Policing is a profession that’s linked to, I would say, everything,” she says. Years ago, it was about enforcement. Now, officers are counselors, putting a lot of the action on the back burner.

The interactions are key. “Regardless of what rank we are,” compassion is crucial, Watson says.

Regarding strained relationships between the community and law enforcement, which are sometimes fueled by divisive political discourse, Watson says the agency has to be mindful and respectful of everyone’s opinions.

In her keynote speech to recent Henderson police academy graduates, she stressed this point. “The wrongdoings of the few take over the perception of the many.” And graduates must understand that there are about 18,000 police organizations in the country, and highly publicized incidents such as the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., can drastically change the environment everywhere.

“A lot of the actions of a few people have brought some of the issues in policing to the forefront,” she says. “So it’s important for us to understand that although our patches and our badges may say one city, we still represent the law enforcement profession as a whole.”

Watson prefers that her work — not her gender or skin color — speak for her as an officer. “Although I’ve been a black woman all my life, I don’t see that it’s necessarily had an impact,” she says.

But being a black woman has offered her unique experiences.

“I would say it’s important because the things that I’ve been through, I’m sure no one else on my command team has been through.

So that just adds value.”