YORK — When Police Chief Bill Mobley started working at the York Police Department in 1967, there were no radios for communication with officers.
Instead, there was a lone light that hung beneath the traffic signal on sleepy York's downtown's Main Street. If an officer was needed back at the police station, that light would be turned on.
"That was the signal to come back to the station," recalls Mobley, now 65.
Mobley - known as one of the longest-serving law enforcement leaders in York County - is leaving the beat at the end of this week after logging 43 years with the York Police Department. Over the decades, he has climbed the ranks, from police dispatcher to patrol officer to captain and police chief.
And he has watched the department grow from seven employees to 34, while the profession of law enforcement has enjoyed nothing short of a revolution. In Mobley's early days, he said, police work was based on memory. "Everything was written down on a piece of paper," he said. "If there was an outstanding warrant, you had to rely on memory."
Now officers are aided in their work with computer databases and the specialized fields of DNA testing and criminal profiling.
But perhaps most important, Mobley has gained the respect and admiration of his community and his colleagues. When he was thanked for his service earlier this month by the York City Council - which named a police training room in his honor - the crowd of spectators stood and applauded. One of his officers sat in the back of the room and quietly wept.
"He wanted the best department that York could have, and he built that department," said York Mayor Eddie Lee, who admired Mobley's dedication to the job and his commitment to York.
Mobley worked with the council to get the department accredited, and he placed an emphasis on training officers, Lee said. And, in his last year on the job, he worked tirelessly to arrest the suspects in two York murders - the high-profile killing of former York mayor and prominent attorney Melvin Roberts, found strangled outside his home in February 2010, and the 2008 shooting death of Ernest Tolbert, a longtime York city streets and sanitation worker.
"What Bill Mobley did in his last year is what he did in his 43 years," Lee said. "He painstakingly collected evidence, he pursued leads, he investigated crimes and he arrested suspects in both cases."
Roberts' girlfriend, 66-year-old Julia Phillips, is charged with murder in his death. And York resident Jomar Robinson is accused of killing Tolbert in a suspected robbery gone bad as Tolbert was working his second job at a Blackburn Street coin laundry.
Mobley said he had known both victims for decades; he responded to the scene of the Roberts killing within a few minutes of the call.
Roberts was a friend who often brought candy by the police department at the holidays.
Tolbert "was one of those guys that would give you the shirt off his back, and there was no reason to shoot him," he said.
Those sorts of cases take an emotional toll on a police officer, Mobley said. "It's not that bad when you're working, as when you go home - you have time to sit down and think about it."
Mobley said he often lost sleep thinking about the killings. But he did what police officers learn to do. "You've really got to put your feeling aside and concentrate on your job," he said.
Mobley, who grew up in York and graduated from York High School, didn't really set out to be a police officer. It just sort of happened.
After serving in the U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Mobley came back to his hometown and started working as a butcher at the local Winn-Dixie store, recalls his wife, Emily Mobley. He enjoyed the work, she said, and he was good at it.
But one day, in the first year of their marriage, he came home and told her that he'd been offered a job with the York Police Department. And he really wanted to take it, she said.
"He took a big cut in pay to be a police officer," she recalled. "But he said it's something he'd always been interested in. I said, 'This is your decision. If you think we can get by, go ahead.'"
Started as a dispatcher
Mobley started working as a police dispatcher, she said, but he soon became a patrol officer. To help make ends meet in the early years, she said, he worked two part-time jobs, as a meat cutter and with the city maintenance department.
She often fretted about her husband's safety out on the street. One night, she said, Bill Mobley stopped a car in which five criminal suspects were riding. Before calling for a backup car, she said, he got the suspects out of the car and arrested them.
When a backup unit was called and the suspects were frisked for weapons, she said, one of them dropped a gun. The suspect "could have shot him before the backup arrived," Emily Mobley said.
Later, when he became captain, he was often away from Emily and their three daughters, working nights, holidays and weekends.
"There was a time when my children were little on Christmas morning when they would have to wait until 11 or 12 o'clock until they could see what was there for them, because he was working and he wanted to be there," she said. "And he could not go out with them on Halloween. I did that. But they understood."
The police department became family, she said, and Mobley sometimes invited officers to his home for hash and Brunswick stew.
When two of the department's officers were shot and injured during a call many years ago, Emily Mobley heard the call on a police radio she kept at home. Then she heard her husband on the radio, calling in help. Neighbors, family and friends lined up on her porch as they waited for news.
"I just cried, because I knew it was one of his officers, and that he was part of our family," she said of the shooting, after which both officers recovered. "That's how close we were."
'A big history'
Mobley seemed to have a natural instinct for police work, Emily Mobley said, often quietly pondering a case and considering leads and suspects. "He knew. He could tell you. Then they'd have to prove it."
Mobley also forged successful connections in the community where he'd grown up, and where his children are raising their families.
He volunteered as a captain of the York Rescue Squad, worked as a volunteer firefighter and, at one point, as volunteer fire chief. He coached a Little League team for 30 years and was involved with a youth fishing tournament, "Get Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs."
"He has a big history behind him," Emily Mobley said. "And he did dangerous things. He'd go in houses, and they'd be on fire. It has filled his life, and he's going to miss it a lot."
Though many law enforcement officers have unlisted phone numbers, to prevent strangers from calling, Mobley's number is still in the book - and he often gets calls or visits at home.
He said he doesn't mind - in fact, he sees it as part of the job. "I feel that's one of my responsibilities, if someone has a problem that I can help them with, if it's something important," he said.
Mobley had considered retiring from the department several times over the years. But in 2000, he was offered the chance to be chief.
He told his wife he wanted to take it. He could upgrade equipment, change personnel policies, upgrade the manuals and modernize the department. And he did, working with the council to update the department office, renovated for $1 million in 2004.
Although Mobley acknowledges that police work is not an easy way to make a living, he enjoyed the greatest rewards from working with the community. "I've met so many interesting people in my career, it's been unreal," he said.
But earlier this year, Mobley said he knew it was time to retire. Emily Mobley didn't believe he really would at first. And she is sad to see him leave. "He did such a good job, and he was happy with his job," she said.
York's new police chief, former Fort Mill Police Capt. Andy Robinson, started work earlier this month so he would have a chance to learn the ropes before Mobley departs. Mobley said he'll miss his work, but he is looking forward to having some time off.
"We've got some good officers that are still here that are going to be a great benefit to him," he said about Robinson. "The biggest thing is just sitting and talking to people and listening to people."
Mobley said he plans to spend some time with his eight grandchildren and enjoy hobbies such as hunting, fishing and golf.
"I've worked for so long that getting up after the first of January and not having to worry about going to work - that's going to be a completely different feeling," he said.