Rock Hill’s new police chief rises through ranks, seeks to leave a 'legacy'

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJanuary 12, 2013 

Rock Hill’s new police chief still answers to “captain.”

Half of employees at the police department call him “captain.” The other half calls him “chief,” he said on Friday, three days after he earned the higher title.

Except for the people who have worked at the department nearly as long as he, Chris Watts said most of the employees he now works with have only ever known him as “Captain Watts.”

And Watts, who on Tuesday was chosen to lead the city’s police department, has no qualms about it.

“I didn’t think I would be a shoe-in,” he said about his new office. “I thought I would be competitive. There were a lot of qualified candidates.”

Watts was one of three finalists for the job chosen from within the department. On Tuesday, City Manager David Vehaun announced that the 24-year department veteran would succeed John Gregory, who retired Dec. 1.

Watts is the first chief chosen from within the department in more than 30 years.

City council member John Black endorsed Vehaun’s selection.

“Chief Watts has the experience and skills to be an excellent leader,” Black said.

After graduating from Rock Hill High School and working at the Museum of York County, where he fed animals after school, and as a grocery bagger at the Community Cash grocery store, Watts began volunteering with the Rock Hill Rescue Squad.

From there, he thought his career was set: a lifetime of medical calls and on-site disaster rescue. It was “EMS or fire,” he said.

Things changed when he was hired full-time at Piedmont Medical Center as an EMT-intermediate. While working with EMS,he met part-time techs who also worked for the police department. After learning the nuances of their job, he decided to give law enforcement a try.

“I thought it would be an interesting career,” he said.

Interesting, shocking and heartbreaking

Early in his police career, Watts responded to an apartment after a dispatcher alerted police to a man threatening to cut his wrist. When Watts arrived, he found the man sitting in his bathroom, a blade in hand, cutting his arm slowly.

“I saw his arm open,” he said. The man didn’t flinch, but Watts paused.

Then, with other officers at his side, he acted, preventing the man from doing more damage, he said.

Some years later, when he was a sergeant, Watts met with a disgruntled mother fretting about her troubled son. She told Watts that she was fed up with taking care of the boy and didn’t want him anymore.

“That was heartbreaking,” he said. “No kid deserves to hear his mom say she doesn’t want him anymore.”

Through the years, Watts climbed the ranks, working as a patrol sergeant, patrol lieutenant, and investigator. He was the team leader on the SWAT unit and commanded the bomb squad.

After graduating from the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy, Watts was asked by former Chief Dave Fortson to manage the professional standards department while he was still a night shift patrol lieutenant.

In hindsight, “it was a great opportunity,” Watts said, admitting that for the first couple of years, he would’ve preferred “to go back out on the road.”

Now, he understands the impact of an administrative role in a police department. Duties, he said, include hiring and training officers, ensuring vehicles are well-maintained, supervising communications and dispatch, monitoring the jail and keeping the records division in regulation with state and federal standards.

Long term, short term goals

Watts’ first week in a new office was busy. His hands are still full with returning text messages and phone calls from well-wishers.

Within the coming weeks, he plans to make appointments with community and city leaders and introduce himself, he said. He wants to speak with each department employee and blend their ideas with proven tactics that have already worked for officers.

Some police chiefs inherit “broken” departments and have to be “change agents,” he said. But not at the Rock Hill Police Department.

“I have inherited a great department,” Watts said. “I can either make it better or I can make it worse.”

A long-term project of his includes a program to allow community volunteers to assist officers with various tasks, from records to the detective division. He also wants to investigate putting more officers “on the road.”

His “ultimate goal,” he said, is to one day hand over a better department to the next chief and leave “a legacy,” just like his predecessor did to him.

Chief Gregory emphasized community policing, launching initiatives that gave drug dealers a second chance by offering education and employment opportunities and developing tighter relationships with neighborhood advocates.

Watts said he plans to continue those initiatives

“You cannot arrest your way out of a problem,” he said.

Jonathan McFadden 803-329-4082

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