Five years ago, the Mammoth Lakes Police Department and its chief, Randy Schienle, were taking heavy fire.
After two years of controversy, including investigations into four separate incidents and allegations, the chief read an eight-page letter to the Town Council in his own defense, and then resigned shortly thereafter.
The trust with the public, rightly or wrongly, was shot. The relationship with the council was, at best, tenuous. Not all of it was Schienle’s fault, and the officers stood by him, even while acknowledging that a new leader was probably the best thing for the town and the force.
Meanwhile, for one huge segment of our population—the Hispanic community—there was rampant fear, loathing, and distrust.
That’s when Dan Watson stepped in.
Watson’s accomplishments are lengthy, and examples of his leadership could fill a book.
But we like to think his work with the Hispanic community in our town serves as a great example of what police leadership is all about.
(For the Mammoth Times' P.1 news story about Watson's retirement/resignation, click HERE)
Watson says he did not come into town with an idea toward repairing the relationship with the Hispanic people. Rather, he signed up for a one-year deal to repair other pressing matters.
As is his style, however, he sat with each employee of the department, sworn officers and civilian, to get their takes.
Ruben Ramos and Art Torres, the two bilingual and bi-cultural officers, alerted him to the crisis between the department and the town’s Spanish speaking citizens.
In May 2011, Watson, along with then-Sheriff Rick Scholl and others, began a series of Town Hall-like meetings at the Village to begin the triage.
“I had no idea what the outcome was going to be,” Watson said. “Would anyone come? Would they be angry? But we filled the room; they were very distrustful; they asked questions mostly on cards because nobody wanted to step up to the microphone, but I sensed as the evening wore along that the tension in the crowd started to die down.
“So we’ve done this every six months, and Sheriff (Ralph) Obenberger did the same thing Sheriff Scholl did, and the atmosphere has changed. It’s now festive. They laugh, they’re not afraid to ask questions. We’ve succeeded in building trust and communications between us and members of the community.”
And so it has been with practically all of the citizens of this town.
Watson has built a police force in his own image: friendly, interested in what everyone and anyone has to say about anything at all; engaged in the community; on a solid footing with the Bear Whisperer and on great terms with the Town Council and town staff.
The Chief pops into our office at the newspaper frequently to talk about everything from the L.A. Kings (his son in law works for the Stanley Cup champs); USC football (he’s an alum); big-game hunting in Colorado (ka-boom); past political flare-ups (hilarious) in towns other than our own; the adventures of his beloved dog, Kelly, and his beloved wife, Kathy; his ongoing battle with a bear who LOVES his barbeque grill, and so on.
We’re going to miss all of that, but at least we have six more months to go with Chief Watson.
Pardon us if we are skeptical as to the utterly remote possibility that the next chief can possibly fill his shoes.