This is no ordinary police chief.
Dan Watson, officially Mammoth Lakes’ “interim” chief who is working on a one-year contract, greets visitors at the police station wearing the most unusual police uniform he’s ever worn.
Striped flannel shirt: Check. Blue jeans. Check. Comfortable shoes. Check. Big smile. Check.
“In my old job in South Pasadena, I always wore a uniform or coat and tie,” said the 59-year-old Watson.
“I haven’t worn a coat and tie since I got here.
“The only time I wore a tie here is when I had my interview. At my first Town Council meeting, I was in uniform, and that was the council meeting where the new members were sworn in. I looked at their attire, and one of them was wearing a T-shirt and the others were dressed very casually.
“I thought, well, I’ll follow the lead of my superiors. So when the weather’s warm, I’ll probably be in a Hawaiian shirt, and when it’s cold, I’ll wear a sweater or something like that.”
Watson is a big man with a big voice and a bigger laugh. He is gregarious and friendly, and in the seven weeks he’s had his hand on the tiller, so to speak, he’s attended just about every meeting and nearly every meet-and-greet in the area.
“I like what I do, and I like people,” he said during an interview in his office. “I like people, and I think I had a lot success in my previous job because I get active in the community, get to know a lot of people and I develop relationships with people.
“I think I’m a people person and I’d like to think that my reputation in South Pasadena was that I’m firm but fair, and reasonable.”
Watson is not all about South Pasadena, however. For 28 years he worked as a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. He made sergeant in 1979 and got his first command position in 1988.
And for all those years, not once did he set foot in Mammoth.
“Everybody I know, my brothers, my wife, my kids, all of them have been coming to Mammoth for years,” he said with a shrug. “I’m not a skier, and while Mammoth is only three miles off the highway, I thought it was way, way up in the mountains.
“I figured it was kind of like Big Bear, with a long, twisty road.”
Wrong and wrong again.
When he and his wife Kathy arrived for his job interview earlier this summer, it was somewhat of a revelation, he said.
“When we drove into town, it just felt good. It was an inviting community, and virtually everyone we met, in the hotel and the restaurants, was friendly and happy. This is a happy place.”
It’s not happy all the time, though. Otherwise, who’d need police? Watson said he knows that, and as he gets his feet on the ground – he’s been chief since early July – he’s starting to get to know the peculiar challenges of policing a tourist town in the California’s Eastern Sierra.
“It’s a whole different world,” he said. “I came from a town (South Pasadena) where we had very few liquor licenses and very little violent crime. Mostly we dealt with property crimes – car break-ins, stolen cars, that kind of thing.
“Here, I’m trading freeway fights and transportation issues for bears and bars. I know the bears aren’t a crime problem, but they sure do take a lot of our resources. And we have alcohol-related crime here because we’re a tourist town, and people come up here to unwind and party.”
As if on cue, earlier this month, Watson and his police force found themselves right in the middle of Bad Bear World, when a smallish, 150-pound bear chomped the arm of a vendor at the Labor Day Festival for the Arts in Sam’s Woods; at the same time a marauding bear in the Lakes Basin was busy busting into at least 19 cabins near Lake Mary.
On Tuesday, Watson’s police shot and killed that problem bear. With wildlife specialist Steve Searles on hand, police killed the bear after one of the residents produced a “depredation permit” from the California Department of Fish and Game. The permit authorized the action and officials from the DFG and the U.S. Forest Service approved the MLPD to act as the depredation permittee’s agent.
Another issue, he said, is the relationship between the MLPD and Mammoth’s large Hispanic population.
“I am aware there’s a portion of our community that feels they’re disenfranchised,” he said.
“We’d like to reach out and build bridges in the Spanish-speaking community, and that’s something we’re going to do. We’re going to start a series of meetings so we can discuss items of concern, dispel rumors and provide accurate information.”
With all this on his plate, one might think Watson has little time for relaxation, but when he does, he said he favors a mix of plain and unusual activities.
He said he was an active Rotarian in South Pasadena and that he intends to continue his activity here. He said he tries to get to Colorado at least once a year to do a little big-game hunting (deer and elk), and he tries to get on the golf course to play in about 10 tournaments a year, such as last weekend’s Mammoth Lakes Foundation tournament at Sierra Star.
He said he also likes pig hunting, and tries to get out in the woods once or twice a year. “There’s great pig hunting in California,” he said.
“I don’t do anything a lot,” he said. “I do a bunch of little things.”
He’s a bit of a collector. In his office is a collection of police hats and helmets, including three English bobby helmets and a fur-lined Russian police hat.
His taste in books and literature is split between fiction and nonfiction, he said, and the latest book he read was police writer Michael Connelly’s “The Nine Dragons,” although Watson said he’s not heavy into cop drama.
“I don’t like watching police shows on TV,” he said. “I have a hard time relating to them. But Connelly is good because had so much inside information about specific procedures, and because he had the police beat for the L.A. Times for so many years, when I read his stories, I’m there.”
As for cop movies, he said he’s watched “The Departed” three or four times and just flips over it.
“What I related to was some of the give-and-take, the cheap shots and messing with each other in the squad room. It was Boston language and Boston humor, but there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in a squad room in a tense situation like that.”
As for music, Watson is big on blues, not so much on classical, rap and hip-hop, and thought last summer’s Bluesapalooza was just about the best thing he’s seen and heard in Mammoth so far.
He said he and his wife are just starting the Mammoth Experience, so every day is a new day here. Kathy, a photography aficionado, puts up an image a day on her new blog, Mammoth Daily Photo, and the two of them enjoy strolling about town with their 14-year old Labrador Retriever, Daisy. (Their two cats don’t venture outside, but Watson said they’re digging the birds and squirrels from a window perch.) Their two grown children say they’ll visit over the upcoming holidays, and, all in all, life is good.
“We say that the worst thing that can happen is that we come here and stay for a year,” Watson said, palms turned up. “But in the meantime, we know we’re going to have a great experience, that we’ll meet some great people and that we’re going to make friends.
“Or, we’ll make this a permanent home and stay here forever. So far, we’re having a great time.”