University Police Department (UPD) Chief Bill Watton retired last December after more than 11 years at Cal Poly. Though he is technically finished at UPD, Watton does not plan to step down as acting police chief until a replacement is found.
Family dynamics factored into his decision to retire, he said. Watton’s mother and sister both died at young ages, and his older brother recently suffered a stroke.
“I’d been kind of going back and forth for a while, thinking about retiring,” he said. “I’m just getting older, and there are things I want to do before I can’t do them anymore.”
Watton, 62, said he made his decision soon before announcing it to his department in December. Though he did not retire until late last year, Watton said he had been considering the possibility for some time.
“I’ve been thinking about it the last couple years,” he said. “You try to plan, make sure you have money to retire on, all that kind of stuff. But the stars lined up, and I just thought, ‘Well, now’s a good time.’”
The search for a new police chief is already underway, vice president of administration and finance Karen Webb said. The university is creating a new job description for the position and advertising the opening. Webb said no individual the department is currently targeting to take Watton’s position.
“There’s no preconceived anything, it’s going to be an open search,” she said. “We’re going to be advertising nationally.”
Watton started as a commander for UPD, and by 2006, he was promoted to chief of police. He brought with him a new philosophy for the university’s agency.
“We try to make sure our students know we’re not just a police department,” he said. “We want our students in our community to know they can come to us with any question or problem they have. We’re not going to, hopefully anyway, say, ‘Oh, it’s not our job.’”
Extra resources and availability allow for this kind of police work, Watton said. Because officers are not “running from call to call,” he said they are able to do more community outreach.
“That’s the kind of police work I think should be going on across our nation,” he said.
Watton said his dedication to this philosophy of policing comes in part from his experiences as a private citizen.
One such instance came when he was living in San Diego and a burglar broke into his car.
Though there was a clear fingerprint left on the window, Watton said the city police would not investigate and instead had Watton file a police report over the phone.
“That’s just not how you do police work; you should not be doing that,” he said. “That’s exactly how law enforcement loses the community. We lose the support of the community when we don’t do those kind of things.”
One person Watton did gain the support of is Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong. In his first year in office, Armstrong said he was impressed with Watton’s police department.
“They really do care about your safety,” Armstrong said. “And based on my observations of being out two or three nights, they really did not interact other than being friendly with students unless there was a good reason.”
Watton came to Cal Poly after working for the Atascadero police throughout the 1980s and 90s. He held a number of jobs before that, including his beginning in law enforcement at the San Diego Sheriff Department and Carlsbad Police Department.
Though he said he knew from a young age he wanted to be a policeman, Watton served in the United States Air Force intelligence prior to working in San Diego. He said he recommends the military as a career to today’s youth who cannot find a job.
“I had fun — it was good for the most part,” he said. “Pick a military service where you get a career, and just go.”
Watton’s son is currently enlisted in the United States Army where he is deployed in Afghanistan. He plans to return in May.
“The military experience is good because it gives you a lot of experience you would not otherwise get,” he said.
Wrapping up his career of service, from the Air Force to UPD, Watton is happy he made his way to Cal Poly.
“This is a great place to work,” he said. “I’m very happy I came here and ended my career here.”
Video produced by Hope Hanselman/CPTV