On her first day as the City of Henderson’s newest chief of police, Latesha Watson walked into a command team meeting and noticed she was the only woman in the room. Coming from Arlington, Texas, she wasn’t used to this. “The command team there was 13 chiefs with the majority female,” she says. However, Henderson reflected a broader issue across law enforcement. “From the research I’ve done, there are more than 18,000 law enforcement organizations in the United States and less than 1 percent are run by women,” Watson says. “That’s not good.” That’s among the many changes the latest Henderson police chief plans to make.
After being selected from about 80 other applicants, Watson was sworn-in in late November as the second woman to head the Henderson Police Department. She is the first African-American woman to hold the position. Getting to this historic moment was years in the making.
Watson never knew she would become a police officer, let alone head a police department. Even in high school when she did an internship, she never considered the profession. “But it was good to see the inner workings then,” she says. During her undergraduate and graduate degrees, her goal was to become an attorney. It fit her personality. She liked to argue as much as she liked to win. “I always had something to say growing up,” she says. “A few times, my mother told me I was going to get hit in my mouth for it.”
After she realized she didn’t want to become an attorney, she attended a recruiting fair to look at other options, which is when the job as a U.S. Marshal caught her eye. At this point, she had already been working for law enforcement agencies while in college. However, she never considered it as a career path until that fair.
To be a better candidate to become a U.S. Marshal, she decided to enroll in the police academy (the organization told her it favored candidates with experience). While she waited to test for the federal law enforcement agency, she went on to work at the Arlington Police Department. The U.S. Marshal job never came to be because there was a hiring freeze. By the time it opened, Watson had a good-paying job and was at a place she liked. “They called me to go to the (U.S. Marshal) academy right when I was going to be promoted as Sergeant,” she says. “I made the decision to stay.”
Getting to where she is now has always been a game of strategy. “I’m in a male-dominated profession, so I do different things to make sure that when you start looking at competition I rise above everyone else,” Watson says.
Part of that was her education. While serving in Texas, she worked toward her PhD (she says Arlington is different in terms of police departments and requires four-year degrees for recruits). Watson is currently working on her second PhD.
During her career, Watson also made sure to do all the jobs stereotypically associated with “what the men do.”
“I’ve always worked in the field where all the guys work,” she adds. “I worked in SWAT where the guys work.”
Still, her talent was often disregarded by male colleagues.
“It’s 2018 and you will still have males who work in a law enforcement organization and still feel like women don’t have a place here and it should only be men,” she says. Nevertheless, she’s persisted at shattering every expectation. After the former Henderson Police Chief departed from the job, the search began for a replacement.
Henderson reached out to Watson not once, not twice, but five times. She kept declining because she didn’t want to uproot her eldest daughter who was in high school. It ended up being her daughter who convinced her to look at the job.
Watson hopes her experience and education can lead to positive changes for the Henderson Police Department.
“I’m going through every aspect of the department and probably asking more questions than people like,” she says. For one, Watson says law enforcement needs to better reflect the community it is serving. “Of course if you don’t see women officers (at recruiting events) women won’t be drawn to law enforcement,” she says.
That’s the same thing for getting people of color interested. As a black woman, she is often caught in the middle of a lot of questions about racial biases in policing.
“Some minorities feel you’re a sellout for going into the profession,” she says. “If no [black person] ever does it, how are we going to improve the system? We need people who look like us.”