Steve Watson is not the kind of man who lets things go. Walking down Third Street, past the St. Vincent de Paul cafeteria, he initially passes the group of men who are standing with bikes and dogs waiting for the doors to open with a short greeting and nod. Then he pauses.
"I smell marijuana," he tells them. The men shuffle their feet and look at one another. Watson rattles off the statute that bars public consumption of cannabis in public. He looks at a man smoking a cigarette and notes that it's also illegal to smoke within a certain number of feet of public buildings. Scowling, the man puts it out.
For a moment it looks like Watson is going to resume walking but he has a final question.
"Where did you come from? Did any of you come from Garberville?" One man, sitting on the wheelchair ramp, stands up. "Yes," he says, he came from Garberville.
Watson's questions speed up.
"How did you get here?"
"Did your boss give you a ride?"
"Were you working on the mountain?"
Behind the questions there's a theory, shared by Watson, current interim chief of the Eureka Police Department and his predecessor, Andrew Mills, that many of the homeless and transient people in Eureka were attracted to the area by the pot industry, only to wind up stranded in the county's urban center. Watson has been an outspoken opponent of cannabis legalization, personally and professionally, as documented in emails sent to the county planning division and an editorial written for the Journal.
The mood among the cluster of men quickly sours. The man from Garberville tells Watson he hasn't done anything wrong. Another wants to talk about Mills and the past year's sometimes erratic shift in approaches by the city in addressing overnight camping in public spaces. Not everything he has to say is pleasant. Watson listens and nods, then interrupts as soon as he can.
"Agree to disagree," he says.
As the now interim chief walks away, the conversation behind him continues. It's not complimentary.
Watson, a Fortuna native who joined EPD in 2005, has had a complex life path leading up to his recent interim appointment. The one through line seems to be intensity. After leaving the U.S. Army with an honorable discharge, he studied theology, eventually earning a B.A. in church leadership. When he worked in ministry, he worked in ministry, teaching independent living skills to boys in a group home and volunteering in India, Guatemala and Romania. He began a new career in education, working as a substitute teacher. He still maintains a teaching credential after completing several years of graduate course work (he hopes to finish his masters degree in the next few years). When he became a cop, he became a cop, earning an award as deputy of the year in Santa Cruz his first year on the job. After moving back to Humboldt County, he rose quickly through the ranks at EPD, promoting to sergeant in two years and then to captain under Mills in 2014.
Watson, who says he's seen a lot of turmoil at EPD over the last 12 years, is inheriting a radically different dynamic than his predecessor. The force is younger (most of the officers have been there less than five years), and more effort is being put into community policing. Watson, who oversaw the creation of the Problem Oriented Policing unit and the Mobile Intervention and Services Team, says he appreciates Mills' steady hand as a leader, adding that, "it's time to keep moving the department forward."
For Watson, moving forward means better retention of the current force, more training, expanded community partnerships and stronger relationships with city staff. Whether these relationships and progress on key issues will translate to a permanent position as chief is unclear. The city has begun a recruitment process that will invite candidates from out of the area. Watson appears to be competitively vying for the job (he recently left for a two-week executive leadership course put on by the California Police Chiefs Association), applying his characteristic deliberateness to building his resume.
Although he has had numerous projects since joining EPD, including heading a gang task force, volunteer recruitment and training management, his assignment as captain for Service Area 1 means that the issue of homelessness has dominated much of Watson's recent career. A reader who's fond of quoting, the interim chief's statements reflect a wide spectrum of influences.
"We can't police our way out of this problem," he will say, a favorite phrase of Mills', then, in the same conversation, mention the "silent majority" of Eurekans that are "increasingly frustrated" with homelessness and crime, unconsciously referencing a 1969 speech by Richard Nixon.
What the walk behind this talk actually boils down to in terms of enforcement is difficult to say. But in practice, the interim chief is methodical, unwilling to let things slide. When a woman searching for her homeless and schizophrenic son flags him down on Second Street, Watson asks her text him a picture, which he sends to the Old Town's homeless officer. Walking through the recently unfenced Balloon Track, he rousts a couple smoking cigarettes in the high grass. He points out the overhangs and loading docks, places he says are "magnets" for crime and disorder. A volunteer graffiti abatement team working with a local business owner, he says, has made an impact on the "broken window" effect he sees affecting businesses in the area. It's a complex, multi-faceted issue, he says. EPD officers don't have all the answers; they're just the ones tasked with standing in the gap. Occasionally, pressed on the issue, he'll recite an adapted version of a St. Thomas Aquinas quote:
"Compassion absent accountability leads to anarchy, but accountability absent compassion leads to tyranny. "
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.