Eric Watson began to form his ideas about community policing as a teenager.
He grew up on the East Side of Charleston, watching how the beat cops treated his friends, neighbors — and sometimes even him. Although he was a good kid, he was regularly questioned, stopped or frisked.
That’s just the way it was back then, but Watson didn’t think it was the right approach.
“I wanted to educate myself about policing,” he says. “I knew there was a better way, especially when it came to engaging youths in conversation.”
Watson has developed and fine-tuned that philosophy over the span of a 25-year career with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, and it has led him through the ranks to the lofty position of chief deputy.
He’s become such a recognized expert on community policing that now he’s teaching at the FBI’s National Academy.
“When I graduated from the academy five years ago, I never would have believed I’d be going back as a guest lecturer,” he says. “That’s a high-level platform.”
He’s right. The National Academy offers continuing education to active-duty law enforcement officials from around the country, and the world. The country’s largest police departments regularly send their chiefs to the academy for training. It’s a prestigious credential in law enforcement.
The FBI couldn’t ask for a better person to teach a class on police-community relations in the 21st century. Because Watson is a role model.
Most people around town probably know the chief. He often shows up at civic clubs and neighborhood meetings, and is in regular contact with community leaders and civil rights organizations. Five years ago, he set up a program for deputies to go into schools and have lunch with students — just to show them law enforcement officers weren’t people to fear.
In 2018, Watson brought in Quentin Williams to train deputies, supervisors and jail staff on how to avoid implicit bias. Williams — a former FBI agent, federal prosecutor and attorney — is the founder of the nonprofit Dedication to Community, which teaches law enforcement agencies to increase cultural awareness and improve de-escalation tactics.
Williams, who’s doing another class for deputies here this week, saw a kindred spirit in Watson and invited him to join the program at the National Academy.
“Eric is a shining example of what could be in law enforcement,” Williams says. “He’s about service first, and that is exactly what we’re striving for in law enforcement.”
The vast majority of law enforcement officers are great people who risk their lives for modest pay to keep their communities safe. But a string of questionable, sometimes even criminal, law enforcement shootings around the country in recent years has tainted their profession.
It’s to their credit that so many departments are now training officers and deputies on community relations. And it’s a credit to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office that Watson is one of the leaders in that movement.
“I tried to create an environment where people could reach their potential, and I don’t think anyone has done that as well as Chief Watson,” Sheriff Al Cannon says. “He’s a great decision-maker, and he has great ideas. It’s a great benefit to have the Sheriff’s Office out there, talking about the good things going on.”
Watson taught his first class at the academy this spring and, unsurprisingly, got several questions about one of the greatest challenges in law enforcement today: How to calm a community during controversy.
Even for a department with good community relations, it can be a problem when outsiders or professional protesters come in to stir up discontent. Watson advised his class to let community leaders respond — as they did here after the Walter Scott shooting.
Of course, that’s only possible when the police have relationships with the people they’re trying to protect, as Watson does.
“There’s nothing I like more than getting out there and talking to people,” he says. “And I hope to change people’s impression of law enforcement.”
The folks at the National Academy should listen to Watson, because he’s doing a pretty good job of that himself.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.