Villager Q & A: LSC Police Chief Paul Willingham’s efforts grow as the system expands
For Paul Willingham, campus policing wasn’t initially on his radar. Yet, it has turned into a lifetime career. He now leads the Lone Star College Campus Police department and has since August 2015. As the system grows, Willingham talked with The Villager about what he does to ensure campuses and students are safe.
QUESTION: Tell us a little bit about you.
WILLINGHAM: I was born and raised in Houston, on the southwest side of town. I went to high school at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, and I’ve lived in Houston all my life with the exception of the time I went to college. I’ve been in campus law enforcement since the beginning of my career. I started in 1991 with the University of Texas in Houston. They’re the ones that sent me to the police academy. I stayed there for 16 years and left in 2007 to become the chief at UH Clear Lake, which is on the south side. I was there as chief for eight years. In August 2015, I came to Lone Star College to take over their department.
QUESTION: What made you want to get into campus policing?
WILLINGHAM: There was no epiphany. I wanted to be an English teacher and baseball coach, but I had to finish school first. There was this thing called money, to pay for school. I needed to get a job, to help pay for school, so I thought maybe I’ll be a firefighter. But, no one was hiring firefighters at the time. I was thinking, maybe police. I applied for several police departments at HPD, sheriff’s department. During that whole process, my mother worked at M.D. Anderson Hospital as a research scientist. I went to go pick her up and realized at University of Texas police car parked out front. I didn’t even know they had a police department. I went into their police department, filled out an application, and they were the first ones to call me. I was able to qualify with them first, and the rest is history.
It was kind of happenstance, but in reality, it was almost fated because one thing led to another, and I realized I really enjoyed the atmosphere of higher education and enjoyed being in law enforcement much more than I thought I would. Within a few years, it was obvious that was where I was going to stay.
QUESTION: What is your favorite part of the job?
WILLINGHAM: When I was an officer, I enjoyed not having a script to the day, not knowing what might happen, the individual contacts I’d have with people and being able to have a positive impact in that moment for them. I could be someone who could provide some positive help. That was what drove me as a police officer.
When you’re leading a department, there’s a different feel. As I moved up in supervision, it became more about getting my people ready to feel that way when they interact with the community. I set more of the vision and the tone and so I do a lot of leadership training. Right now, as chief, the thing that really gets me excited is to see the light bulb go off in one of my officers, seeing that they get it now. They understand what the impact is that we can have on somebody in the community, how much responsibility comes with that. They get excited about the fact that they get to be a positive part of someone’s life in most situations. When they start to get that, understand that we have a unique opportunity, and they start to make decisions in that vein, that’s what gets me excited now.
QUESTION: One of those situations that happened recently was when one of your officers had to confront and calm down a young man at the public library on LSC-Tomball’s campus. How do you prepare your staff for those types of situations that may not happen every day, but they may have to deal with as campus police?
WILLINGHAM: That’s one of the biggest challenges. We have crime calls every day, but in comparison to a major city’s police department, we deal with a lot of quality of life issues. As far as life or death situations, those don’t happen as frequently as they would in a large metropolitan police department.
We have a poster up in all of our substations about the three points to success. They’re three things we have to be good at in order to consider ourselves successful at campus policing. The first one is we have to know how to be the police. We have to know how to handle investigations, interact with the people we have to take reports from, write those reports, use our equipment, know our policies, that kind of thing. If we can’t do that core job, then it doesn’t matter what we do.
The second is we have to be very interactive with the community, and we have to understand that we’re not an outside entity with the Lone Star College. We are part of Lone Star College, so we have to be partners with our students, staff and faculty and be part of their daily lives to help educate and teach them how to take part in their own safety.
Our number three is we always have to be training—not just regular training but for worst case scenarios. We always have to put ourselves mentally in scenario-driven training for those once-every-blue moon type of events. Active threats, violent crimes, disaster responses, things that don’t happen frequently, but when they happen they’re highly critical. We have to be at our best in those situations, so we have to constantly train.
We tie that all to our core values, which we try to talk about a lot. Anything that we do, whether it’s discipline or whether it’s praise, we always tie one of our core values to it so that people understand that this is what we’re about. If you can’t remember all of our policies but you remember our five core values, then you’re probably going to make a good decision that reflects what we want out of our officers.
Our five core values are serving focused, constantly seeking excellence, building trust through integrity, preserving dignity and never leaving anything to chance. We’re not going to be good by accident, we’re going to be good because we try.
When it comes to the situations like in Tomball, the officer involved, Captain (Sandra) Joachim, who received a Medal of Valor for her efforts, she’s been a police officer for many years. She has a lot of experience. But at the same time, she also incorporates all of the things that we constantly discuss—that we’re going to put ourselves on the line to help other people. We’re going to be a service entity and try to empathize with people. And that’s exactly what she did.
QUESTION: As Lone Star College continues to grow, how do you plan to keep the level of security at what it should be?
WILLINGHAM: We’ve had great support from Dr. (Steve) Head, our chancellor, and our chief operating officer who I report to, Mr. (Mario) Castillo. Over the past two years, likely in the anticipation of our growth, they have really invested in the police department — both for personnel and operating costs. Running a police department isn’t cheap, but they’ve done a great job of getting us the people we need, and the equipment, and the operating expenses that we need in order to look very professional, have the right equipment and tools so that we’re attractive to potential recruits, as well as give us the money to hire those recruits and have a healthy staff of people. That’s the first step, those resources.
The second step, as leaders of the department, my team has to take those resources and be efficient with them and make sure that our vision matches the growth. We have a centralized model, but at the same time my captains who run the campuses are trained to make good critical decisions, and to run their campuses. I’m not micromanaging them, I try to teach them good leadership techniques, how to be responsive, how to interact and find out what their needs are. At the same time, they are empowered to address individual campus needs without having to go through a bureaucracy chain of command. We equip them to make the decisions, then trust them to make the decisions.
As we grow, we look at our infrastructure to decide whether or not we need to expand. We’ve improved and increased our training, have a dedicated unit that focuses on training our personnel to make sure our staff are well trained.
We’ve improved and significantly increased our investigative side. When I first got here, we did really well with patrol but when it came to investigations and threat assessments, we usually just pulled people off patrol to do them. We now have investigative unit of four detectives whose primary role is to investigate crimes that couldn’t be resolved the patrol level. Their secondary and just as important function is they handle threat assessments.
We have partnerships with the county, city and state, mutual aid agreements with Harris County and Montgomery County. If they pick up on any chatter, they contact us and we work together to do threat assessments. We do these reviews to determine whether or not the person involved has the capability of being a threat to campus, and if they do, how do we mitigate it. These are the things we do in a proactive way to supplement our visible uniform patrol.
I’m very proud of the team. They do such good work and we do get positive feedback, but oftentimes when things are going well everyone thinks it’s just by accident. But it’s not, it’s really not.