A police chief says goodbye: Oak Ridge North’s iconic top cop retires
On Jan. 18, Andrew Walters and his wife of 13 years, Cora, will pack up what’s left of their belongings, drive the 415 miles north to Oklahoma’s Citizen Potawatomi Nation and begin their life anew.
Walters, the city of Oak Ridge North’s police chief of 20 years — its third chief and longest-serving top officer — will hand over the reins of the small police force on New Year’s Eve.
“I’ve had the honor of serving and protecting these families and businesses,” Walters said. “I’m blessed to leave on my own terms.”
The Oak Ridge North where Walters began working bears little resemblance to today’s city.
Originally a section of unincorporated Montgomery County covering a 3-mile swath straddling what was then a two-lane Interstate 45, the citizens of the northeastern section of the area voted to incorporate in 1979 to avoid annexation by Houston or Conroe and maintain control over city services — primarily to create the city’s own police department.
“We have not adjusted, we are adjusting,” Walters said. “The city is adjusting to its new position in the larger community.”
As small cities and housing developments keep rising up around it, Oak Ridge North has worked to maintain its own identity as a small hometown in the middle of a booming metroplex. In the new city, the police staff was tasked with deterring crime and engaging the community in keeping itself safe with the support of law enforcement.
Ten years after the city incorporated, Walters was approached by then-police chief George Biernesser to perform law enforcement duties on a part-time basis. In 1999, when Biernesser announced his retirement, Walters became chief of police of a force that has more than tripled in size since he took over.
“It’s like boiling a frog,” Walters said. “I don’t know that I’ve noticed a lot of the change — it’s grown, but we’ve grown with it.”
For his officers, Walter’s July announcement that he was retiring was disheartening, but not a surprise.
Oak Ridge North has seen a slow, but steady, rise in crime in the decades since a development boom put a target on affluent neighborhoods — petty thieves and burglars will sometimes come up, burglarize homes and attempt to flee to the relative leniency of Harris County, Walters explained.
“We’re losing years of experience and expertise in this area in law enforcement,” Officer Brandon Rogers said of Walters’ departure.
To hear Walters tell it, he’s seen it all — the car wrecks along I-45, the deaths, the homicides, the robberies — are all in a day’s work.
But, Officer Ralph Craig said, throughout it all, Walters remained the stoic and supportive head of his department, a model for all of his officers to follow.
“No matter what it is — work-related, personal — he’s always there for you,” Craig said. “He has a way of being able to correct us and guide us without us feeling like he’s coming in and taking control of stuff.”
As is often the case in small police departments like that of Oak Ridge North, Walters had a hand in picking his successor. In an oft-repeated anecdote, around 10 years ago, Walters sat then-Officer Tom Libby and asked him where he wanted to be in the future. Libby replied he wanted to be right where Walters was.
“(Libby) has always shown an aptitude and ability to be a good chief,” Walters said.
Even at the end of a 20-year legacy, Walters is hesitant to brag, always humble about the impact he as chief of police had on the town. On New Year’s Day, Libby will take over the staff of 17 and the responsibility of the safety of the residents of Oak Ridge North. To Walters, he’s merely passing on the torch.
“This place isn’t mine,” Walters said. “I think what I’m proudest of is that the city and its citizens have honored me allowing me to keep them safe.”