While national statistics show the average tenure of a police chief is three to seven years, the record of service of Brentwood’s two – that’s right just two in 40 years — is sure to mess with that average.
Howard Buttrey came to the department in February 1971 as its first chief, but also its first officer. He handed the reins of the department over to current Chief Ricky Watson in 2000, after Watson had spent 14 years at the department, working for a man he calls mentor.
Sitting down with the two, they don’t spend a lot of time hashing over old crimes or talking about stakeouts. What comes through loud and clear is the mutual respect the men have for each other, both as law enforcement professionals but also longtime friends.
When Buttrey became the city’s police chief and created the department in February 1971, the city was tiny, with Franklin Road being two lanes and a number of wooden bridges on outlying roads like Concord Road or Wilson Pike.
While nightclubs had been a fixture in Brentwood for many years, “The only one here at the time was The Stables, which was in Nashville.” That restaurant stood where Corky’s BBQ does today.
“At that time, restaurants couldn’t sell liquor by the drink,” Buttrey added. He hired three officers — Bill Eatherly, Tommy Thompson and Ray Churchwell — and Brentwood had its first police force.
"The population was 4,000 then and we had gotten a grant and that paid 75 percent of our car costs and radios. The only traffic light was at Old Hickory Boulevard and Franklin Road and it was a blinking light. Most of the crime at that time was home burglary and a lot of theft from construction sites,” said Buttrey, who had been with the Belle Meade police force prior to coming to Brentwood. At his retirement in 2000, Buttrey had 45 years experience, obviously most of that at Brentwood.
As the city’s population grew, the duties of the police department and its chief did as well and in 1986, Watson was hired as the captain over administration and the detective division after eight years at the Memphis Police Department.
“The more I thought about it the better I though I was going to like it. It was a good move for me and my family,” Watson said of the change from a metropolitan department to a suburban police force for a city of around 10,000 residents.
“There were some things they obviously wanted to do. Hiring me and the other captain was a step toward restructuring the department so we had plenty to do,” Watson said.
One sign of that professional approach was the 1989 decision by Buttrey and his staff to seek accreditation by the Commission on the Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), making the city’s department only the second in the state to attain such certification.
Buttrey said obviously attaining CALEA certification was definitely one of the high points of his career.
“Again, I think that show just how innovative and forward thinking he was,” said Watson of pursuing accreditation.
While Buttrey is proud of the accreditation, he also has one based on the knowledge of how it would impact the future of the department.
“I think the other one is when Ricky came to work here and we became good friends,” Buttrey said. “I will have to say when I wanted to take off for some reason, I knew it was going to be like it was when I left when I came back and I felt very comfortable doing that. I don’t guess he and I have ever had a cross word at any time, about anything.
“We might have had a thing or two we had to talk about, but we were never mad,” Buttrey said.
So when Buttrey began to mull retirement, he felt he was leaving the department in good hands.
“I was fortunate that I felt I had a really good mentor to teach me to be a police chief. Very few people as knowledgeable and kind hearted as Howard Buttrey and I was hopefully able to grasp some of what he was trying to teach me, how to treat people,” said Watson.
“Being a police officer is not rocket science. It is just common sense and having to deal with issues that people have to face in their daily lives. I feel like I and we have done that very well for an ever-growing population,” said Watson, who also credited then City Manager Frank Clifton and the City Commission with having the vision to professionalize the department.
Now a city of approximately 36,000 residents, Watson recognizes the issues which his department must master while dealing with budget and manpower limitations.
"We have some traffic issues we are always going to have because we a larger daytime population than what resides here and that is good for business.
“With more growth comes some crime, but have been fortunate last couple of three years that crime is down, accidents are down and that our complaints against the police department, we have had one in the last three years, which is kind of unheard of. We are able to provide for the public safety pretty well.”
While law enforcement starts on the streets with the officer, it takes more than that, Watson said.
“I think the thing that helps us here the most is I feel we have some excellent prosecutors and some excellent judges and with combination of law enforcement, that triangle keeps crime at bay here in Williamson County because Williamson County, and Brentwood in particular, are very target rich environment and if we didn’t have that good triangle of law enforcement, I believe we would have more of a problem than have,"
May 6, 2002, is a day Watson might like to forget, but never will, when a California man robbed a bank on Franklin Road armed with an automatic weapon, wounding two Brentwood officers, one critically, before being killed by responding units.
“In my career there is no day that could (stand out more), because for me, I felt responsible. Everybody that you work with me you know you are in command of, you feel responsible when they get injured. It was obviously a very trying day and trying day for the rest of the department and general population that was around that area because 60 shots were fired that day.
Watson was in his office and responded immediately to the scene in the heart of the city’s business district after a call from inside the bank.
“I was here in the office and we were fortunate enough that there was a retired FBI agent in the bank, Toy Fuson, and when he saw suspect come in, we got a call, so we had some advance warning. We knew by detail of the call that it was going to be a legitimate bank robbery, so everybody here got in their cars and headed there and I estimate I got there about 20 seconds after the last shot was fired,” Watson said.
“I pulled right up to the injured officer and when I really first looked in on him, I didn’t think he was going to make it,” Watson said of Sgt. Tommy Walsh, who the robber fired on as he pulled up on the scene. Officer Stephanie Bellis was injured as she tried to fire upon the officer using her police car as a shield.
“Being ultimately in charge, I had to make sure (Walsh) got some medical attention because initially the medics were going to go to the suspect so we had to have a little chat about that and redirect that attention to where I thought it needed to go,” Watson said, adding that law enforcement from throughout the county and federal agencies assisted in the investigation.
“We got through the day and were lucky that only one civilian caught a little shrapnel from the suspect firing and while two officers were wounded, they both recovered,” Watson said. “We killed the suspect. I have no issues with him dying like that. He came to either get away or die trying and I am OK with him dying trying.”
Watson is also proud of the capture and conviction of a man who murdered a clerk at the Kwik Sak on Moores Lane, which Buttrey described as the most “heinous crime” at the time.
And he says the capture in May 2008 of “Wooded Rapist” suspect Robert Burdick, who had terrorized women in Davidson, Williamson and Sumner counties for more than 10 years, was “probably one of the more rewarding captures … because it is what police work is ultimately about, which is giving peace of mind to all those victims.”