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Northampton Police Detective Lt. Kenneth Watson to retire

  • Ken Watson, a lieutenant detective with the Northampton Police department who is retiring Friday, in front of the station Wednesday afternoon.

    Ken Watson, a lieutenant detective with the Northampton Police department who is retiring Friday, in front of the station Wednesday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Ken Watson, a lieutenant detective with the Northampton Police department who is retiring Friday, in front of the station Wednesday afternoon.


    Ken Watson, a lieutenant detective with the Northampton Police department who is retiring Friday, in front of the station Wednesday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ken Watson, a lieutenant detective with the Northampton Police department who is retiring Friday, in front of the station Wednesday afternoon.
  • <br/>Ken Watson, a lieutenant detective with the Northampton Police department who is retiring Friday, in front of the station Wednesday afternoon.

How things change.

Watson, 54, retires Friday from the Northampton Police Department as a detective lieutenant after 31 years on the job.

In addition to regular police work, Watson was one of the first openly gay officers on the Northampton force, one of the founding members of the New England Gay Officers Action League and served as the department’s liaison to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

But that openness wasn’t always the case. Watson joined the Northampton Police Department June 1, 1982, and would wait about another 11 years before publicly coming out to his co-workers.

Watson said he looked up to police officers growing up in his native Huntington, but felt he needed to conform to certain expectations in order to become one.

That included a marriage to a woman and raising two daughters.

“I was trying to do what society said to do,” Watson said.

He said that he always wanted a marriage and children. But in the early 1980s the idea of a gay man having a spouse and family was completely unheard of, and so he found himself in a traditional heterosexual marriage.

In 1992, Watson watched as a younger officer, Preston Horton announced to the department that he was gay. There was no negative fallout.

It was an inspiration for Watson.

Watson said he considered himself a “silent partner” in the Gay Officers Action League, participating in meetings but not coming out publicly.

The more time he spent around other gay officers and having the opportunity to hear their stories, he felt more and more comfortable with the prospect of coming out.

“I realized I really wasn’t alone,” he said.

It was around that time he met Jim Hutchins, now 53, whom he calls the “man of his dreams,” and whom he would marry in 2004 in a ceremony on the front porch of their home with family and close friends and presided over by Northampton Council on Aging Director Patricia Shaughnessy.

When he came out to the department in 1993, the experience was much smoother than he anticipated. It was a huge relief, he said.

“The chief was very supportive,” Watson said, referring to Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz. “He sent a message, ‘We’re going to embrace this.’ ”

“Not everybody accepts it, but I’ve never had a problem here,” he said.

Watson credits the way Sienkiewicz runs the department for the amount of acceptance he received.

“It has everything to do with leadership,” he said.

If someone in the top brass is homophobic or tolerates such behavior, it is more likely to continue and be accepted within the rank and file, Watson said.

That kind of mutual respect, Watson said, is the best way to do the job right.

Watson said the five years since his promotion to detective lieutenant “have been great,” and he’s enjoyed the opportunity to select some of the officers who worked under him.

“The best of the best work for me,” he said.

With Watson’s departure, Lt. Jody Kasper will take over his role as head of the detective bureau and as the department’s LGBT liaison, he said.

The latter position is important, Watson said, to be able to offer support from the department and provide someone LGBT community members can confide and trust in.

Watson said he and his husband plan on splitting their time between homes they own in Florida and Vermont and plan on selling their current home in Holyoke.

He is also looking forward to the birth of his first grandchild to one of his daughters from his first marriage.

He and Hutchins also have a 16-year-old son of their own, Julio, whom they adopted when he was 2.

Watson said during his career in Northampton he’s had the opportunity to forge friendships with many in the community and has been able to see their families grow and prosper over the years from one generation to the next.

“Those are the relationships you hang on to,” he said.

This week, as he packed up his belongings collected over his three-decade career, Watson reflected in his nearly empty office on some of the highlights of his time on the force.

Top among them, he said, was an annual gift he and the department received from a man whose life Watson saved about 20 years ago.

Watson said he was called to an emergency in Leeds when he was a patrol supervisor on the night shift.

City native Jim Parsons had gone into full cardiac arrest. Watson was able to help resuscitate him and save his life.

Every year after that, around the anniversary of that night, Watson said he received a card and a donation to the police association from Parsons thanking him for “one more year with his grandchildren.”

Those cards and gifts were received every year until Parsons’ death in 2006, Watson said.

“You get a good feeling helping people,” he said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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