In 1999, Waynesville hired a 35-year-old Floridian to become its next police chief, and many were not happy.
Now, over 20 years later, Bill Hollingsed, 55, is set to retire from the position, and despite the now unimaginable skepticism that once surrounded him, he has proven to be one of those rare leaders who continually raises the bar, and consistently betters himself and the men and women who work under him.
It may surprise some folks that Hollingsed, the son of a police officer, was on track to become a doctor. But then, at 19 years old, the biochemistry major went on a few ride-alongs with his girlfriend’s police officer brother.
“I very quickly realized this is the best job in the world,” Hollingsed said.
Our futures can be directed by fleeting passions, but what may have seemed to many to be an impulse proved to be a great discovery. It wasn’t long before he became a sheriff’s deputy in Orange County, Florida, which, in 1984, was beginning to bustle with extreme gang activity.
“It was a bad day when I had to tell my parents I was leaving college with an associates degree at 19 years old,” Hollingsed said.
And his parents weren’t the only ones caught off-guard by the decision. Hollingsed’s high school sweetheart, Karen, whom he married, also had her doubts.
“I thought I was marrying a doctor, but that didn’t happen,” she joked.
And yet, Hollingsed and law enforcement fit like a service weapon in a holster. Hollingsed said he was initially drawn to the job because it offered something nothing else ever had.
“It was never the same thing twice,” he said. “As soon as you got in that car, you didn’t know what to expect. There was no routine to it.”
But Hollingsed also saw the ability to make a difference in people’s lives, an observation that has motivated him throughout his 36-year career.
Orange County, which includes Orlando and had a population of about 2.1 million when Hollingsed was sworn in back in 1984, presents the kind of environment that seasoned rookie cops fast. Hollingsed, like all other deputies, began in the patrol unit.
Before long, he joined the tactical anti-crime unit (TAC), which monitored repeat offenders and serious criminals. Eventually, after also doing a stint as a mounted patrol officer, he became a detective. Initially, he worked property crimes but ended up working in the newly formed gang unit.
“We worked everything from graffiti up to gang related homicides,” he said. “That was a unit where I learned a lot quick.”
“We worked high crime areas, and we worked the clubs at two or three in the morning,” he added.
But then, not long after he was promoted to Lieutenant and made an Assistant Sector Commander, he made the choice to leave.
The big move
Bill and Karen Hollingsed had been coming to the small town of Waynesville, North Carolina, to stay in a home his parents owned for years. After Karen gave birth to a daughter and the environment in Orlando became worse, he was offered a position as the chief of Western Carolina University Police.
It was a big decision. If he took the job, Hollingsed would see his pay cut in half, his prospects within the Orange County Sheriff’s Office dashed.
“It was either put up or shut up,” Hollingsed said. “It was a huge decision. We wanted the change. We wanted to raise our family here in Western North Carolina.”
“That old saying, young and dumb, came into play,” Karen said. “But we would never go back.”
Hollingsed, who lived in Sylva just long enough for his family to find its place, left WCU after 18 months and moved to Haywood County. On Feb. 1, 1999, he took charge of the Waynesville Police Department. Many protested his hiring and even chastised Town Manager Lee Galloway.
“There was an effort to get rid of him and Lee,” Mayor Gavin Brown said. “Lee because he was a Republican and Bill because he was from Florida.”
Galloway recalled his decision, noting that the chief who preceded Hollingsed, Frank Ross, fixed a lot of disciplinary issues within the department, and he was looking for someone who could build it from the ground up.
“That’s what Bill was about,” he said. “He was more into training and education.”
“There were a lot of people who second guessed his decision,” Hollingsed said. “I owe a lot of gratitude to Mr. Galloway because he took a huge risk in hiring me.”
Some made light of Hollingsed’s youth, especially considering most police chiefs Waynesville had ever had were older.
“I remember the reporter from Asheville asking, ‘how old are you?’” Hollingsed said. “And Mayor Foy, he asked me to put a little white flour in my hair.”
It didn’t take long at all for Hollingsed to prove he was willing to jump in wherever needed.
“Before he was ever in uniform, he got in a scuffle in the old jail where he had to take on a drunk,” Galloway said. “You have to be total idiot to wrestle with Bill Hollingsed. Just look at him. But that’s the type of guy you want. You want a guy who can bust doors down with the other officers.”
Early on, many assumed Hollingsed would bail on Waynesville.
“I heard it an awful lot. ‘This is just a stepping stone. You won’t be here long,’” he said. “But this is home.”
While some residents struggled to accept Hollingsed early on, he and others who served in the department during that time said the officers wanted him to do well. Where a chief succeeds, a department succeeds.
A cop’s cop
The deep mutual respect shown between Hollingsed and his officers hasn’t wavered since he’s been here. Every single person The Mountaineer interviewed for this article pointed out that he prefers to lead by example.
“He’s a cop’s cop,” Lt. Tyler Trantham said. “You know he’s never going to ask you to do something he isn’t going to do, and he’s usually right beside you.”
Hollingsed said that’s the way he was trained as a young deputy.
“I worked for a 2,500-man agency where I’d be on a traffic stop, and the boss would be standing behind you,” he said. “Or I’d be on a domestic call where I’d need backup, and it’d be the sheriff or the chief coming in the door.”
Hollingsed also brought with him from Orlando a deep affinity for tactical operations, borne of his 12-and-a-half years on the SWAT team down there. During his time as chief, he’s built the department’s Special Response Team, an elite unit that has found success both in the field and at the SWAT Roundup, an international competition that has consistently pitted Waynesville against teams from some of the largest police departments in the world. Last year, Waynesville took home awards for the best small department and best national team.
“I have a huge interest in the SWAT side,” he said. “That job, it was a highlight of my career. When I came here in ‘99, we had just put in for a grant for the initial equipment to start the SRT Team. Being part of that unit from the early stages has been very gratifying.”
Anyone who’s witnessed the SRT’s training would know Hollingsed enjoys training alongside the others. Along those same lines, he said he still loves nothing more than going out and doing police work.
“It’s something I still feel compelled to do because I still love being a cop,” he said. “The biggest joy I have out of this job is going out on Friday nights and riding with the midnight shift, or going out at night and working a case with the guys downstairs (in CID). I still love being a cop.”
While Hollingsed’s commitment and leadership by example have been evident, another thing that stands out is his unique sense of humor.
“These officers see things that the average resident of Waynesville never sees,” he said. “Here, as a supervisor, you still have to maintain that role as a supervisor, as an administrator. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be part of that individual’s life as far as helping them get through this job. If that means being able to sit down and have lunch with them and laugh and make a joke after you’ve been on a bad scene and trying to lift their spirits, then I think that’s part of my job, as well.”
“If we can all joke together, not only do I hope it helps them, but I know it helps me,” he added.
Mr. Hollingsed goes to Raleigh
In more recent years, Hollingsed has been on the forefront of the opioid crisis at the state level, spending days at a time every month in Raleigh meeting with legislators and other leaders.
“The overdoses from cocaine and meth are minimal, whereas the overdose issue from opioids is just phenomenal,” he said.
In another interview conducted when the STOP Act was passed a couple years ago, he mentioned that when he was younger, he’d never imagine the change in the enforcement of drug laws.
“I think there’s been a paradigm shift among many law enforcement officers and department heads where we’ve seen a lot of people that become victims to the opioid crisis that never meant to be victims of substance abuse,” he said.
For Hollingsed, it’s all about stopping the cycle of addiction and the cycle of crime, which he said go hand in hand.
“We’re never going to stop enforcing the law. That’s our job as police,” he said. “But if there’s a way we can stop that criminality by stopping that addiction, then we’ll help that situation as well.”
Hollingsed loathes politics, but he jumped in headfirst to address this issue, working with Republicans, such as Sen. Jim Davis, and Democrats, such as North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, leading to progressive changes that offer victims of the opioid crisis a way out of those cycles.
Another man who spends a lot of time in Raleigh discussing law enforcement issues with state leaders is Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher.
“He is very familiar with other sheriffs and chiefs of police all over this state,” he said of Hollingsed. “And because he is so well-respected, those people will get onboard and support the kind of legislation that he and others have brought to the table or to the senate or house floor. With law enforcement support from throughout the state, that makes that legislation pass easier.”
Stein, in an email, said something similar.
“Chief Hollingsed is forward-thinking, energetic and engaged in some of the toughest issues law enforcement officers are facing,” he said. “As Criminal Justice Commission Chairman, he has shown real leadership on helping to recruit the best and brightest to serve as law enforcement officers. He’s also been an important partner on our work to confront the opioid epidemic, and through that work, he has helped to make Waynesville a leader in tackling this crisis.”
The evolution of law enforcement
Like many officers, Hollingsed has taken notice of other changes in law enforcement. Notably, he said officers have been more proactive, as opposed to when he started and almost everything revolved around answering 911 calls and solving crimes.
Hollingsed also said the very nature of an officer’s job has changed. Police are expected to be many different things, from mediators to substance abuse experts.
“We’re on the front lines of just about every societal ill that’s out there,” he said. “Not just the criminal side, but everything else that goes on.”
And many officers have become vexed by what is often referred to as the revolving door.
“There’s a very small percentage of people that commit the majority of crimes in any community, no matter what the size, and that’s no different here,” Hollingsed said. “But when it’s a small community, you get to know the names and faces of those people quickly. Even being here almost 21 years, dealing still with some of the people we dealt with then, that’s a little frustrating.”
That, combined with low pay, has led to a struggle within law enforcement to recruit and keep competent officers. Hollingsed teaches a criminal justice class at WCU and noted that perhaps three of his 70 students will go on to a career in law enforcement, and there’s a good chance those individuals will go to the federal side, which is void of painstaking shift work and offers better pay.
“Six years ago, we had over 5,000 people statewide in BLET program,” he said. “That went down to less than 1,000 people wanting to enter this profession now. We’re finding it harder and harder to find people that want to do this job.”
But despite recent changes in law enforcement, Hollingsed still has encouraging words for young officers.
“Even though you’ll feel those disappointments and frustrations, you’ll still have that opportunity every day when you … can make a positive difference in someone’s life.”
After Hollingsed officially retires next week, he will take a job as the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police. While he had job offers some said paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and he admitted to having offers to work in Raleigh, he chose that lower-paying job.
“That position would afford me the opportunity to stay connected in law enforcement,” he said. “I love this profession … I may not be the chief of a police department, but I’ll be in a position where I can still work with chiefs and police departments across the state.”
While the job will require travel, Hollingsed’s chief reason for taking it was continuing to live in the place he and his family love. But Hollingsed did admit it’ll be tough to stay in the area and see the men and women that he used to be in charge of continuing their duties without him, especially considering how many are brand new officers.
“I will always care about each and every person here, and every time I see that car going down the street, every time I see that officer on foot, I will always care about them,” he said.
For decades, Hollingsed was on-call 24/7, and that’s a lifestyle that can be hard to change so abruptly.
“I think that’s been the toughest part for me. I can’t leave it behind,” he said. “When you lay in bed and look at the ceiling fan all night, thinking about everything that’s going on, and you want to make that positive change, you want to make sure that case goes correctly.”
Hollingsed said he’s been that way his whole career. He recalled specifically when he was in Orlando and worked a series of heartbreaking SIDs cases.
“Still, I see those faces today 36 years later,” he said. “I’d go home back then and lay on the floor with my hand on my daughter and make sure she was OK. That’s always been my personality. I always took it home with me.”
While Hollingsed said he hopes he can continue to be a resource for the department in some way, he’s excited to get back to life. Along with wanting to ride horses more and explore his woodworking hobby, he hopes to spend more time with his family, which has been so supportive of his police work over the years.
Throughout his career, Hollingsed was known for saying he was living the dream, and he always meant it. While he’s conflicted about leaving that dream behind, he said he knows the department’s future is bright.
“Twenty and a half years ago I said this was a dream come true, and I’m still living that dream,” he said. “All the successes we’ve had have been because of the men and women who wear this uniform and walk these halls every day. I truly appreciate each and every one of them.”