Wise County Chief Deputy Sheriff Doug Whitehead is not an attorney – but when it comes to criminal law, he can match wits with the best lawyers around.
Whitehead, 70, retired at the end of April after a 39-year career in public service, almost all of it in law enforcement in Wise County.
“I learned that when I testified in court I’d better know the law,” he said. He credited the late M.P. “Rusty” Duncan with helping him sharpen his skills. Duncan, a criminal defense attorney in Decatur in the ’80s, was later elected to the Texas State Court of Criminal Appeals.
Whitehead also built relationships with staff attorneys at the sheriff’s association and in the attorney general’s office in Austin.
“I had an interest in doing it,” he said. “I felt you needed to understand the law.”
Whitehead’s long career in law enforcement has proven valuable to several sheriffs.
“I have the utmost respect for Doug, and he has served the county for many years,” said former Sheriff Phil Ryan.
Ryan took over as sheriff after the late Leroy Burch was forced from office. The sheriff’s department was racked with scandal, an era that Whitehead called his darkest moment in the Sheriff’s Office.
“When I was a Texas Ranger, I recall that Doug was one of the few that would shoot straight on things that affected the Sheriff’s Office,” recalled Ryan. “I knew him to be very intelligent, on top of his job and trustworthy,”
Whitehead’s outgoing and occasionally brash personality is legendary.
“Controversy surrounded Doug throughout the county,” Ryan said. “It seemed people either loved him or hated him.”
That may have been the reason for his two unsuccessful campaigns for sheriff, once in 1980 against legendary sheriff Carl “Rook” Ramsey and again in 1984 when he lost to Ray Aaron. Ironically, both Ramsey and Aaron hired Whitehead to join their staffs.
A PASSION FOR POLICE WORK
Whitehead became interested in law enforcement while still a teenager in Dallas. His mother was not keen on the idea.
“Mom begged me not to,” he said.
But when the family moved to their 1,000-acre ranch on Lake Bridgeport, Whitehead reached out to longtime Bridgeport Police Chief Walter Dale, who hired him in October 1975 as a beat patrolman. Current Bridgeport Police Chief Randy Singleton was also an officer at the same time.
“I liked to work nights because that’s when the criminal element comes out,” Whitehead said. “They’re just like vampires; they like to work in the dark.”
After a few years in Bridgeport, Whitehead took an investigator’s job in Montague County for Sheriff W.F. Conway.
“That didn’t work out, and I was back in two months,” he said.
After another couple of years at the Sheriff’s Department under Ramsey, he returned to Bridgeport where he was named acting police chief. During that time, he was also tapped to be Bridgeport’s city administrator and public works director.
He kept all three jobs for several years, but he was anxious to get back into law enforcement. He left to organize the Chico Police Department in 1984.
In 1988, Whitehead went to work for Burch. He began as a criminal investigator and was later named captain over investigation.
When Burch left office, then County Judge L.B. McDonald asked Whitehead to “try to hold things together” during the transition to Ryan in 1992.
Under Ryan, Whitehead held a number of jobs, but his most significant was as jail administrator. During that time, the inmate work program was created. The program, which still exists, is obviously one of Whitehead’s favorite achievements.
“If you have a young person in jail and they are part of the program, they learn to work as a team, work under supervision and primarily learn how to work,” he said. “Tax dollars are also saved by having inmates do a lot of the work on county roads and cemeteries.”
During that time, a 40-person “minimum security” section of the county jail was built, as was a shop for vehicle maintenance. Much of the work on both projects was done by inmates. After several years Ryan named Whitehead his chief deputy, a position he has held for 14 years under Ryan and Sheriff David Walker.
Whitehead did get his chance to be sheriff for a year during the transition between Ryan and Walker. During that time, Walker was his chief deputy. When Walker was elected sheriff, their roles reversed.
“Doug has been a great friend and co-worker for many years,” Walker said. “He has touched many of us in the law enforcement profession in a positive way. He always knew my goal was to become sheriff, and he gave me guidance that was beneficial to help me succeed.”
Whitehead was generous in his praise for both Ryan and Walker.
“We came a long way under Phil,” he said. “He was the best investigator I’ve ever worked with, and David is an exceptional young man, very good with people.”
In recent years, the Sheriff’s Department has made great strides in technology and equipment. Whitehead credits Ryan and Walker for building good relationships with county commissioners and other county administrators.
“We worked hard to build those relationships,” he said.
“From an administrator’s standpoint, Doug was my go-to man for many years,” Walker said. “He was involved in every division within this department. Doug ‘rides for the brand’ and won’t settle for less.
“Sitting beside Doug as sheriff has been an honor.”
A WEALTH OF KNOWLEDGE
Walker said Whitehead’s knowledge of Wise County is also legendary.
“Doug knows this county and the citizens inside and out,” he said. “We often discuss people we are looking for, and Doug knows their cousins, aunts and parents. He knows who is kin to whom and who is stealing and who is doping.
“Doug can get more done at his desk, calling people he knows or has worked with, than most can get done running all over creation tracking down leads.”
In a recent visit, Whitehead’s once-heavily-adorned office walls were bare as he began to wind down his almost four-decade long career of public service. He said he had once had opportunities to join the Texas Department of Public Safety and even the United States Secret Service, but decided to stay close to home.
“In local law enforcement, you are able to help people in your community,” he said. “I always try to tell our people that when a person comes to the Sheriff’s Office, they really need help.”
Despite his hectic schedule, Whitehead managed to teach criminal justice courses at North Central Texas College for four years.
“Phil Ryan was even in one of my classes,” he said.
Whitehead’s tests were legendary.
“They would probably take four hours to take, and you’d better study for months ahead,” Walker said. He required equally tough tests for promotion in the Sheriff’s Department.
“You had better know where every elected official lived and be able to name each cemetery in Wise County and where they are located,” Walker said.
Whitehead, who had some serious health issues over the past year, said that is now behind him.
“I plan to go back to the ranch, get on the Ford tractor my father bought in 1947 and do some mowing,” he said. “I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it, something I haven’t been able to do in the past 39 years.”
Lots of law enforcement officers hope he has his cell phone on his old Ford 8N so they can call him when they need help.
There’s no doubt he will answer the call.