The now-retired Anniston police lieutenant and soon-to-be mayor of Weaver, who put in his final shift as a law enforcement officer last week, said his first night as a police officer in his hometown of Weaver in 1986 needed some last-minute putting together.
“I had a pawnshop pistol and a borrowed flashlight,” Willis said about patrolling the streets on his third night out of the academy. “It was a little different back then.”
But putting things together on the fly with borrowed and used equipment was something of a common theme throughout his police career, he said.
As one of the original nine members of Anniston Police Department’s first Special Response Team – a unit trained specifically to go into high-risk situations often with high-tech and armored gear – Willis recalled borrowing several items from other local agencies, including what he called an old bread delivery truck.
“There was a mismatch of gear,” Willis said. “It was awful. We more or less put ourselves together.”
With Willis’ retirement last week from the Anniston Police Department after 26 years on the force, only one member of that first Special Response team remains in Anniston, the department’s current chief, Layton McGrady.
“I’ll miss Buddha most for his sense of humor,” McGrady said with a laugh, referring to Willis by an old high school nickname he got for being heavyset. “He had a lot of common sense, someone you could always go to if you needed some advice.”
It’s almost the end of an era, Willis said, but one he’ll be relieved to put behind him as he looks forward to retirement, spending time with his family, and dedicating time to his upcoming full-time gig as mayor of Weaver.
Throughout his time in Anniston, Willis said, he wore several different hats, working on patrol, in investigations, and most recently as firearms instructor. But the most stressful job he had was as a negotiator of crisis situations with the Special Response Team, which he said put him right in the middle of dangerous situations, where people’s lives could depend on his quick thinking.
“It’s a chess match,” Willis said. “You always got to be two or three moves ahead, getting them to do something they don’t want to do.”
The negotiations, the tactics, the thinking, the mindset, it’ll be something tough to let go, Willis said.
“I already feel like I’m going to miss it,” Willis said about no longer being a police officer. “There are just certain habits you have, like scanning a room before you go in, always sitting with your back to the wall, it’s burned inside your brain.”
Not that he has any intention of going back, he said. Despite retirement, Willis will have plenty to keep him busy as he takes office as mayor of Weaver in November. It’s not the first time he’s been involved in local politics, as he’s served as councilman and mayor in the past, but he hopes this time there won’t be as many time constraints and other commitments getting in the way.
“I think it’ll be considerably easier this time,” Willis said. “Before with a full time job and being mayor I felt like I was juggling all the balls in the air and just waiting for them all to fall. Now I can focus on improving the community and giving more energy and more time to what the city needs.”
Willis will also keep his side job as part of the Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure, a program where he helps fans experience what it’s like to be in the middle of a NASCAR race in his role as an instructor on the track at Talladega. On top of that, he plans to look over what he hopes will be an annual firearms safety class put on the by the Police Department, which will keep him in touch with the people he worked alongside for so long, without the burdens of everyday police work.
Which is exactly the way he wants it.
“I won’t miss the circus, but I’ll miss the clowns,” he said. “I consider all those guys my family.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.