Liz Woollen has been on call 24/7 for the last 30 years.
Between 13 years working child abuse investigations and SWAT negotiations with the Tulsa Police Department, and 17 years as chief of Norman’s OU Police Department, Woollen hasn’t really had a day off in three decades. She’s been ready to answer her phone at 3 a.m., ready to forgo family holidays or celebrations for police business.
This year, Woollen decided it was time for a break.
Feb. 3 was Woollen’s last day at the OU Police Department, where she was hired as chief in 2003. There was no retirement party or elaborate sendoff, said Woollen, who requested that her OUPD colleagues keep things quiet.
“After 17 years of service to the OU community as chief of police...Chief Elizabeth Woollen is going to be retiring,” OU Interim President Joe Harroz announced at the Jan. 30 Board of Regents meeting. “I know we all care for her, she’ll stay with us. We’ll find a time to celebrate her, because she deserves to be embarrassed publicly.”
Despite spending 38 years in police work in the state, Woollen is not a native Oklahoman. She had no real ties to OU or Oklahoma when she moved to Tulsa in 1982, fresh out of the police academy in her home state of Indiana.
Woollen, who studied physical education in college, initially wanted to be a teacher or a coach. But when no teaching jobs were available, she trained as a police officer, eager to get a job that didn’t require her to sit in a cubicle. After a successful interview at the Tulsa Police Department — one of the few departments she’d found that was hiring — Woollen packed up her car and moved farther from home than she’d ever lived.
“It was an adventure for me, and looking back at it now, it was quite the adventure for my parents,” Woollen said.
Woollen ended up working in Tulsa for 21 years, tackling a graveyard patrol shift, the detective division, an undercover team and a child abuse investigation team. When she made the transition to OU in 2003, campus police life presented an entirely different set of challenges.
“I went from investigating child deaths [and] child abuse to soap in the fountain as a crime,” Woollen said. “So finding out what was a priority and what was important, it took me a little bit of an adjustment.”
Woollen adjusted within a few months, she said, keeping one campus policing principle in mind the entire time.
“One of the things I have never forgotten was President (David) Boren telling me, ‘Liz, I don’t want our students to leave here with a degree in one hand and a criminal record in another,’ and so I have always lived by that,” Woollen said. “And have worked really hard on, if they make mistakes, let them learn from their mistakes without having some kind of history that will follow them throughout their career.”
Woollen also quickly realized the importance of the tie between OU and the city of Norman, which surrounds the campus on all sides. In order to do effective policing and be best prepared for emergencies, the city and campus forces had to work together, she said.
While the Norman-OU relationship was already strong before Woollen took over, Woollen’s work with the city only created a tighter bond, said Phil Cotten, Norman’s longest-serving police chief.
“(The relationship) has always been really good, and she just fell into it the same way,” Cotten said. “When you have a good relationship, and then you become friends, it makes it really good.”
Cotten, who worked with Woollen for the last eight years of his career before he retired from NPD in 2011, said the two departments have multiple collaborative teams, including a joint SWAT team and negotiations team. The departments now share an intertwined radio system, and can call on each other for help when they need it, Woollen said.
Cotten and Woollen were invited to Washington, DC multiple times to discuss their departments’ tight relationship, he said. Though Cotten and Woollen haven’t collaborated professionally in about nine years, the bond they built while overseeing the two police forces still stands.
The two former chiefs still get lunch every few weeks, they said.
“She’s been a great friend and coworker throughout all these years,” Cotten said. “...Personally, I’m going to miss her because we were really good friends.”
After so much time in Tulsa, Woollen also faced another unique challenge at OU: policing sporting events. OU’s stadium can draw nearly 90,000 fans during major home games, and even more people congregate across campus outside the stadium walls. In 2005, a man set off a bomb about 200 yards outside the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, killing himself. The incident was a wake up call for Woollen, who realized how serious event policing would be at OU.
“We have a really good working relationship with the athletic department,” Woollen said. “In 2005, we had a major incident at the stadium, and then at that point, I think it was a turning point for our department and athletics. And we have built what I think is one of the best security and safety atmospheres that you could have at a college setting, at a stadium, in the country.”
Under Boren, who was president at OU for 24 years, the university also drew several dignitaries and prestigious visitors. Woollen’s job meant she has fond memories of interacting with Queen Noor of Jordan’s bodyguard when the queen visited campus in 2004, and watching author and historian David McCullough interview President George H.W. Bush at OU in 2007.
The 17 years at the university have had their challenges — Woollen said she was always pushing for more competitive salaries for her officers, and always pushing against the perception that campus officers are just “someone who walks around with a big key ring.” Norman’s OUPD employs about 70 people in total, including about 40 officers, Woollen said.
But Woollen said her time at OU has also been deeply rewarding. She’s seen her department grow stronger, more prepared and equipped. As she leaves the OUPD in the hands of an interim chief — Kent Ray, deputy chief of OUPD Norman — while the university conducts a national search for her replacement, Woollen said she’s proud of the department she’s retiring from.
“It’s been very rewarding, I think it’s been eye opening, I think it’s been life changing,” Woollen said. “I often have wondered how it changed me as a person. Because you see things and are involved in situations that a lot of people are not familiar with, [and] I always wonder if I would be the same kind of person now if I had not gotten this profession.”
Woollen isn’t completely slowing down — she still wants to work, but preferably at a regular 9-5 job that’ll allow her to leave work at work. Being retired will give her time for the hobbies she never got to pursue during her career, she said.
She wants to become a master gardener, take classes at Firehouse Art Center, tackle the books at home she hasn’t had time to read, and give attention to her true passion: her three rescue dogs.
“I told my friends that when I retire — you know, there’s always that lady with all the cats? Well, I may be the lady with all the dogs.” Woollen said. “They’re my family.”
This fall, Woollen may even get to watch her first OU home football game.
“To sit down and watch a whole home football game? No, those are usually 12 to 14 hour days and you’re on your feet and running around all over the place and [there’s] a lot of other things going on,” Woollen said. “So sitting home in a recliner, watching a football game will be something I’m looking forward to.”
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