UPPER DUBLIN — As a student at then-Sandy Run Junior High, Francis Wheatley would watch police cars go by on Twining Road.
“A couple incidents at the school” brought the police out, and “it was interesting to see how they handled it,” Wheatley said. “It left a lasting impression.
“I thought it would be an interesting job, to deal with people and their problems.”
After 36 years in law enforcement, including 30 with the Whitemarsh Township Police Department and the last three as Upper Pottsgrove police chief, the lifelong Upper Dublin resident was sworn in as Upper Dublin’s chief of police May 14. His first day will be July 1.
“I feel I was called back home,” Wheatley said in a recent interview.
In high school, Wheatley joined an Upper Dublin Police Explorers Post run by Sgt. Hildebrand, which provided an opportunity to work with police and see the inner workings of the department, he said.
“It opened my eyes and secured the thought that this was what I wanted to do.”
One of 10 children, Wheatley said his dad passed away when he was young, but he had “a lot of good mentors, neighbors, friends, to get us through being teenagers.”
“I called Rod Hildebrand when I found out I got the job,” he said. “If not for him, I probably wouldn’t be in law enforcement.”
After graduating from Upper Dublin High School, Wheatley enrolled at Montgomery County Community College and in 1983 was hired as a UD police dispatcher.
Upon earning an associate degree in 1986, he was hired by Whitemarsh Township police — Upper Dublin wasn’t hiring — and sent to the Pennsylvania State Police Southeast Training Academy.
He later obtained a bachelor’s degree from Saint Joseph’s University, a master’s from Wilmington University and graduated from the FBI National Academy.
Wheatley has served as a field training officer and coordinator, Attorney General Drug Task Force officer, motorcycle officer and coordinator, and SWAT team member, currently in charge of hostage negotiations.
He is an instructor at the Montgomery County Police Academy and a part-time adjunct professor at MCCC.
“Continuing education has played a huge role in my success,” Wheatley said.
“As an adult learner, being in class with younger people, you hear stories about their interaction with law enforcement — the impact you can have; it changed my outlook on our approach,” he said.
While giving a presentation in a class at St. Joe’s, where no one knew he was a police officer, he shed a civilian jacket halfway through to show he was in a police uniform, Wheatley said.
“I asked [the class] if their perception had changed and 80 percent said it did. It was interesting … what the public think of law enforcement. Their conclusions are from national news, which is generally all negative.”
Wheatley said he tries “to instill” in other officers “the importance of interactions with the public day-to-day.”
At Whitemarsh, he was promoted to detective, patrol sergeant and patrol lieutenant and has received numerous commendations, including a Commendation of Valor.
As a juvenile detective, Wheatley helped establish a Youth Aid Panel, COP Camp for kids, Citizen Police Academy and Volunteers in Police Service program.
With a team of college interns, he developed a Victim’s Assistance Liaison Unit, Senior Assistance Program and Student Coalition.
The coalition is a collaborative effort between students at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School and Germantown Academy, their counselors and local police.
“We worked with them to tackle issues and help develop campaigns,” creating an awareness of the dangers of drinking and drugs, bullying, seatbelt safety and car safety, he said. “Early in my career kids didn’t like the police; that changed.”
In 2016, Wheatley took “an opportunity to be a chief in a small police department [Upper Pottsgrove],” he said. “It was eye-opening for me. I was so unaware of how small police departments operate.
“The department was allotted nine officers, but was down to five,” Wheatley said. “I had to start a hiring process, get and train new officers. The equipment was rundown, there was a lack of policies and procedures.”
As a working chief, he also responded to calls.
“We were able to get some grants … do some good things to get the department up and running,” Wheatley said, and he “was able to start a Student Coalition at Pottsgrove Middle School.”
Late last year, Wheatley also filled in as acting township manager.
The lure of Upper Dublin is “coming home to the department where I started. I was raised and went to school here,” and at Whitemarsh worked closely with a number of UD officers, said the 55-year-old married father of three.
“I’m excited to come home and not have to start over,” he said. “Upper Dublin has 40 officers. It’s well-established with command and divisions and there’s collaboration between the commissioners and the officers.”
He plans to take six months to a year to “assess what’s going on,” he said, adding, “It’s important not to walk through the door with immediate goals.”
The department’s community response unit “will play an important role under my leadership,” he said. “Traffic is a very big issue, speeding, to deploy officers where they can be seen.
“Engagement is everything in police work.
“I want to make sure we attain objectives and ensure the safety of everyone,” Wheatley said. “I’m looking forward to meeting residents and community leaders to hear their thoughts of what we can do to be better.”