Speakers offer input on what they want in next police chief

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, March 22, 2023

SALISBURY — “How long are you going to stay?” That’s one of the top questions residents say they would ask a candidate for Salisbury’s police chief job.

Monday night, about 75 people gathered at a forum held by the Police Chief’s Advisory Board that gave residents a chance to voice what they hope to see in the next police chief. Moderator Anne Little, the town’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, had a short list of questions for those in attendance, which included a number of city council members as well.

The meeting was opened by Rev. Dr. Roy Dennis, who is chair of the advisory board, and City Manager Jim Greene, who will ultimately be responsible for hiring a new chief.

“There is nothing better than being open and responsive to the people,” said Dennis. “When Chief (Jerry) Stokes was here, we would go in, sit down and talk about what was happening in town, the procedures, and we felt like we had a voice. We want to continue that.”

Greene echoed the desire to maintain relationships already developed with the community while hopefully growing and improving them.

“This is a critically important position, and we want to have transparency in the process,” he said before outlining where the city is in the process. In March, he said, the city is gathering input, and in April, the process will involve putting together a brochure of the job, outlining not only the expectations for the new chief, but describing the city and all it has to offer. “We’re not just selling the police department, but this community,” said Greene.

He hopes to get “diverse and qualified applicants” to begin to review, and said panels will be set up for interviews, and he hopes to have the general public represented there as well. He hopes to “have an announcement” by mid-summer, but said even if a new chief is chosen by then, he likely will need to give notice elsewhere and make arrangements to move, so would not be expected to start immediately.

Once he updated the audience, he introduced consultant Merl Hamilton, who works for the Geisler Consulting Group, Inc. He  is a former Concord police chief and has worked in policing since 1981. He said he could tell the community the perfect candidate for him if he were choosing a new chief, but said he and Greene would be taking input from the community to begin to shape what Salisbury needs in its next chief.

“It is a challenge to hire a police chief,” he said, noting it is a big commitment because it means upending typically a whole family to move into a new community. So the city needs to be an appealing place to raise a family and where a spouse can feel at home as well.

He explained that background checks for candidates will be detailed and will include exploration of their social media, and that his goal is to give Greene a complete picture of the candidates for consideration. He then turned the forum over to Little, who said in order to guide comments, there were several questions she hoped people would answer, and the first question was “if you could ask an applicant any question, what would it be?”

The responses were varied,starting with “Why do you want to take this job here, in Salisbury?” and moving on to “What de-escalation training have you had and can you describe having to use that training in the field?” Questions included a candidate’s experience working with and retaining younger officers; willingness to work with the Black and Hispanic communities; does the candidate have experience working with veterans and the issues, such as PTSD, that can come with them; how does a candidate work with the homeless community; do they have training in working with mental health and substance abuse; thoughts on working with local colleges; willingness to address the language barrier when a non-English speaker calls 911; experience dealing with gang activity and drug issues; asking the candidate to detail a time they failed, and what they learned from it; and of course, how long does the candidate plan to stay?

Greene and Hamilton were both taking notes, and both expressed gratitude and some pleasant surprise at the feedback. But the audience was not done. Little then asked what people thought the top three characteristics are the new chief should have. The first comment was “there’s just one, because everything flows from it: integrity.”

But there were others listed, equally as important to those in the audience, including empathy, wisdom, anti-racism and risk-taking in order to make change.

“You have some outstanding thoughts and wants, but I do hope you realize there is going to have to be some give and take,” said Hamilton. “It’s not likely you will find a candidate who fits all this criteria, so I hope you can begin to prioritize.”

Little’s next question was what specific experience people believe is essential for the new chief. De-escalation came up again along with the thought that it might be helpful if a candidate had themselves suffered under some injustice so they would have personal insight into its effect. People mentioned they would like someone who had moved up through the ranks and experienced policing at different levels, someone with substance abuse and mental health training, an undergraduate college degree (or even a master’s degree), dealing with diversity, and experience in leadership, management and retention. Law enforcement experience was mentioned and it came to light that in North Carolina, a police chief does not have to be a sworn police officer to serve as chief, though he or she would not have police powers, including making arrests.

Finally, Little asked what a new chief’s top three priorities should be, and got responses including de-escalation, working with youth, addressing violent crimes, building relationships, dealing with gangs, fighting the drug battle, maintaining a budget, community engagement and recruiting and retention of officers.

One resident asked if, once a new chief is hired, the community could gather for a similar forum with him or her and “do this again?” Little and Greene concurred that it could, and would, happen.

“We’re pretty special here in Salisbury,” said Little, “and this is somebody who is going to take care of us. So your input is very important.”

Little said anyone with more input, or with something to add, they can email her at anne.little@salisburync.gov.