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To demonstrators in Winston-Salem, Catrina Thompson seemed like an ally. Then protests turned against her own department. Unarmed and dressed in a navy polo shirt, Catrina Thompson spoke for almost seven minutes—without notes or talking points—until her voice tightened and her eyes welled with tears.
The protesters clapped and whistled. Several held up their phones to stream the moment on social media. In almost every case, heavy-handed police tactics seemed to make those situations worse, not better. That night in Charlotte, a little more than an hour to the south, officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters and officials declared a state of emergency. Cities around the country were seeing similar flare-ups—officers clashing with marchers by day and sometimes looters at night.
For the past three years, she had worked to strengthen the foundation of goodwill between officers and citizens, and she hoped that foundation would sustain this racial reckoning, not crack under its pressure.
For 31 straight days of protests, that is precisely what happened. There were no platoons of geared-up riot police, no rubber bullets, no swinging batons. Instead, the chief instructed her officers to close the ro and accompany the marchers on bicycles, even if that meant inconveniencing motorists.
Drivers can wait 40 minutes, she reasoned. These injustices have been going on for years. Because of that approach, there were no injuries and no arrests.
Unlike many of its neighbors, Winston-Salem, population , did not suffer so much as a broken window. You stood tall, and you represented this city and this department very, very well. One of the most notable trends is the small but growing group of Black female chiefs like Thompson. All but one of these women became leaders afterwhen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement brought the problem of police violence into worldwide focus.
Catrina Thompson seemed to be particularly effective. Not only had she steered her agency through a difficult few weeks, but she also seemed to enjoy broad support in the community.
Things were not quite as smooth up close as they seemed from a few miles away. She spoke to the crowd not only as a year veteran of the police department, but as an African American mother of two who worries about the safety of her own teenage son, who has autism. She brought a warmth and sincerity to matters of racial justice that her male predecessors had lacked. To her, things were moving in the right direction. She received bitter criticism from some of the same activists who had cheered her only weeks earlier. It would put pressure on the idea that one personno matter how accomplished, could keep peace in a Southern city in the summer of The air in Winston-Salem still smelled like drying tobacco inwhen Catrina Fambro, 26, arrived in central North Carolina to attend the police academy.
The eldest of four sisters, she was raised by a single mother and her grandparents in northeast Detroit. Her parents divorced when Fambro was 10 because her father, a former Chrysler employee who struggled with a drinking problem, became increasingly violent toward his wife. Gunshots nearby kept Fambro and her sisters from playing in the neighborhood, so they rode their bikes in tight, worn circles in the backyard.
Fambro pursued a computer engineering major at Wayne State University, thinking that would best suit her reserved, analytical personality. Her path took a sharp turn after agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms convinced her that a career in law enforcement would give her both job stability and an opportunity to serve the public. She promptly switched her major to criminal justice.
Fambro was the only woman in her rookie class but she graduated as its president. Nevertheless, she still felt that to be taken seriously she needed to over perform—in the classroom, at the range, on the streets. As Fambro learned while out on patrol, her new community had a vibrant but troubled racial history.
At the turn of the 20th century, Winston-Salem was the industrial hub of over 30 tobacco companies, including R. Reynolds, and the Hanes textile empire, offering so many manufacturing jobs that it was a beacon for the Black middle class. By the time Fambro arrived, manufacturing had sharply declined and the city had become an uneasy blend of affluent white suburbs and struggling underserved communities.
The police department, too, faced a major crisis of legitimacy with people of color.
In10 years before Fambro arrived, officers from the Winston-Salem Police Department arrested an year-old African American man named Darryl Hunt for allegedly raping and murdering a white woman. Despite a lack of physical evidence, prosecutors convinced an all-white jury that Hunt was guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Inhe took his own life. Leaders in the city demanded change, and a civilian review board recommended the department reform its lineup and interrogation procedures to make them more transparent and scientific, which it did. As ificant as these problems were, Fambro still found a lot to like, even admire, about both her new city and the people she worked with.
Putting on a bulletproof vest, strapping a sidearm to her hip, and venturing out to protect its citizens always felt like a privilege to her. Fambro rose through the ranks, first in patrol, then in the recruiting, training and criminal investigations divisions.
Inshe married one of her fellow officers, Alonzo Thompson, who is currently the chief of police in Spartanburg, S. The two now split their weekends between cities. The couple soon had a daughter and then a son, who was later diagnosed with autism.
InCatrina Thompson was promoted to assistant chief in charge of the Investigative Services Bureau. If Thompson had one defining characteristic as a leader, according to those who worked with her, it was her openness to feedback. Some civic leaders took their concerns straight to Thompson, rather than then-chief Barry Rountree. When Rountree announced his retirement inthe city narrowed its search for a new chief to two candidates: Thompson and a major from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Thompson stressed her deep love for her community and the need for a zero tolerance policy in cases of police misconduct. A few studies on use-of-force practices bear that out. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 11 percent of female officers had ever fired their weapon on duty compared with 30 percent of men and less than a quarter reported having physically struggled with a suspect in the month compared with 35 percent of male officers.
But Dr. Brad W. More important for establishing public trust, he said, is having a police force that mirrors the community it serves. If they do it exactly the same, then they have every right to have the job just like anybody else.
And from the standpoint of legitimacy, they should make up half of police departments. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than 13 percent of law enforcement officers are women and only 3 percent are African American women. That percentage shrinks the higher you go in the ranks: Less than 3 percent of all police chiefs are female.
So when any woman—especially a woman of color—rises to the top of a department hierarchy, her performance often gets more attention.
That has been particularly true this summer, as the national spotlight focused on protests in large cities like Dallas and Seattle, both of which had Black female police chiefs. Inwhen U. Months after she arrived, Amber Guyger, a white, off-duty Dallas police officer, shot and killed a Black ant named Botham Jean when she mistakenly walked into his apartment.
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It cannot just benefit the [police] association. It cannot just benefit the police officers. It cannot just benefit City Hall. And it has to be ethical. It has to be moral. It has to be legal.
Civil rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against both Hall and the city on behalf of two protesters who say they were seriously injured by the police during those events. One of them lost an eye. Sheron Patterson, a faith leader in Dallas who invited Hall to speak to her church.
Before the protests, Patterson felt Hall was doing a good job, but the deck was stacked against her. James Forman, Jr. Nor does it surprise some of the chiefs themselves. In Pittsburgh, she became the first Black woman to oversee a special operations division, which included a SWAT team and bomb squad.
And, finally, as an accessible leader who believed in the principles of community-oriented policing. On top of holding listening sessions around town, she encouraged her officers to high-five schoolchildren outside their classrooms, participate in holiday events and mentoring programs, contribute to charity fundraisers, perform refugee outreach and periodically take pastors on patrol as a way of getting to know faith leaders.
Thompson was most proud that the rank and file came up with their own ways to build bridges. Enforcement patterns changed, as well. Whenever possible, officers worked with trained mobile crisis-management teams to reduce the risk to citizens experiencing a mental health emergency.
From toarrests for traffic violations—often a hallmark of overzealous policing—dropped by almost half. Another key marker, arrests for nonviolent drug offenses, dropped from over 6, in to roughly 5, inall while the clearance rates for violent crimes stayed at or above the national average. None of this means that Winston-Salem is a crime-free oasis. In keeping with the national trend, incidents of violent crime have risen by almost a third in the past two years, and even though it is generally concentrated in specific areas, gun violence has ed for much of it.
Officers themselves are not immune.