Former Cary police chief takes helm at Winston-Salem PD

by Amy Kingsley

The city of Winston-Salem introduced its newest police chief on June 3 after a five-month search to find someone who can address rising crime and lingering questions about the integrity of the department’s criminal investigations.

Scott Cunningham, who resigned as Cary’s police chief in late 2007, will go to work on June 30. He is the first chief hired from outside the ranks of the Winston-Salem Police Department since 1980.

“I want to specifically state that the Winston-Salem Police Department is not in any way broken or misaligned,” Cunningham said. “Every agency that exists today has the opportunity for enhancement, and that’s what I’m here to do.”

In his introduction, City Manager Lee Garrity praised Cunningham for reducing crime in Tampa, Fla. and increasing diversity in the Cary police force.

Before his two-and-a-half year stint as Cary’s police chief, Cunningham worked at the Tampa Police Department, where he rose to the position of assistant chief. While he was in Tampa, Cunningham was investigated by internal affairs after he got a home loan through the taxpayer-supported Challenge Fund. Investigators determined that Cunningham’s salary was too high to qualify for the program, but they also said he had not intentionally committed any wrongdoing.

Cunningham will be taking control of a department that’s been under the microscope since 2006, when the city empanelled a citizen’s review committee to examine the Deborah Sykes murder investigation. The council followed up with an outside review by Risk Management Associates, a consulting group out of Research Triangle Park, and another citizen’s committee charged with examining the Jill Marker investigation. Lawyers for Kalvin Michael Smith, who was convicted of brutally assaulting Marker at her workplace, the Silk Plant Forest, have appealed his conviction.

“Coming in the middle of the Silk Plant Forest case means I am going to have to catch up on all the issues,” Cunningham said. “But I welcome the process. I think if we can learn what happened yesterday, we have a better chance of preventing it from happening tomorrow.”

He’s also coming into a community that’s experiencing an increase in violent crime, a trend that’s also happening at the state and national levels. Recently the department created an armed robbery task force. Cunningham promised to examine the task force to see which of its programs were working before tweaking it in any way.

The new chief said he wants to tackle crime by increasing police visibility. In Tampa, he organized a realignment of officers that led to a decrease in violent crime.

“What I am looking for is getting visibility on the street,” he said. “It’s not just about catching criminals. It’s also about deterrence and reducing the fear of crime among residents.”

Winston-Salem has the Triad’s highest concentration of Hispanic residents, 9 percent. The Forsyth County Commission has pressured the sheriff’s office to crack down on illegal immigrants by participating in the 287(g) program, which provides law enforcement agencies with federal funds check the immigration status of criminal suspects.

Cunningham said he was wary of programs that singled out parts of the population for extra scrutiny, but he did not rule out the police department’s participation in the program.

“The police department has to build the trust of everyone it serves,” he said. “If a part of the community feels like they can’t trust us, they will be less likely to call us when they’ve been victimized. And if criminals think they can get away with it in one part of the community, then the entire community is in danger.”

City Manager Lee Garrity hailed the process as one of the most transparent in city history. More than 900 people watched a public forum featuring the four finalists for the position either in person or on the city’s website. The city took public comments at forums and on a webpage set up specifically for that purpose.

The Minister’s Conference of Winston-Salem was one of the groups that weighed in during the search. After meeting with some of the candidates, the conference gave its endorsement to Capt. Alonzo Thompson, the head of the special investigations division and the only African-American finalist.

“It is not incidental that he was the only African-American candidate,” said the Rev. Carlton Eversley of Dellabrook Presbyterian Church. “And they are a group that has been targeted by police here and in the country. He had some coursework at the Institute for Dismantling Racism.”

Cunningham was not invited to speak with the Minister’s Conference, but Eversley said the group is looking forward to working with the new chief to improve relations between the community – particularly the black community – and the police.

“I would tell him to get to know the history of the city,” he said, “particularly race relations from a historical perspective.”

Because he’s an academic as well as a preacher, Eversley offered a reading list for the incoming chief: Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South, Black and Blue and Journey to Justice by Johnnie Cochran.

“The overwhelming majority of officers are good people who want to serve the community,” Eversley said. “But all of the riots in American cities since 1960 have started with a cop and a black person. It has been a really tumultuous relationship.”

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