Four left in Winston-Salem chief search

by Amy Kingsley

The four men vying to become Winston-Salem’s top cop marched into the middle of the police department’s two-front battle to rebuild community trust and confront rising crime at a packed public forum on May 22.

The winning candidate will be charged with helping the department recover from two high-profile blunders – Darryl Hunt’s wrongful conviction for the 1984 murder of Deborah Sykes and the Jill Marker assault case that’s currently under appeal – caused by shoddy police work. The new chief will also lead the department’s campaign to curb a recent increase in robberies and violent crime that have put the community on edge.

“It’s going to take hard work and a lot of commitment,” said Assistant Chief Kevin Leonard. “None of us are going to be able to wave a magic wand and make the problems go away.”

Leonard is one of two candidates culled from the ranks of the Winston-Salem Police Department. The other, Capt. Alonzo Thompson, has been with the department since 1984 and leads its special investigations division. The two external candidates are Alan Dreher, an assistant police chief in Atlanta, and Scott Cunningham, the former chief of the Cary Police Department.

The four are in the home stretch of a selection process that began when Chief Patricia Norris announced her retirement at the end of 2007. The city hired the Waters Consulting Group to whittle the initial pool of 57 applicants down to the final four. City Manager Lee Garrity is expected to announce the new chief in the next two weeks.

All of the candidates addressed transparency and communication during three-minute opening statements. Thompson used his to reassure forum attendees that the police department is not broken.

“It is filled with committed citizens who want to stand in the gap between dangerous criminals and the public,” he said. “As chief, it will be my job to unleash the full potential of those personnel. Together we will create more best practices than we will ever adopt.”

Questions from the public often strayed into specifics. Citizens raised issues including the intractability of barriers between police and Latinos, the desirability of citizen patrols, the feasibility of motorcycle squads and the efficiency of different scheduling models.

In response to a question about scheduling, Dreher promised that his first task as chief would be to examine how officers are deployed.

“There are a lot of minds in this department,” he said, “and I’m very collaborative.”

He also said he would create a full-time Hispanic liaison to improve communication with members of Winston-Salem’s Latino community.

Cunningham promised to meet with representatives of the Latino community on an ongoing basis. Both Leonard and Thompson said they would meet with members of the community during their first 30 days as chief.

Dreher established a Hispanic liaison at the Atlanta Police Department where he’s served since 2002. Before that he lived and worked in Washington, DC, where he commanded police in the area encompassing Capitol Hill and the White House.

Recently Dreher’s department created controversy of its own when narcotics detectives shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in 2006 and then tried to cover it up. Dreher made a public statement less than 24 hours after the incident that appeared to exonerate the officers. Three of the officers involved in the shooting have since been sentenced to federal prison.

“It has taken a long time to get that community’s trust back,” Dreher said. “We turned over the investigation to the FBI, we brought in a new narcotics team, we retrained them and we reviewed our procedures. What happened to Kathryn Johnston was a tragedy. Those were rogue officers and they’re gone now.”

In a press conference after the public meeting, Cunningham answered questions about his abbreviated tenure in Cary. He resigned as police chief after only two and a half years on the job. Before he moved to Cary, Cunningham had worked in the Tampa Police Department for 22 years.

“If you look at the situation in Cary,” he said, “there were no issues, no discipline, no problems.”

Cunningham said the position was simply not a good fit and assured reporters that Winston-Salem suited him and his family better.

The four candidates offered glimpses into their individual policing philosophies. Dreher touted his success in Atlanta with a statistics-based program called COBRA. Leonard, meanwhile, questioned the usefulness of statistics for battling crime in Winston-Salem.

“Traditional policing was community-based policing,” Leonard said. “The problem is that now there is less incentive to get out of the patrol car and meet with the community. The trick is finding balance between response efficiency and community involvement.”

Cunningham explained the difference between community-oriented policing and problem-oriented policing in response to a question from a citizen.

“Problem-oriented policing is about dealing with the problems that are important to you,” he said. “It is an enhanced model of community-based policing. The key question is ‘Did we solve the problem?’ The community part is that we listen, the problem aspect is getting to the core of your concerns.”

The candidates also addressed recent reviews of the department by Risk Management Associates and the Sykes Administrative Review Committee. All four candidates said they would read and consider the report assembled by a citizens review committee looking into the Marker case.

“To disregard any report that is being worked on now is to disregard the will of the city council and the citizens of Winston-Salem,” Cunningham said. “Sometimes some of the best information comes from people outside the department.”

Thompson said the department welcomes the oversight.

“I would treat it like the Sykes Report and RMA report,” he said, “as a way to improve our professionalism and service. Review and oversight are here with us. They are going to become the norm for this department.”

He went further, promising to meet with the department’s community partners and its biggest detractors to open lines of communication into all parts of the city.

Leonard said the department is already implementing several recommendations in the RMA and Sykes reports.

“All of us internally welcome review,” he said. “Part of it is that we’re buying trust back, and it’s going to be expensive.”

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