City residents had their first opportunity to interact with Winston-Salem’s next police chief on May 21, during a public forum with the three finalists for the position at City Hall.
Kerr Putney, deputy chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department; Don Scott Jr., deputy chief of the Greensboro Police Department; and Winston-Salem Assistant Chief Barry Rountree fielded questions from local citizens before a packed house at City Hall.
The three finalists were chosen from a national pool of 60 candidates, following a rigorous selection process conducted by Developmental Associates, LLC, a Durham-based consulting firm that was hired by the city to find its next chief. The candidates were subjected to phone interviews with the firm’s Willie Williams, a former police chief, an emotional intelligence test and an in-depth survey, in addition to a variety of independent evaluations and hands-on exercises based on real world scenarios and people, Developmental Associates Founder and CEO Steve Strauss told the audience.
“These three candidates all excelled in that process, and that’s why they’re here,” Strauss said at the outset of the forum. “They’re all highly competent and capable of doing this job quite well.”
The potential chiefs fielded questions from a broad cross-section of the community during the more than 90 minute long meeting, which was mostly lighthearted and amicable in tenor and peppered with laughter and occasional applause from the audience. Nevertheless, residents who approached the podium to address the candidates didn’t hesitate to ask the tough questions. Many inquired about the candidates’ plans for addressing police-community relations, especially within minority communities, crime prevention and hot button issues specific to Winston-Salem, such as the Kalvin Michael Smith and the Silk Plant Forest case – which many hold up as a prime example of police misconduct and wrongful incarceration. The placement of stationary police checkpoints, an issue which prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten a lawsuit against the WSPD last year, was also broached.
The candidates were on one accord on the bulk of their responses. All three men emphasized face-to-face conversations and utilizing a variety of tools, from meetings to social media, to strengthen police-community relations and build public trust.
Rountree, a 25 year veteran of the WSPD, said he would partner with community agencies that serve at-risk youth and adults to curb crime rates and reduce recidivism.
“We can’t lock everybody up,” he said. “We need to get them jobs, we need to get them education, we need to get them training so they can go out and contribute to the community.”
If selected, the men said they would make creating and implementing a strategic plan a top priority and would work to increase the presence and power of neighborhood watches and associations, which they said is an effective tool in crime prevention.
“Neighborhood watch is a program that really works. It gets people engaged and it demonstrates the power that they have when they come together,” Putney said. “I would try to build on that. There are quite a few neighborhoods that need to get organized, that need to be empowered. My role (as chief) would be to do just that.”
The candidates said they objected to placing checkpoints in communities for any reason other than routine traffic stops, and voiced support for a community policing model, where police can rely on their relationships with residents to obtain information and keep the streets safe.
Scott, who has served the GPD for 21 years, emphasized supporting officers and creating a sense of ownership across the board at the department as an important crime prevention method.
“The key to all of this is that every beat officer takes ownership to their area, to your problems – that’s the bottom line,” he said. “All of us, from the chief down, have to take ownership and once we take ownership, that becomes our problem as well.”
The candidates said they would be willing to look into the Silk Plant Forest case – which Smith recently appealed to federal court – but would respect the court’s current jurisdiction in the case, and would push for pay increases and other incentives to improve retention rates within the department.
Putney said his passion for the work, which he sees as a calling rather than an occupation, makes him the best candidate.
“I’m a passionate type of person. What I do is I bring that energy, I bring that passion and I infect people with it,” he said. “…There’s nobody who’s going to work harder for you to create opportunities … You’re probably going to call me the Energizer Bunny because I’m not going to stop.”
Smith cited his proven track record of success with the GPD, which he says currently has an 80 percent approval rating, and commitment to crime prevention among his best assets.
“I’m not chief shopping. I’ve never applied for the position in any other city,” he stated. “I applied because I believe that I am the right person for the job.”
Rountree touted his community connections, a key advantage he says he has over Putney and Smith.
“This is my community, this is my police department. This is the only full time job I’ve ever held. I think I’ve paid my dues here in this community. We just celebrated our 100th anniversary (in the city) and I’ve been here for a quarter of that,” he stated. “…I’ve been dedicated to this city and this community, and I’ve served with distinction.”
Current Police Chief Scott Cunningham is slated to retire in June. City Manager Lee Garrity will select the next chief from the three.