City officials face crucial decision in hiring the next police chief

When viewed against patterns and (mostly) settled norm, the announcement last week by Chief Catrina Thompson of the Winston-Salem Police Department that she’d be retiring by year’s end is not all that shocking.

Since the late 1990s, police chiefs serve no more than five years before getting the gold watch and, more importantly, a nice pension bump that comes with being the city’s top cop.

Thompson, as confirmed by the city’s human-relations department head, will be the sixth retired chief in that long blue line.

Five of the six were homegrown.

Each successfully negotiated a career ladder from patrol car to administrative office while attempting to juggle local politics, community sensibilities and the concerns of mostly young men and women tasked with the occasionally ugly business of policing a city with 252,175 residents — many of whom are not pleased to see them.

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Careers (and fortunes) of the aspiring have been dashed by failure to grasp subtleties.

And before year’s end, city leaders must choose another chief of police — this one facing record job vacancies among the rank-and-file and flagging morale.

It will not be easy and there will not be a more important hire for years to come.

Big job, challenges

First, a word of appreciation for Chief Thompson who, while not always seeming at complete ease being the face of the department, deftly managed to thread the needle between righteous community anger over the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and cries to “defund the police” which helped cause mass vacancies within large police city forces.

During the summer of 2020 filled with near-nightly Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Thompson could be found leading from the front by showing solidarity with the aggrieved, guarding the safety of the community and showing support for her cops.

“The city kind of took the middle-of-the-road in 2020 with ‘defund the police,’” said a veteran officer approaching retirement age. “It was the right thing to do.”

Still, the spotlight on police (and policing) helped drive a stampede toward the exits as experienced cops decided to seek proverbial greener pastures.

By most recent accounting, Winston-Salem faces a 25-percent police vacancy rate — down roughly 130 sworn officers in a force budgeted to have more than 528.

“Some parts of policing are ugly. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” Thompson said in 2020 while addressing BLM demonstrators downtown. What happened to Floyd, “was not just ugly. It was wrong. And we all know that.”

When she steps down in December — and very likely into another high-paying job — the newly retired Thompson, 54, will enjoy the financial security afforded by a pension of roughly $260,000 per year until she turns 62, when the amount decreases by about $50,000.

(Relax about the figures or use of tax money. Police pay into their pensions the same way as private-sector employees put money into 401k plans, and the city plows money that would have been withheld for Social Security — cops don’t have that taken out of their checks — into pension funds.)

To anyone other than a cop counting the days until retirement, their spouses, HR specialists at City Hall and accountants, calculating a police pension is difficult math: 1.85 times years of service times the average of the four highest years of salary equals benefit.

For Thompson, with a salary of $197,957, that’ll come out to roughly $260,000 — an additional $50,000 from a distinct ‘separation pay’ benefit that lasts until age 62, a perk originally intended to cover a gap until fully vested officers were eligible to draw Social Security.

For what it’s worth, per the HR department, the final salaries of the other former chiefs were: Barry Rountree ($162,778); Scott Cunningham ($124,080); Patricia Norris ($122,145); Linda Davis ($123,355) and George Sweat ($94,993).

All but Cunningham rose through the ranks of the Winston-Salem department.

New leader, old problem

For the next chief — man or woman, in-house choice or outside candidate — the challenges will be as pressing as they are obvious.

They begin (and end) with a 25-percent vacancy rate, those 130 jobs that needed filling yesterday.

The stoic approach has it that it’s a blip, a problem, but nothing that’s not being dealt with by professionals.

The reality is that crime remains steady, and with 25 percent fewer cops to deal with it, jobs have had to be shuffled. Cops once assigned to the street-crimes unit now handle primary patrol duties.

Technology can help, but computers and video cameras can’t wrestle drunk wife-beaters into the back of cruisers.

And that’s what makes the choice of the next chief so important. Finding a way to stop the blue exodus is crucial for public safety.

“We need a chief who attracts strong political support and strong administrative support for officers,” said Lt. David Rose of the Winston-Salem Police Department, and the president of the Triad Police Benevolent Association who was recently elected president of the statewide PBA. “We need one who takes a serious look at the administrative review process and makes it fairer for our officers.”

Put plainly, a new police chief will find ways to curb formal reprimands meted out over stupid stuff.

Things such as a cop being punished over paperwork — a noncriminal police-service report over, say, a smashed windshield — having it approved by a supervisor and later receiving a formal write-up for not calling it a violation of auto law or some such thing.

“Administrative review is the number one reason we have the vacancies we do,” Rose said. “We don’t want bad cops or dirty cops on the job. We have smart, educated people out there.”

In other words, treat working cops like grown-ups.

That seems like a simple place to begin a complicated search.

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj