Because her husband is a 6-foot-7-inch black man, Cynthia Toudle worries police might one day mistake him for a burglar or criminal.
It’s a fear she mentioned at a recent forum in Clayton seeking public input on the search for the town’s next police chief.
Toudle said her worry is not a criticism of the town’s police department. Instead, she simply hopes for a future in which the relationship between police and the community leaves no room for ambiguity.
“We don’t want them to be afraid of us, and we don’t want to be afraid of them,” Toudle said of the police.
Clayton is looking for a replacement for outgoing chief Wayne Bridges, who announced earlier this month he’ll retire at the end of April. In a four-hour forum the town held to hear what citizens want to see in their law enforcement leader, two issues stood out among the crowd: equality and growth.
Clayton is quickly evolving into a different kind of town. Fueled by Raleigh’s suburban growth and its own industrial and commercial expansions, Clayton’s population is blossoming and set to boom. Residents say they want a police chief who can embrace and adapt to an ever-changing environment.
“Clayton is going to experience some rapid growth,” said John Sanders, pastor at the Church of Clayton Crossings, who stopped by town hall to offer some thoughts on the next chief. “I meet people every week through our church. I used to, even just a year and a half ago, meet those who were from Johnston County, and that’s very rare these days. I meet people who are mostly not from North Carolina. That indicates to me, as well as all the new housing, that the town is growing very rapidly.”
Some lifelong residents said they had seen Clayton seem to change all of a sudden, right before their eyes.
“We need to have an openness for communication,” said Sheila Hood. “I’ve been here my whole life. Clayton’s not what it used to be. I’d sit on my front porch and know everybody that came by. Now I’m just like, who is that? I don’t know. I can go to the grocery store and not see anyone I recognize.”
“Clayton is really, really growing from a little country town to almost like a big city,” Hood added. “There are lots of people, all different kinds of people. The police chief has to have an openness to communicate with everybody.”
The town has hired Developmental Associates to handle the recruiting and application process for the next police chief. Leading that effort is former Cary police chief Pat Bazemore, who said Cary was a town of 35,000 when she first joined the police force but 29 years later had 158,000. She recently moved to Clayton and said she sees similarities in the early stages of growth in the two towns.
“I’m so excited to be here,” Bazemore said. “It reminds me of what Cary was 29 years ago. So I’m excited to come here and see it all happen again.”
Toudle said Clayton could perhaps benefit from someone with experience policing larger more metropolitan areas.
“It should be someone with experience in larger areas,” she said, “so they can see the big picture. We’re little, we’re small, but sometimes people in the small towns don’t see the bigger picture, and the people in the bigger towns don’t see the small picture.”
Clayton hasn’t experienced any high profile clashes between police and the public, but Sanders pointed to a national tone of mistrust in communities and said any new police chief must be up to the challenge.
“Around the United States, there’s a lot of mistrust,” Sanders said. “And the police chief will have to carry that burden of something he or she did not create, but it’s something that exists in the minds of a lot of our residents. Fair or not, he or she is going to have to overcome some mistrust.”
Another pastor, Matt Evans of Greater Heights United Methodist Church, said it’s important for the new police chief to demonstrate equal policing and protection for all citizens. Part of that, Evans said, is being active and seen in the community, possibly meeting with churches and religious groups.
“More than enforcing laws, be someone that lets the whole community know that we’re safe,” Evans said. “Regardless of whatever demographic you might be, we can have access to (the police chief) and feel comfortable knowing they represent us and are there for our safety and that there’s no partiality. They’re not going to represent Glen Laurel more or less. Regardless of where we all come from, they’ll come to make us feel like we matter.”
Hood said the new chief should pay special attention to the youth of Clayton, to be someone who can communicate with them and understand their unique point in life.
“I think whoever is chosen should communicate and deal with the young people,” Hood said. “Young people have a lot of issues going on in their lives right now, a lot of things going on. I think sometimes they need a special person who’s able to get to them.”
The flashing blue lights of a squad car can be is unsettling. But Toudle said a big part of successful policing is what goes on in between the blue lights, the peaceful, quiet times, the times for conversation and getting to know one another.
“I don’t want to only see them when there’s trouble,” Toudle said of police. “I want to know who they are. When they drive Forum, stop by. If they see a neighbor on the street, stop by and say ‘Hi’ and tell them who you are.”