When Rocky Mount Police Capt. Laura Fahnestock takes over as Fuquay-Varina’s new police chief – the first woman to lead the department – it will be during a time of change.
Nationally, police departments are facing increased criticism following high-profile racial incidents and for using technologies that make police officers’ jobs easier but, some say, violate citizens’ rights.
In Fuquay-Varina, Fahnestock will be navigating similar territory when she joins the department June 1, replacing Chief Larry Smith, who retired in March after 10 years as chief. The town is one of the fastest growing in the state.
Adam Mitchell, Fuquay-Varina’s town manager, said some of Fahnestock’s objectives include implementing advanced technologies and making new hires so the department better reflects the town’s diverse population.
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Fahnestock, 46, is a second-generation police officer and a graduate of Millbrook High School. Her father was a captain with the Raleigh Police Department.
She said she’s going to take a gradual approach at first, without making any decisions until she meets the local police force.
“I’ll go in and meet with all the individuals, see what’s working, and where there’s room for growth,” she said.
In Rocky Mount, she commands the patrol services division, one of four in the department, with 105 men and women reporting to her. In Fuquay-Varina, the entire police department is 40 people, including 36 officers.
Rocky Mount, which is twice the size of Fuquay-Varina, is often cited as one of the most dangerous small towns in the country, whereas Fuquay-Varina ranks among the safest small towns in the state.
Yet in 2014 Rocky Mount’s overall crime rate dropped to its lowest point in nearly four decades, and leaders there credited community policing for much of that drop.
Fahnestock was a leader in that effort, and she said similar outreach is one of her main objectives once taking over in Fuquay-Varina.
“I’m very community-oriented, and I expect that I’ll be meeting with a variety of groups and introducing myself,” Fahnestock said.
Mitchell said that mindset – and the experience to back it up – contributed to her hiring.
“I have tasked her with (taking) what she did in Rocky Mount, which quite frankly was a community that needed that, and bringing it to Fuquay-Varina,” Mitchell said.
While Fuquay-Varina doesn’t have as much violent crime as Rocky Mount, it has issues with other criminal acts and drugs. The police department also made national news last year after officers pepper-sprayed a black teen inside his own home, believing incorrectly that he was a robber.
Town officials stood by the officers and denied that racism was a factor. Afterward, the police department stepped up its outreach efforts in the black community.
First woman chief
Fahnestock has served as an officer for 24 years in Rocky Mount, including 21 with former Police Chief John Manley, who retired in 2011.
Manley said he promoted Fahnestock to captain in 2005 and couldn’t have been happier with her leadership.
“She is extremely loyal to her superiors and her coworkers, and she is supportive to those around her,” said Manley, who is now the police chief at Elizabeth City State University. “Fuquay couldn’t have found a better person for the job than Laura.”
Fahnestock said she’s a proponent of data-driven police work. Manley said that fits her educated, organized approach.
Fahnestock holds both an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, as well as a master’s in business administration.
Under Manley, Fahnestock commanded three of the police department’s four divisions. He said he liked to move people around – even if they were more inclined to one type of role – but Fahnestock could do it all.
“She excels in everything she does, quite frankly,” he said.
Manley said Fahnestock’s gender was never an issue in Rocky Mount, nor should it be in Fuquay-Varina.
“She had the talent,” he said. “You had people, years ago, that wouldn’t have wanted to follow a female for whatever the hangup may be. But that was never an issue.”
She carried herself as an equal, Manley said. And being a woman may have helped her on the job, he said. Where men often want to only be in the thick of action, Manley said, she worked in the field but also welcomed opportunities to build relationships in the community.
Fahnestock said her family tradition of service has been unbroken for decades, since she started her career the same year her father retired.
And while she initially struggled with the thought of leaving her colleagues in Rocky Mount after so many years, Fahnestock said, she was ultimately driven by the chance to make an impact in her home county.
“I knew Fuquay was a wonderful department and a wonderful community,” she said. “I’m excited to bring my leadership, my experience.”
Before she took the job, Fahnestock said, she spent a weekend in Fuquay-Varina with her husband, Van, visiting local businesses and exploring the town.
“And I felt at home there,” she said. “I knew I could make a difference.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran