About 12 police officers sit around tables at the Subway inside Fuquay-Varina’s Walmart, munching on muffins while Subway district manager Garfield Oates hustles to keep the coffee coming.
“I’ve been trying to get them to come here for so long,” he said.
The officers, who were joined by several members of the Fuquay-Varina Board of Commissioners that rainy Friday morning, came to Subway as part of Fuquay-Varina Police Chief Laura Fahnestock’s “Coffee with a Cop” program. About every two months, she and her officers go to a local eatery to take questions and comments from concerned residents or whomever happens to be passing by.
Fahnestock is nearly a year into her role as police chief, and the reviews in the months since she arrived have been good. Colleagues, town leaders, community members and Subway managers alike have praised her outreach efforts in particular as nothing short of transformative.
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“Places in the community are calling and begging her to come,” Mayor Pro Tem Blake Massengill said. “They’re jumping up and down for her, which is great.”
After 24 years on Rocky Mount’s police force, the 47-year-old chief replaced outgoing police chief Larry Smith – “More of an old-school police chief,” Massengill said – not long after an October 2014 incident that brought national attention to the town’s police practices.
A young black man, who lived with white foster parents in a predominantly white neighborhood, was pepper-sprayed in front of his home when he forgot his key, and neighbors called 911. Fuquay-Varina is one of the only towns in southern Wake County with a substantial black population, and Fahnestock and other town leaders acknowledge a racial divide that persists there.
Rev. Anthony Farrar, who presides over Fuquay-Varina’s mostly black Faith Missionary Baptist Church, said he’s been impressed with the work Fahnestock has done to address that gap. She’s visited churches like his and became the first police chief to participate in the town’s Martin Luther King Day march.
Farrar recalled Fahnestock stopping the march when it passed the site where Sandra Thomas, a homicide victim whose case remains unsolved, was found. She asked to lead the marchers in prayer.
“To some extent, they did feel uncomfortable,” Farrar said of his community’s past relationship with the police.
“She’s really trying to build bridges with all communities, but she has made a special effort to build bridges with the African-American community.”
Fahnestock talks mostly in terms of specific actions when discussing those efforts, rattling off trainings and hiring standards she’s imposed to attune her force to things like implicit bias and racial profiling.
“With all the concerns and protests of officer-involved shootings, naturally I have a focus on training and education of our personnel,” she said. “I’ve brought in trainers to help our officers understand those communities that have faced discrimination and how different things in their history have impacted them.”
Fuquay-Varina has its fair share of crime – petty larceny is her biggest problem, Fahnestock said – but nothing as much as Rocky Mount, where she spent much of her career. That’s allowed the young police chief to spend more time in the community and try new things.
“This is overwhelmingly a pro-law enforcement community,” she said. “There’s a spirit of wanting to make it even better, and people truly love this community. There’s a sense of history, of caring about your neighbors.”
Fahnestock started a Facebook page for her department, which she updates with surprisingly helpful memes and “Star Wars”-related puns. Her postings again brought national news coverage to Fuquay-Varina’s department, but for a far more humorous reason this time.
Fahnestock chronicled the saga of an escaped pig, which she called the “Notorious P.I.G.” And when rumors flew earlier this month of a possible threat of violence at the town’s high school, her department used the page to calm nerves and explain why the town couldn’t release more information about the case. As of last week, the page had more than 4,700 followers.
Jeff Wenhart, who has worked as a detective with the Fuquay-Varina Police Department for the past 12 years, said the trust and presence Fahnestock has established could make his job easier.
“The problem is that many times people know who’s (committing a crime) or they know what’s going on,” said Wenhart, who previously worked with Fahnestock as a member of the Rocky Mount Police Department. “It’s not someone coming up from Fayetteville to do car break-ins; it’s local people. So that means it’s about our ability to build bonds with our citizens, our community, to get that information back and do something about it.”
In exchange, Farrar said, Fahnestock has encouraged a reciprocal policy among members of his community.
“She invited us, any time we see one of her officers conducting themselves in an unprofessional way, to let her know,” he said. “We were quite comfortable with that.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan