Barry Saunders

Saunders: Durham hire brings another female police chief to the Triangle

Know thyself.

That’s one advantage I have over y’all. I know me. I know what I’m capable of – not a whole lot – and what I’m not.

The main thing I know is that someone with my propensity for messing up should never, ever date a police officer.


The two times I did both ended disastrously, and I was 79.3 percent responsible each time.

Of course, at that age, I would have messed up those relationships even if the women had been Waffle House waitresses. Only difference is, Waffle House waitresses don’t carry guns, billy clubs, mace and handcuffs or deal with belligerent people all day.

Saaay, wait a minute.

Despite the fact that I would never date another cop, I’m happy that Durham just hired a female top cop to replace the won’t-be-missed Jose Lopez. New chief Cerelyn Davis will be the second woman to lead the Bull City cop shop.

It is the sublimest irony that, at a time when some in our state legislature have much of the world thinking North Carolina is inhabited of a bunch of backwater Bugtussle habitues, the Triangle nationally is at the forefront of progressive policing. Four area municipal police departments – Durham, Fuquay-Varina, Morrisville and Raleigh – are being led or will be led by women within the next two months.

What that means for day-to-day policing and citizens’ interaction with cops is unclear, but it definitely shows that at least municipal leaders are not still in the 1950s philosophically.

Dave Weisz, executive director the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, told me Wednesday that 12 to 14 percent of law enforcement officers across the nation are female. Of the 650 members of NAWLEE, he said, more than half hold ranks of lieutenant or above, although some of its members are retired chiefs.

A 2013 Women in Law Enforcement survey sent to me by Weisz showed that there were 109 women heading law enforcement agencies across the nation. Those included, among others, municipal, university, county, federal, state, tribal, airport and transportation departments. In that case, then, we have five: the department at N.C. Central University is led by a woman, too.

That figure – 109 – sounds impressive, until you consider that 1,552 agencies responded to the survey.

The hire of Davis, from the Atlanta Police Department, was made by Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield. She takes over in June.

“To say that I was unaware that she is female and African-American would be a pretty dumb statement,” Bonfield told me Wednesday.

He went on to add, however, that Davis “excelled in so many ways that it wasn’t about race or gender. It was about how well she performed throughout the process and her credentials.”

How important is it to have women officers and leaders?

Very, Weisz of NAWLEE said. “The 21st Century Task Force on Policing that President Obama put into place came out with a report. One of the key things the report showed,” he said, “is the need to increase diversity in the ranks, not just racial but gender diversity and gender equality.”

I hesitated, lest I come across as a sexist schlub, before asking this of Weisz: Are cop shops helmed by women perceived as kinder and gentler, with officers less likely to whack you upside the head if you give them the fisheye?

“We don’t have any data that shows that,” he said, “but subjectively, we believe there are a lot less use-of-force complaints against female officers. I say that subjectively, just from anecdotal discussions, but we’re working to get grant funding to be able to study the differences between male and female officers, their use of force, their de-escalation tactics.”

Whether the nonprofit gets funding to study statistics or not, though, Weisz said, the leader of a department is important. “A chief of police is considered the CEO, the person responsible for setting the goals, the mission, setting the culture. A culture is very important in law enforcement. So is proper, strong leadership.”

That goes for women or men.