Barry Rountree, the city’s first black male police chief, was sworn-in Sunday at City Hall.
Rountree, a Winston-Salem State University and UNC-Greensboro alumnus and 25 year veteran of the WSPD, took the oath before a standing-room-only crowd of friends, family members, colleagues and supporters. Sylvia Rountree balanced the bible for her husband and the couple’s son, Barry Jr., looked on, beaming up at his father as Superior Court Judge Todd Burke administered the oath.
The ceremony capped a week of highs and lows for Rountree. Just days before taking his place at the helm of the police department, the then incoming chief accidentally wounded a local woman, Tamara Whitt, after firing his service weapon at the woman’s dog.
Whitt was injured in the leg after a bullet that Rountree fired ricocheted after striking the dog, which Winston-Salem Police Department officials say was charging toward Rountree and another officer. Rountree was responding to a call related to a man wielding a double barrel shotgun on Jackson Avenue when the incident occurred.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill issued a statement clearing Rountree of any wrongdoing on Friday, but Whitt, who says she has had to postpone her August 30 wedding because of her injuries, isn’t so quick to forgive and forget. She and a handful of family members and friends gathered outside City Hall to protest Sunday’s ceremony, which Whitt believes should have been postponed because of the incident.
“I think it’s sad. People are just so caught up on the first black (male) police chief – this is not about race. This is about what’s right. He came out there and made a rookie mistake and he has not apologized or anything,” Whitt said. “The worst thing that could have happened that day was a dog bite, and he put everybody around him in danger.”
Rountree eluded to the incident, which he called “a very unfortunate situation” in his remarks, which centered around his intentions of “leading from the front” of the department by setting a positive example for his employees. He declined to address the issue directly.
“As humans, we often sit back looking out of our tent doors and sometimes we pass judgement, but I have faith that this too will pass,” said Rountree, a member of Galilee Missionary Baptist Church. “…Although there’s a cloud right now, I do have the faith to take this first step. I do take this oath seriously … and I plan to carry out my oath in a professional and ethical manner.”
Many of those who spoke during the ceremony pledged their ongoing support to the new chief and urged others to follow suit.
“We don’t have a stranger in this position, my friends. We have a dedicated, committed person who loves his job and who’s ready for his job,” declared Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke, the longtime chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee. “…I pray it will be in your hearts to support and to help him do his job.”
City Manager Lee Garrity praised Rountree for the strong character Garrity says he has displayed over the course of his decades on the job.
“Many of us have studied leadership, but character is the one thing I don’t think you can teach in individuals, and Chief Rountree has that,” Garrity told the audience. “We’re very blessed.”
Pat Norris promoted Rountree to assistant chief during her tenure as the city’s first African American police chief from 2004 to 2008. Norris, who currently serves as chief of Winston-Salem State University’s Campus Police, said she has no doubt that Rountree will serve with distinction.
“I think he’s a very intelligent young man, willing to work and listen to others to help solve whatever issues that he may face,” she said. “…He’s a smart man. He just needed the opportunity. As the city manager said, it’s all about character, and he has it all.”
Rountree’s mother, Annie Rountree of Wilson, said her son has displayed a love of law enforcement since he was a boy. Seeing him come full circle and take his place as the highest officer in the city was a pivotal moment for her, Mrs. Rountree said.
“It was wonderful,” the mother of four proudly declared after the ceremony. “I’m 81 years old and it was a blessing for me to live to see this.”
Rountree succeeds former Police Chief Scott Cunningham, who led the department since 2008. Cunningham was slated to begin his tenure as Chief of Police in Kernersville on June 30.