Residents of East Winston officially welcomed Winston-Salem Police Chief Barry Rountree to their neck of the woods last Thursday, just weeks after he was sworn in as the city’s first black male chief.
Rountree met with just over a dozen residents at the Fourteenth Street Recreation Center. The meeting was hosted by the East/Northeast Winston Neighborhood Association. Rountree, a 25-year veteran of the Winston-Salem Police Department, was selected from a nationwide search, beating out two other finalists from Charlotte and Greensboro.
“We are extremely excited about having another African American chief,” said Marva Reid, the longtime president of the E/NEWNA. “We were like on the edge of our seats (during the city’s final selection process) wondering if we were going to have the one from Greensboro or Charlotte. We wanted somebody who knows us, because we are going through some tumultuous times here in Winston-Salem.”
Rountree was delayed by another meeting, so Captain Scott Bricker opened the meeting. Bricker, who has served the WSPD for 23 years, oversees the Police Department’s District 2, which encompasses “everything east of 52,” the UNC Chapel Hill alumnus explained. Bricker served as a patrol officer in the East Winston community early on in his career, and says conditions have improved in the area.
“Things have changed, and I think from my perspective, things have changed for the better,” said Bricker, who has led the division for just over a year. “That does not mean that we’re content as a police department, but that’s the reason why we need to come out and have these meetings. We want to work with the community. We want the feedback of the community.”
Some of the community members in attendance echoed Bricker’s sentiments.
“I really don’t have no complaints … but I can remember a time when I had a lot of complaints,” one resident said, noting that the problems he sees in his community have gone from large to small. “I’m giving the Winston-Salem Police Department credit for what they have done over in our area.”
Residents voiced a variety of concerns, from speeding in their communities to the plight of young African American males, who are often over-represented in the criminal justice system. Rountree told the group that the department is currently working on a strategic plan that will help it address the city’s most pressing issues, and asked for their input.
“The community input, that’s how we’re going to shape our plan,” he said.
Community input is also vital in helping the police solve – and prevent – crimes, Rountree said. He cited the recent arrest of three suspects on Hattie Ave. as an example of what can happen when residents and the police work together to achieve a common goal.
“What made it possible was a young man and his father saw something suspicious and called the police,” Rountree said. “That’s how we solve crime. We can’t be everywhere; it’s almost impossible for us to solve things on our own. That’s why we need the community.”
Reid, who has led the neighborhood association since 2005, said she feels members of the black community will be more likely to report crimes to the department under Rountree’s leadership.
“I think he can help the department deal with the community better,” said Reid, who served a congratulatory cake she ordered in honor of Rountree after the meeting. “I think the community will reach out to the department better. There are a lot of crimes that go unreported because we feel uncomfortable.”
Rountree told attendees that improving police-community relations is one of his chief priorities as the department’s new leader.
“I’m committed to building a better relationship between the police and the community,” he said. “I think right now we have the support … what I’m trying to do is build on that and make it better.”
Not surprisingly, crime prevention and safety also top Rountree’s list.
“We have seen crime go down in the city for the last two years,” he noted. “We want that to continue.”
Residents peppered Rountree with inquiries about his plans for community involvement, from the successful Police vs. Community pickup basketball games, (which Rountree said will continue), to Chat with the Chief, a community-based initiative created by his predecessor, Scott Cunningham.
“I’m open to doing it, if that is what the citizens would like me to do,” he said.
Charlotte native Spencer Thompson says he is reserving judgement on the merits of the new chief for now. Thompson, a bail bondsman and Winston-Salem State University alumnus, said the city has seen a pattern of police chiefs who come in with big ideas but cut their tenures short. Thompson said a good chief will stay in it for the long haul, and work hard to maintain his ties to the community over time.
“It’s almost like constantly proving yourself. You can’t do it (meet with residents) one time and then say that’s it. You have to continue to improve the community, and it’s not just the police,” the 31 year-old observed. “The community has to help out also. It has to be both sides of the table. It definitely has to be a collective effort.”