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As Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown prepares to retire after 33 years of service, we reflect on her lasting legacy.
“And so I think for probably the first couple of months, it’ll be just to take a deep breath.” That’s what legendary outgoing police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown says of her immediate plans for retirement after 33 years shattering glass ceilings and blazing trails in Raleigh and beyond.
Her last day is June 30.
The cap city’s first Black female police chief has no shortage of accomplishments—body-worn cameras, mental health first-aid training, Intelligence-Led Policing, the Raleigh Citizen’s Police Academy, and Reality-Based Training for officers with additional curriculum development come directly to mind.
But when I met with her with a host of questions ranging from Raleigh’s growth (the city jumped a spot to become the nation’s 41st largest in 2020) to its woes (think 2020) to its triumphs (“in spite of what 2020 had to offer and the events that happened here in our city, our crime was down at the end of the year,” she says), what struck me most—and undeniably—about Chief Deck-Brown is her humanity.
As we discussed her storied career, for her, the emphasis wasn’t on her achievements, but on the stories. There’s the leadership program she started for young girls over a decade ago, now called Girls Camp, that makes her glow. “Girls Camp has been a huge smile on my face,” she says, literally smiling as she says these words. “At its 10th anniversary, we had a banquet and alumni came back; we had college graduates, entrepreneurs… it was a huge event and just a phenomenal experience.”
There’s the recently launched I-Care team (a team of faith leaders) and Acorns (“the program that will give us an opportunity to better serve our behavioral and mental health community, and our homeless,” she says.).
There’s the Youth Summit of 2019—her brainchild (or what her team calls a true “labor of love”) that saw several hundred young people take over the NC State University McKimmon Center in 2019 for a before-unparalleled day of real-life adulting (think registration, keynotes, breakout sessions, workshops and presentations—even lanyards and swag bags) devised to “give them the experience, to give them a voice,” she says. It was carefully crafted; there was even a preliminary youth advisory board to help field topics. And—because youth—the daylong event included door prizes and a day party so the kids could dance with some of the celebrity guests.
“Hopefully we will do it all again at the end of this year,” she says (virtual or in-person TBD). There will be a new chief in town, but meetings have already begun to carry on the program.
She is joyful and animated when she talks about the brand-new 60,000-square-foot state-of-the-art police training facility slated to open any time now. And while she won’t get to actually teach there after serving her entire career as an instructor, it’s no doubt her lasting legacy. “The new chief gets to take that on,” says Deck-Brown. “The smile is that you know officers are going to have a premier state-of-the-art facility for training. … Stepping foot in that facility, I got a little giddy because it’s going to be such a phenomenal legacy to leave in this department for people to train in.”
She continues: “There’s so many projects afoot and so many initiatives that have been put forward that I believe it’s going to be a great opportunity for the next chief when they get here. The programs that we have in place are going to make this a great location to be a police chief.”
But she’s more than a new facility and laundry list of (remarkable) programs and initiatives. She’s the very message and reminder that we are all more than what we do or what we look like.
Perhaps when you see Chief Deck-Brown, you see the uniform, and your eyes fall to the badge. Perhaps you envision an austere woman hardened by a life of service, or—understandably—by the year that she has just endured at the helm of a capital city. (You couldn’t blame her.) Or perhaps you’re immediately filled with the respect that the badge and decades of service commands.
Either way, you’re lost in a symbol. You don’t get a stereotype. Or just a police chief. Or woman. You get a person who has dedicated herself to a life of service, yes, but who you also quickly realize truly loves her community and her family. Whose compassion for both radiates from within. It’s an immediate reminder that the person behind that badge is human.
“I think so many times we are so focused on the outward appearance of people, and, so, being a police officer, that’s what people see,” she says, “the uniform. … So much gets lost in the narrative. If you get to know those officers, you’d be surprised as to what you have in common. I’m an African American woman who just happens to be a Raleigh police officer, who just happens to be the police chief. Very often, you don’t know the whole story. I think we miss so much on who we are because we’ve made those assumptions based on outward appearance, and I think that’s where, collectively, we fall short as a community. People would be surprised as to what the men and women bring to the table to do this work.”
You probably didn’t know that Chief Deck-Brown has a gift for making custom gift baskets (before rising the ranks, she even had a gift basket business). Or that she likes to sew. Listens to gospel music. That she’s reading A Sin by Any Other Name. Or that she has two degrees from North Carolina universities. Or that she is too kind to name a “favorite” restaurant.
You probably don’t know how warm she is. How candid and thoughtful she is when she listens—and speaks. Or that she’s a loving mother and a grandmother (her grandkids call her “Mama C”—and one will be in driver’s ed before long). Or that her colleagues’ shift in her presence, in respectful admiration, emphasis noticeably on the latter.
And her humanity extends deeply into her passion for the job. “When you talk about homicides and you talk about violence,” she says with pain in her voice, “there’s still a name and a person and a life attached to every single one of those. And every time I get the opportunity to emphasize that and push that out there, I take advantage of that because it’s more than a number at the end of the day. I’ve just really tried to emphasize that in our city to raise the conscience of our greater community, and that’s been part of the intentional effort to shed light on the data.”
Now, at the tail end of a storied career comes what can only be described as one of the most volatile years Raleigh has seen, dealing Chief Deck-Brown utterly impossible challenges to maneuver with simultaneous epic levels of scrutiny. And she doesn’t protest. “You have to make some very conscious leadership-driven decisions that aren’t always the most popular,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to reach into your box of resources and figure out what is needed at that particular point in time. Human behavior sometimes is absolutely predictable, and, other times, it’s not. When it is fueled with emotion and rage and frustration and anger and all of what comes with that, you have to be able to respond in that moment in time and address that issue as best you can with the resources that you have.”
Her regret? “The regret I would say is that it had to happen. Period,” she says, followed by a long reflective pause. “We all lived it, so the greatest regret for me is that it had to happen here in our city and that it happened on my watch. We didn’t do everything perfect in our response to the events that occurred in 2020, but did we learn from them? And how do you grow from them? And out of that came a great deal of new relationships and experiences and realities for us.”
Deck-Brown is undeniably a decorated chief. She is the badge. She is armed and disarming. Sitting with her, listening to her, she is the living, breathing embodiment of unity. And, for her, that has always been the point.
“It is about serving and protecting and wanting to make the difference and allowing people to see what really fuels this calling: It’s about helping people,” she says. Now, as the last woman standing from her academy class being asked to look back on her years of service, she instead gazes ahead and says, “I’ve had the fortunate blessing of having 33 years to know RPD. I just really want to create an opportunity for the next chief to have a really fresh start.”
Beyond that? “I’m looking forward to doing a little bit of traveling and just seeing parts of the world that I haven’t seen but wanted to see, and just enjoying family,” she says. “There’s a lot of commitment and sacrifice that comes with being a police officer. There’s even more when you’re in a role like this. And now I really have a chance to enjoy the missed opportunities.” Send us a selfie from that river cruise, Chief.
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