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On Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, Estella D. Patterson was sworn in as Raleigh’s 30th police chief, succeeding Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown. Born in Panama and spending her formative years in California and Germany before landing in Charlotte for college (she also served as Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve), Chief Patterson comes to Raleigh after rising in the ranks of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department for 25 years in numerous capacities—ultimately as Deputy Chief in April 2019. As she takes the helm of her new city, we sat down with the Chief to ask her about her vision for Raleigh as “the safest city,” community-based policing, her first impression of the City of Oaks and more.
So, we have to ask, initial thoughts on Raleigh? These are exciting times to be in this city. I like it already. I’ve told people from Charlotte—I’m in Raleigh now. My husband loves it too.
You said, “I want to make Raleigh the safest city in America”—how so? When I say the safest city, I mean in terms of violent crime because violent crime is something plaguing the entire nation—it’s not isolated to here. So I want to be clear that, in making Raleigh the safest city, that means reducing our violent crime numbers and ensuring it doesn’t rise.
You mentioned community engagement as key to that. How do you hope to do that? I think the community is our strongest partner. Community members know what is occurring in their communities. They know who the problem individuals are, what vehicles don’t belong… so we’re relying on them to pass on that information. But I know it starts with trust. If there’s no trust, people are going to be reluctant to pass on information.
How do you work to build that trust with the community? Our officers have to be engaged. They have to be out and about. But it starts with me. I will own that. It starts with me being very visible to community leaders and members… getting out, meeting members of the community, talking with them and seeing what is important to them, what’s on their minds—and, from there, starting to really strategize on how we meet those needs.
We recently had a stretch of eight shootings in seven days. Does it worry you to have that many shootings in such a short stretch? First let me say that I wouldn’t want the public to be alarmed that Raleigh has a bad problem with violent crime—because when I came here and looked at the numbers, I was like ‘Wow—this is impressive.’ I’m used to seeing seven or eight shootings a day (where houses or cars are being shot into, not that people are being killed). Violent crime is low in Raleigh, which is good. We want to keep it low. Apart from the community,we can make sure we have our officers in strategic places and that we are gathering as much information and intelligence as we can—and being proactive—about: who’s committing incidents; if there might be an occasion for something to be retaliatory; knowing who the players are and getting ahead of that; and making sure we’re making those connections with those individuals. That sometimes will mean working with other jurisdictions because when we look at the data, we know the offenders are not always from this area.
Of the homicides recorded year to date, a third occurred in Southeast Raleigh; how do you walk the line between police presence vs. overpatrolling the area? The key is being in the neighborhoods, but not for enforcement. That’s where you start to see going over the line to overpolicing—when we are stopping every car, getting out with every individual, and then people don’t feel like the police are there to help them; they feel police are only there to enforce. But I think our strategy needs to be completely different—we need to be visible in the communities for safety reasons.
How do you demonstrate that to community members? I’m going to press upon my officers that we are present as community officers, making introductions: ‘Hi, I work this area. I am your neighborhood officer. Here’s my business card. If you see something going on you know is not quite right, call me; let me know. Or if you don’t feel comfortable calling me at first, you can call CrimeStoppers to report the incident.’ It is so important to make that distinction.
Regarding interactions, where do you stand on the policy RPRD has in place to have body-worn cameras on and activated? I’m a huge proponent of making sure everybody has a camera, that they are quick with their camera, and that they have them powered on and they turn them on anytime they’re going on a call for service or having an interaction with the public. The cameras help officers more than they hurt in my experience. I worked in internal affairs, and I worked a lot of cases where officers didn’t have that camera on and they could’ve done everything right, but now we’re on the defense trying to work through that, when, if they had just taken that two seconds to turn the camera on to capture everything, we would be able to release that footage and show the officer’s actions were proper all the way through.
Shifting gears, street racing is on the rise in Raleigh. What can we do? Street racing is problematic and a huge frustration. If you give warnings, they’re gonna continue to do it—that doesn’t help. The most effective way to curb that is to seize those cars because a lot of those street racers, that is what they do all the time. They find open streets or highways, wherever they can find. It’s even to the extent where you have groups formulated that come from Atlanta, DC. We experienced that in Charlotte along 485 and I77. They call them highway takeovers. So, again, as police, we had to do a lot of intelligence work to figure out where they were congregating. We seized 62 vehicles and made it publicly known that if you street race, we will take your vehicle… and we’re gonna do it to the fullest extent of the law.
The RPD has over 100 openings. How do you get people to want to be police officers in today’s climate? Yes, tough times for that. But I am hopeful that people will see there is still nobility in this profession, that this job is rewarding. You have the opportunity to really impact lives and help people in a special way.
How can you play a role in making RPD a place people want to work? If I as a leader can ensure this is a great place for people to work—we’re listening to employees, we hear their concerns, I’m allowing them to have feedback, and they’re part of the decision-making process—then they will feel that it’s a good place to work. Morale will be high. If morale is high, we will be able to recruit.
Any initiatives in the works for how to recruit new officers? We are going to start a very robust recruitment campaign. We’re looking for applicants in places that I don’t think RPD has looked before, which I think is important. We’re going to look at officers who are BLET [Basic Law Enforcement Training]-certified, coming, for example, out of community colleges. Before, you had to go through our full Academy before you could be a police officer here, so we’re exploring the opportunity of saying you can do it in a condensed Academy because you’re already a certified police officer. You also have to provide initiatives, so I’m going to be working with the city manager and city council to see if there are other things that we can do—pay incentives, education incentives, different things that will make the salary and incentives competitive here at RPD.
How do you help recruits see the culture you have envisioned? I met with patrol training officers who are going through training and told them, ‘You’re the leaders in this field. You get to really influence the culture… not only do we have to recruit people and bring them here, but we have to retain them.’ That recruitment piece really starts with showing people that RPD is a great agency to work, and the best people to do that are those training officers and the people who work here. If they’re satisfied with the job and this police department, they’re gonna talk to other people about it.
Chief Deck-Brown had certain programs she was very attached to in her tenure. Do you have any specific initiatives of interest coming in? Working with the 100 Black Men of Triangle East is key because a lot of our victims and suspects tend to be young men of color, so working with any group that targets that specific demographic is helpful. [That includes] the NAACP because, again, we want to really look at those areas or those demographics where we’re seeing the most victimization and suspects. And there’s a way to work with these young people so that they don’t go into a life of crime. I am also drawn to the youth. I love to work with the Girls on the Run—I worked with them in Charlotte.
Any words to leave us with as you begin your legacy as RPD’s 30th Police Chief? I want the community to know I want to hear from them. I am very community-based. I came up in community policing, and I’m emulating a lot of what I have seen over the years with some of my predecessors and mentors. They were very much out front in the community, listening, hearing, eyes and ears on the ground—and I want to do that exact same thing. I want to engage the community, and I want to meet with all the various entities of our community—not just the African American community, but the Latino community, our Asian community, the LGBTQ community, our faith-based community, and even stakeholders within our business community—I want to meet them and hear what they have to say and what their expectations are of their police officers.
10 Things to Know About Chief Patterson
- Chief Patterson has been married to husband Lance Patterson for 24 years. Lance is a Battalion Chief of the Charlotte Fire Department, where he will divide his time until retirement (in two years).
- While the couple has no biological children, they raised their two cousins (Antwan Barnum and Dietrich Somerville, ages 9 and 11)—who, like Lance, hailed from Memphis. “We looked at their lives (both boys’ fathers were in prison) and were determined that they wouldn’t end up in prison.” Now 20 and 22, one is serving his country in the U.S. Army; the other just got out of the Air Force and is living in the Charlotte area. “We’re very proud to see they are doing positive things,” she says.
- The Pattersons have one dog, a 13YO beagle named Roxi (her brother, Romo, sadly passed away a few months ago).
- Gospel is Chief Patterson’s go-to genre of music.
- Self-described as a “football person,” Chief Patterson’s teams = San Francisco 49ers and OU Sooners.
- “Steve Harvey is a hoot!” she tells us about decompressing over Family Feud in the evenings.
- Chief Patterson is very passionate about The Salvation Army. “When I was in the military, they brought me home when I had to come home on emergency leave,” she says. “They took care of everything and got me here—so I always support them.”
- When she’s not working, you can find the Chief relaxing and spending time with her family. “With my husband now, our time is limited because he’s back and forth so much, so really I’ve just enjoyed him coming here to Raleigh and us just going for a walk or hanging out.”
- Her fave cuisine is Mexican (amen!), and she’s excited to work her way through the Raleigh food scene via restaurant gift cards gifted to her by folks in Charlotte to help her get to know her new city.
- The Chief named three as her top role models: Her late pastor, Bishop Edward C. Roberts of Calvary Christian Church in Charlotte (“He was a man of high integrity, just a phenomenal role model for me,” she says; her current pastor, Pastor Robert Merriwether of ARC Ministries, who gave the invocation at her swearing in; and her former Charlotte chief, Johnny Jennings. “The way I see him police and interact the community and with the officers at CMPD is inspiring to me. That’s the kind of leader I want to be as well.”
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