No one said the new job would be easy.
No one said the year 2020 would be a walk in the park either.
Brian James has faced both — at the same time!
On Jan. 31, 2020, James became the 23rd chief of the Greensboro Police Department. It was a “coming full circle” moment.
He had grown up in the city’s northeast side. He graduated from both Page High School and North Carolina A&T State University.
“When you know the history of a city and you know the people in the community, it gives you that extra feel and that extra care about the community,” he told me during a recent virtual interview.
But little did he know after his swearing-in ceremony at the Carolina Theatre on a day when we were first hearing about the coronavirus and COVID-19, the next year would be one like no other.
“The most challenging moment was really the protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis,” he said. “Managing that on a daily basis to make sure that we kept order but at the same time allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights, that’s certainly a delicate balance sometimes.”
For the most part, James says, the protests were peaceful. But there were arrests, boarded-up windows and vandalism — all things the pandemic amplified in a way.
“The key (to preventing this from happening in the future) is the connection with the community which in the past year has been so difficult because of COVID,” he said. “Leading up to that (the protests) we really had been in a large way, disconnected.”
Then there were the 61 homicides in 2020 that set a new city record. James says gang activity, drugs and domestic disputes were all factors and that finding the repeat offenders will be a key to keeping the city from setting a record in 2021.
“The other part is that we have to make sure we’re actually in the right places,” he said. “We have to be in the communities where they are experiencing the most violent crime and being responsive to those complaints.”
But with most of the violent crimes happening in the city’s center and east side and with most of the victims Black, it presents an extra challenge given the decades-long lack of trust between the City of Greensboro and the city’s Black community.
“We’re not just going in again and just arrested people in any particular community,” he told me. “We’re also going to look at what’s going on in that community and try to connect that community to the resources they need.”
Speaking of resources, staffing his department has been a big challenge. At this writing, there are about 30 vacancies in the department.
“I want to make sure that our officers and our civilian staff feel like this is a good place to work,” he said. “Because if people feel like they’re valued and they’re contributing, I think they’re going to do a better job, and they’ll want to say.”
And when they stay, James wants each officer to “humanize” each person he or she encounters.
“They’re not just a call, they’re human. And we’re making important decisions that could be life-changing,” he told me. “But I would also ask the community that it humanize us because we are just people doing an incredibly difficult job, and we’re doing the best that we can.”