REIDSVILLE, N.C. (WGHP) — Robert Hassell is heading back home — sort of.
After spending the last almost seven years as the police chief in Reidsville, Hassell’s accepted the chief’s position in Rocky Mount. It’s a city of about 55,000 people that sits on the border of Nash and Edgecombe counties east of Raleigh.
“I’m from a little town called Williamston just on the other side of Rocky Mount about 30 to 40 minutes down the road,” he told me during a recent virtual interview. “My grandmother’s over in Wilson with a lot of my cousins. One of my brothers is in Garner back towards Raleigh. So the opportunity to get back close to family was first and foremost.”
But he also sees this (Rocky Mount has about 40,000 more people than Reidsville) as a great career opportunity. He also stresses he’s not unhappy in Reidsville.
“I’m loving Reidsville. I have a lot of great friends, professional colleagues here. I’ve built a great relationship with the citizens,” he said.
One way you could describe Hassell’s time in Reidsville is “stable.” That’s why the city hired him in the first place. It had just gone through three chiefs in two years.
He became the first African-American police chief in the city’s history.
And not much has changed within the department. It still has about a $5 million budget. It still has about 50 sworn officers.
Those are the same numbers he gave me when we first met in 2014, a few months after he got the job. But there has been a big crime-fighting change that’s happened since then.
“I would say overdoses. So drugs,” he said. “And that’s come more to the forefront and on my agenda over the last few years.”
It’s gotten so bad officers now carry the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan in their cars.
Hassell also established the Post Overdose Response Team or “PORT.” This team is involved in every overdose call. A team member or members will meet the victim at home and — among other things — link him or her with services in the community that can help.
Since July 2020, of the 20 overdose calls Reidsville police have worked and the team’s responded to, five people have accepted assistance. Not necessarily a large number.
“Even if one person accepted help, I think it’s a success because that’s one person who’s now on the path of recovery,” Hassell said.
While the drug problem’s a challenge for just about every police department, Reidsville police don’t share another challenge common among law enforcement agencies. It involves trust within the community. The department’s own surveys show 95 percent of people in the city trust the police.
“But we still wanted to make sure the 5 percent that may not have trusted us as much, we worked very hard to reach out to them,” he said.
It’s among the reasons Hassell also created what he calls “CALM.” It’s short for Community Advocates, Leaders and Ministers. It meets for regular roundtables in an effort to foster a better community-police relationship.
It’s part of what Hassell says has been his greatest accomplishment since arriving here.
“It would be the strong relationships I have been able to build with our seniors, with the community as a whole to include our business community, our downtown businesses. Together, with the men and women who proudly wear this badge, we have built strong alliances and relationships with our community, and I’m very proud of that,” he told me.
He did say there is something that’s been somewhat of a disappointment.
Even though he and others have tried, they haven’t been able to make the police department more reflective of the community. Right now, 45 percent of Reidsville’s population is minority. But only 15 percent of the police department is.
That’s unchanged from seven years ago. But then again, all police departments are having difficulty finding qualified officers.
And that’s something Hassell will undoubtedly face with he takes the job in Rocky Mount, when he goes home — sort of!