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New Mount Holly police chief: ‘I’m a customer service person’

By Joe DePriest
Joe DePriest
Joe DePriest is a columnist for the Neighbors of Catawba & Gaston.

Mount Holly’s new police chief Don Roper gets to the office about 6 a.m. and starts his day jogging around town.

He’s staying in shape and checking things out at the same time.

The 3-mile course takes him up Main Street and by Mount Holly Middle School.

I like the image of police chief running around the town that’s in his charge. He not only sets a good example for fitness but a tone of community connectivity.

That’s important to him. Roper told me he’ll be going into schools and businesses and attending civic club meetings – steps to build strong ties.

“I want to be approachable,” he said. “I’m here for the people.”

Sworn in on May 13, Roper heads a department of 30 officers with a budget of around $3 million. He comes to the job after 26 years with the Gastonia Police Department. As a captain there, he headed the West District, a part of Gastonia where he grew up.

Roper is from a family of law enforcement officers. His father, Harold, is a retired officer with the Gaston County Police. Roper’s uncle Charles is retired from the Gastonia Police Department. All four of Roper’s brothers are in law enforcement – the Gastonia Police Department, Gaston County Sheriff’s Office and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.

Early on, Roper knew he’d follow the family tradition.

In St. Michael’s Catholic elementary school, he took pride in knowing his dad ran the school safety program.

Police uniforms, badges, patrol cars – those were routine around his house. Roper’s Boy Scout troop met at the Gaston County Police office on Highland Street. All the Scouts were sons of police officers, and Roper’s father was a Scout leader.

Troop members included Jeff Blanton, who is now an FBI agent. His dad was an N.C. Highway Patrolman and a friend of Harold Roper.

Law enforcement connections ran deep in the Roper household.

At Hunter Huss High, Don Roper enjoyed history, especially the Civil War and World War II. His grandfather and namesake, Donald Roper, had fought in North Africa, Italy and Europe and had earned a Purple Heart.

His grandfather seldom spoke of the war. Likewise, Don Roper’s father only mentioned the positive things about being a police officer.

Taking next step

Roper graduated from high school in 1984 and immediately enrolled in Gaston College’s criminal justice program.

In 1987, he started working with Gastonia Police as a patrol officer.

The first call that came his way stirred excitement: maybe it was a bank robbery or some other high-profile crime.

In fact, the call was about a cow blocking Robinwood Road.

During the years, Roper had varied experience in criminal investigation, homicides, vice and narcotics. He took advantage of all opportunities for training. Also, he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Gardner-Webb University and a master’s degree in public administration from Appalachian State University.

Working in Charlotte during last year’s National Democratic Convention was a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience, he said.

So was the three-month course for police executives at the FBI National Academy in 2011. The focus was on management, leadership and physical fitness. Roper will always remember the Yellow Brick Road, a 6-mile obstacle course depicted in the thriller “Silence of the Lambs.” Climbing cargo nets, crawling under barbed wire in the mud – “I enjoyed every second,” he said.

Roper left the academy with a network of friends from around the world. They stay in touch.

About 100 of Roper’s “FBI buddies” emailed their congratulations when he got the Mount Holly job.

Leaving the Gastonia Police Department was hard because Roper loved his job working in the west end.

“They’re good people out there,” he said. “They work hard. A lot have lived there a long time. They’re real people – my kind of people.”

Still, he had to move on. With his years of experience, training and education, he felt like it was time “to take the next step and put it to use,” Roper said.

He knew the Mount Holly Police Department’s outstanding reputation and felt it would be a good fit.

Former Belmont Police Chief David James, who stepped down as Interim Mount Holly Police Chief when Roper took over, thinks officials made the right choice when they picked Roper.

“He has integrity, honesty and will hold people accountable,” said James. “He’s got all the qualities of a really good chief, in my opinion.”

‘Do the right thing’

Commenting on his vision for the department, Roper said, “I want to take my time and look at what’s working and see if there’s anything that would possibly work better.”

Roper sees himself as “customer-service person.”

“Our product is the peace of mind of citizens,” he said. “I’d like to be the best provider we could be and see if we can produce a better product.”

His philosophy is simple: “Do the right thing.”

The day I visited with Roper, he was looking forward to a weekend visit with his son, Don Jr., who is a graduate student at N.C. State University, majoring in public administration.

I learned the new chief likes to ride motorcycles, hunt, fish and go camping. His reading tastes lean toward books on leadership. Currently, he’s into “The Art of War,” the ancient Chinese military treatise by Sun Tzu. “It’s kind of cool,” Roper said.

Staying in shape is a high priority. He’s training for a 5K and on weekends runs the rugged trails in the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

As police chief, Roper won’t be deskbound. He’ll be out meeting people, checking on things, connecting with the town of 14,000 along the Catawba River. He brings experience, commitment and enthusiasm to the job. I wish him well in this next big step he’s taken in the family tradition of law enforcement.

Joe DePriest: 704-868-7745; jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com
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