Charlotte's new police chief says building trust is a must

Rosetta Mallory's son, Dwayne, was killed in a drive-by shooting on a Richmond street last summer.

She expected the visits and phone calls from family and friends.

But she didn't expect Richmond police Chief Rodney Monroe to show up at her door – or call with regular updates and comforting words.

Why are you doing this, she remembers asking him.

Your son is not just a statistic to us, he told her. He's a human being.

Monroe understands what Mallory feels. He, too, lost a loved one to murder – so he's keenly aware of crime victims' needs.

Monroe takes over as Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief Monday. At 51, he comes to the nation's 20th-largest city with street smarts and political savvy that made him popular – and effective – in cities where he has served as chief.

Over 29 years, Monroe has thrived in politically charged governments with powerful personalities – including former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry and former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, now Richmond's mayor.

But Monroe is equally at home in living rooms of average citizens like Rosetta Mallory – and on the streets talking with drug dealers and gangs.

Police succeed, Monroe says, by building trust.

That means forging relationships with the powerful as well as the disenfranchised.

“Trust in a community is like a bank account,” he says. “The more trust you have, the more the community will allow you to do. If you lose that trust, even a traffic stop becomes problematic.”

Monroe arrives in Charlotte at a time when residents' relationships with police are strained. A spike this spring in violent and property crime has people demanding action. A series of police shootings has stirred suspicion and drawn attention from civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who came to Charlotte Friday to challenge the investigation of a fatal shooting.

Monroe faced similar challenges when he became chief in Richmond, Va., and in Macon, Ga. He reorganized both departments and put more officers on the streets. Crime dropped. Public confidence grew.

Those who know him best say Monroe's forceful style can alienate command staff.

But his gift for connecting with people inspires cooperation from groups indifferent or hostile toward police.

He can talk to them, Monroe says, because he lived among them. He understands their fears and longing for protection.

“I always felt that people deserved to feel safe,” he says. “Not only to be safe but really feel safe.”

Drawn toward policing

Rodney David Monroe grew up in the 1960s in a working-class neighborhood on the edge of Washington, D.C.

The son of a carpenter and a night-shift nurse, he spent much of his time playing sports, watching TV crime shows, and hanging out with his big sister, Eleanor. She walked him to school and kept tabs on where he went.

The streets were dangerous as political and social unrest roiled the capital.

As a boy, Monroe remembers watching tanks rumble by his home in Capitol Heights, Md., in the spring of 1968 – headed for inner-city riots that erupted after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Smoke rose from gutted stores just blocks from his home.

“I couldn't understand it...,” he recalls. “Right there on the border of D.C.”

As a teen, Monroe saw friends fall into crime and violence. “I knew I didn't want to venture down any of those roads.”

He longed for order, he remembers.

He wanted to help people.

As a senior at Crossland High in Maryland, he went to the local police department and asked if he could ride along. He didn't tell anybody, figuring his parents would worry, and his friends would make fun.

But he loved the adventure of it – the call for help, the race to the rescue, the puzzle of an unsolved crime.

“I had that urge, and I never could shake it.”

After graduation in 1975, Monroe took community college classes in engineering, but he was weak in math. So he quit and took a job as a security guard at an apartment complex.

The badge and uniform made Monroe proud. And in 1979, he became a rookie police officer in Washington.

No one, he says, was prouder than his sister, who had joined the Army and would later join the special police force at the Smithsonian Institution.

“My sister was my safe haven,” says Monroe. “I looked up to her.… She always tried to make sure I did the right thing.”

America's ‘murder capital'

Monroe caught the eye of police brass as a young sergeant.

In the mid-1980s, protesters had taken to the streets and police were assembling to keep order. Monroe stood among them and spoke.

First, he told his officers to be tough but respectful. Then, with an assistant police chief looking on, Monroe turned to the crowd and urged calm.

Isaac Fulwood can still see the 5-foot-7 officer commanding respect.

“That was pretty impressive to me,” says Fulwood, who soon became chief. “That's the whole game. You have to be able to talk to people.”

Fulwood became Monroe's mentor. Monroe rose quickly, from sergeant to assistant chief in seven years.

In the 1990s, he ran operations in one of the most dangerous sections of a city that had become known as the “murder capital” of America.

He also supervised crowd control for President Clinton's first inauguration and for the Million Man March.

As a commander, Monroe emulated Fulwood's practice of showing up at crime scenes – to show that leadership cared.

Throughout his career, Monroe – who'd married his high school sweetheart and started a family – says he embraced Fulwood's advice:

Don't neglect your family.

Never think you're better than your officers.

Police can't do anything alone: We need the community more than it needs us.

Activist Robert Woodson remembers Monroe's talent for winning the trust even of criminals.

The two worked together in the late 1990s to broker a truce among gangs responsible for 53 murders in a year, says Woodson, who runs a nonprofit anti-violence group in Washington.

Tensions between the gangs and police were rising.

So Monroe gathered his officers and Woodson corralled gang leaders – and they all sat down to breakfast in a church basement and made peace, Woodson says.

Eventually, gang members trusted Monroe enough to leave notes with crime tips on the seat of his patrol car, Woodson recalls. But Monroe stayed tough on them.

“He is a man who has enjoyed a lot of respect (among) a good cross-section of the community – particularly the drug dealers,” Woodson says. “They knew he'd lock them up.”

Crime hits home

After 22 years and a police force shakeup that meant a brief demotion for Monroe, he left Washington for a big opportunity in a smaller town – taking over as chief in Macon in 2001.

It was a department in turmoil, serving a town of 100,000 people.

The mayor had fired Monroe's predecessor, accusing the chief of spying on him. The department had no pay scale and was under a legal order to improve racial diversity, which effectively froze officers' promotions.

Residents wanted a more responsive police force.

Monroe restructured the department and started a neighborhood-policing plan, guided by crime mapping and analysis. The idea was to identify crime trends block by block and adjust tactics in response.

Monroe held weekly meetings and put his commanders on the spot.

Maj. Tonnie Williams, a 25-year veteran, remembers the humiliation he felt when he failed to recognize a crime trend.

“He chewed me a new one,” says Williams, who vowed to himself to never again be unprepared.

“If he ever locked in,” Williams says, “he was like a pit bull dog on your behind.”

Monroe had been in Macon less than a year when he got a phone call with devastating news.

His sister Eleanor was dead.

His only sibling had been beaten to death by her boyfriend in her home in Capitol Heights, Md.

Monroe packed up his family and drove back.

He thought about moving home for good. Eleanor's daughter and grandsons needed him.

Then, the cards began to arrive.

They came from Macon citizens and school kids. One elementary class repeated what Monroe had once told them: Lean on your family and community in difficult times.

The outpouring reminded Monroe he had a larger family that needed him, too.

“It was just wild,” he says. “I went back, and I let them know it was because of them that I came back.”

The experience deepened his compassion for crime victims and their families.

“I'd been to countless homicide scenes. But from that period forward, it just brought more meaning for me,” he says. “How I was treated is how, I think, everybody should be treated: with dignity, respect.”

Climbing the ladder

Monroe's department ran into problems in 2004.

Investigators began probing whether Macon police misused federal grant money. Monroe hasn't been accused of wrongdoing, and a federal investigation continues.

The same year, the department failed to meet 15 national accreditation standards – including failing to update officers on the law and evaluate their performance annually.

Monroe says his department was performing evaluations and meeting other standards but hadn't kept good records to document their work.

Macon's current chief told the Macon Telegraph in 2006 that under Monroe “the department got too loose.”

The chief, Mike Burns, told the Observer that Monroe was a good chief but his department hadn't been following procedures that met accreditation standards. The department also had taken on a casual feel, he said, with some officers coming to work in polo shirts and baseball caps.

But the problems didn't erode Monroe's support.

“He was able to form bridges to a lot of segments of the community,” says Macon city councilwoman Elaine Lucas. “So he was trusted and respected by large numbers of people.”

In 2005, Monroe applied for the police chief job in Richmond, a city of 200,000 and one of America's most dangerous.

Monroe's style and achievements impressed Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder, the former Virginia governor, who hired him. It didn't worry Wilder that Monroe had no college degree – but the 1992 presidential hopeful encouraged Monroe to go back to school.

Richmond residents were angry about crime, drug trafficking and several police shootings. In the three previous years, police had shot 11 suspects, killing five.

Civil rights lawyer Steven Benjamin says he heard far fewer complaints about excessive force under Monroe's leadership.

“It appears Monroe has taken some very positive, constructive steps to remedy a very bad, destructive situation,” says Benjamin, who has in lawsuits represented the families of five people shot by Richmond officers.

The number of major violent and property crimes dropped 31 percent from 2005 to 2007. Homicides fell to a 26-year low.

Monroe also reached another milestone: Virginia Commonwealth University last year awarded him a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies.

He had taken six credit hours at the school and transferred other credits he earned at community colleges and an online university. Virginia Commonwealth normally requires at least 30 hours and is now investigating whether the college acted appropriately.

While Monroe is still answering questions about his degree, his department made news last week when photos emerged on the Internet showing some on-duty Richmond officers with scantily clad women in racy poses on the street. The department is investigating.

Changes for Charlotte

Monroe says he isn't sure what changes he'll make in Charlotte.

If the past is an indicator, he'll shuffle command staff, reassign veterans and dismantle specialty units. He'll demand more money for the department, and put more police on the streets.

“He'll clean the streets up. He'll make sure police are on the job,” says Ernest Godfrey, 86, a Richmond civic leader. “In the period of three years he has been here... he has definitely turned things around.”

Monroe says he'll keep the best of Chief Darrel Stephens' community policing, but will push officers to engage more residents in fighting crime.

He may also order additional training for officers in the wake of Charlotte's police shootings, he says. This spring, CMPD officers have shot five suspects, killing one.

Two things Monroe does promise:

“A sense of urgency,” he says. “People need to understand that when we say we're going to do something, we're going to do it.”

The city can also expect a steady flow of information, he says – about crimes, about trends, about the department's performance.

“To get information, you need to be willing to share information,” he says. “The public needs to know we're going to be forthright with them, even if there are some things we do not do well.”