Temporary No More: T'town's Police Chief Turns Things Around
Taylortown's Damon Williams didn't set out to be a chief of police there or anywhere else.
But when the Town Council fired former Chief Timothy Blakeley, Williams was the man on the spot. They asked him to fill in until a new chief could be appointed.
"You have to have a working police chief to have a police department," Williams says. "Initially, it was thought this was my job and they'd find someone as quickly as possible to be chief."
It was a difficult situation. No previous chief had lasted very long in the job. Williams had to think about that.
"When I came into the job, to any job, I am going to do it to the best of my ability," he says. "I came in asking myself, 'What can I do to improve the department?' When the new guy gets here, if he doesn't like what we did, he can change it."
Things didn't work out that way. The council asked Williams to stay on and take over the department. He decided to make changes right from the start.
"Because of things going on at the time, there were heated exchanges between the former chief and the council," Williams says. "The citizens were concerned. My approach was to do everything fresh."
He knew Taylortown needed new patrol vehicles and equipment upgrades. He sat down and made lists of what the department needed just to provide basic police services. Taylortown was using decade-old, high-mileage cars.
"There was no need to operate that way," Williams says. "The last administration allocated money to buy vehicles."
One of the conflicts between the council and the former chief had been over his using funds meant to replace patrol vehicles for other purposes. Williams put them back at the top of the list.
"You know, as an officer I was concerned about sending an officer out in a 10-year-old car trying to answer emergency calls," he says. "One of the first things I did was to put together a proposal to purchase new vehicles. All the council could say was yes or no. We had several options: Get three new or four used vehicles, or one new and several used. I laid out the advantages, the need to replace equipment that was in the old cars. They were really outdated. Several had been rebuilt by the former police chief himself, trying to stretch the resources he had."
He upgraded the department computers to ones that could operate Southern Software's PolicePack, a system that keeps an officer on patrol up to speed with everything on record.
"We brought on new officers, reserve officers," he says. "After they do their reserve time, they do get paid. No benefits, but a lot better than free."
From the beginning Williams knew he'd have to show the citizens something better.
"Initially, we didn't have rapport with the community, because of the conflicts," he says. "We didn't have rapport with the community. Now, we do have support from the community. We try to get out, try to look at things from a community standpoint, away from a police aspect. It's a small community. You have to get to know the people. I think now the community responds well to us. They know the officers by name. They see officers out and about. They see the reserve officers."
Like many small towns with small budgets, Taylortown makes use of police personnel -- reserve officers -- who work on a volunteer basis so as to keep their law-enforcement certification valid, and are paid on a part-time basis after that.
"They get out in the community and give of their time," he says. "They do a great job. So there are really no problems. Lack of resources I guess would be the big issue, with budget issues being the way they are."
'Doing Pretty Good'
Taylortown was forced to expend a huge part of its reserve fund balance to cover the cost of digging up and disposing of the residue from demolished homes improperly buried on-site in violation of state environmental regulations.
While the county commission was able to reduce landfill charges on the basis that the truckloads of waste Taylortown hauled for disposal was usable for needed cover, the remaining fees and costs of excavation hit the town hard.
Every department is feeling the pinch. Williams has had to forgo hiring a third full-time police officer. His department consists of him and one other policeman working full shifts, with the support of reserve officers making up the rest of the force. Still, he is optimistic.
"You know, crime is not actually up here in Taylortown," the chief says. "We are doing pretty good. You know, you get noticed when you have a bank robbery, of course. But major crime here? It's very slim. It is very seldom we have a major crime happen here."
Taylortown is a quiet, safe place to live, according to its chief of police.
"We have been pretty quiet here," he says. "Everything we have been doing lately has been proactive: just to get out there and be seen. We are trying more now to definitely be there to close the businesses in town, in the shopping center."
Williams is a young man, just 29, the first of three children born in Baltimore.
"My mom raised me, a single mother," he says. "My dad died. Mom raised me. I have two children, one girl and one boy."
He did his Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) at Sandhills Community College after earning his bachelor of science in criminal justice at Fayetteville State.
"Caskey and Murdoch and Tom Brady had me running around the parking lot," he says with a rueful laugh, thinking back to doing BLET physical training. "Oh, man."
Williams grew up in Hoke County, graduating from Hoke County High in 1998. His interest even then was in government. He was vice president of his senior class and served on the Student Council.
"After I got out of there I went on to Sandhills and got a two-year degree in criminal justice," Williams says. "I didn't do BLET at the time. I finished my four-year degree at Fayetteville State in criminal justice concentrating in counseling and technology."
That diploma hangs on the wall of his small office in the back corner of Taylortown's new Town Hall. Other certificates attest to postgraduate training in various areas of law enforcement.
"In the fall, I will be working on my master's," he says. "It will be a Master of Arts in school administration. I'll start that in the fall, at Fayetteville State, my alma mater."
Education was his original passion, and he had been working at Pinecrest High School as ISS (In School Suspension) coordinator.
"I handled in-school and after-school suspension," he says. "I dealt with a lot of kids that got in trouble, helping them find a solution to their problems. I did that for five years at Pinecrest, starting that job when I finished at Sandhills. I worked full time when I was going to school. I got to know a lot of people in the county, working with kids."
Getting to Know People
Former Chief Blakeley asked him to come on the Taylortown force.
"I started here as a part-time police officer in 2005," he says. "I came on full time in July 2006. I've been here ever since."
Back then, Taylortown's force had no second-in-command, no tier of rank below chief. Williams' title was just "patrol officer" when the conflict between the former chief and the council came to a head. Blakeley was fired, and Williams found himself holding the reins as chief.
"When Blakeley was here, he did kind of everything," Williams says. "Everything rested with him. I think that's the way he liked it, but I can't operate that way. Resources are just too few, so we have a 'No. 2' here. Sgt. Joseph Scott is patrol commander. We have two corporals. We have Corporal Thompson; she is patrol corporal. We have Detective Corporal Johnson, who is a retired Washington, D.C., police officer. Then we have the other reserve officers."
He's set up a Web site (www.taylortownpd.net) with photos of everybody on the force. Each has an e-mail address posted, and citizens are encouraged to communicate with their officers. Each officer has his or her own part of town.
"We have a community policing program in full swing," Williams says. "The town is divided into five zones. Each officer is assigned to a zone. The job is to get to know the people in their zone. Let the people get comfortable with you, so citizens will feel comfortable coming to you and expressing their problems. Make your concerns your particular neighborhood or area."
Williams says there isn't anything particularly new here, just a time-tried approach.
"It is the old concept from when police used to walk the beat," he says. "You knew that officer, and he knew you. We are trying to get back to that kind of policing. Since the town is so small, that is something we can institute and make work here. It is nothing to see a patrol car parked in someone's yard, and an officer talking with them. That is just another aspect of police work. That has been a successful program. We try to let people know what police do. We have a ride-along program, a summer youth internship program where young people come in and work and see that police are not just here to bust people -- to see that we have to do a lot more than most people assume."
Two girls worked as interns last summer. They came from the middle school level, and he hopes to have some high school interns this summer.
"They learn a lot about law enforcement and a little about the law," Williams says. "They get to go to court and see how the court system works. Last summer, at the end of the summer, we took them to one of the parks and had a nice day out. It formed a bond between the officers and these students. The purpose of that program is to get young people familiar with what police actually do, not just what you see on TV."
"Have to Use Judgment'
From time to time, Williams posts information to help young people understand what police do. One recently covered something many youths often don't understand: how to respond when stopped by a law-enforcement officer -- what to do, what not to do.
"We are a small community," Williams says. "We have to use judgment."
A cop has to know when to press forward and when to hold back. Judgment calls are at the very heart of any lawman's job, never more than in small communities where a hot pursuit could end up injuring the innocent.
Speeders through parts of Taylortown, especially on Juniper Lake Road, have been a particular thorn in the side of the community. The issue has been one of great concern to the Town Council and particularly to former Mayor Jesse Fuller, who likes to take walks. It was one of their issues with the previous chief.
But chasing speeders down residential lanes can be hazardous to others. Williams recalled one chase he had to abandon in the interest of public safety. The driver took off when he saw a patrol car coming up behind him.
"He turned off his lights to try to avoid me," Williams says. "He was going down into the Beulah Hill area, going out of town at 70, 80 miles an hour. I could feel my car going to turn. I says, 'No, this isn't just worth this.' You have to know when to terminate."
The fleeing car was not being driven by a murderer, just a speeder.
"He was speeding, and actually I was going to give him a warning," he says. "If I remember right, I was going to give him a warning. You know, 'I'll take this guy out, give him a warning that these are town streets.' I found out later who he was. You know, I had a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old. I'm not going to risk my life for that. You have to know when to terminate."
Williams counts on his officers to exercise that community awareness on their own patrols. Other public safety efforts include free citizen training. One is a CPR class he means to run on a quarterly schedule.
"Sgt. Scott is a qualified CPR instructor," he says. "We have different people who are qualified to instruct in various areas. Over the summer last year we offered a free CPR class. Some young people came out and got CPR-certified. We try to do things quarterly to educate the public on different emergency issues. We are going to come back to that again. I think April is the next CPR class. We would like to get more support from the community, get more to come out and get CPR certified; but we do it regardless."
Another new program will help the force cover Olmsted Village more effectively.
"We will have a bike patrol working there this summer," Williams says, "getting officers out there. We wanted to do it earlier, but didn't have the equipment. We have that prepared now, and we are ready to proceed. We have an officer who is going to bike patrol school. We have a school for everything. He will be going on bike patrol this summer. So far, the programs have been successful. It is trial and error. If something doesn't work, we move on and try something else. We participate in the governor's safety program, something that hadn't been done before."
The chief doesn't see Taylortown facing any unique law-enforcement problems. It has the same troubles as other towns in Moore County.
"I think all the problems we have here are just about the same ones everybody else is facing," he says. "Actually, we probably have a lot less. We have break-ins. We have a drug problem, just like everybody else."
"We had," he says. "I use 'had' in the past tense, because just about everybody who associated themselves with a gang has been arrested, maybe moved out of town. Not so much of a gang problem now, just wanna-be, but it's not flourishing and we try to keep it from flourishing.
"This is a small community, and you know when something is out of place. Officers note it and we discuss it, try to figure out what is going on, what the problem is. We try to counsel it before it becomes a problem and do a lot of proactive police work here instead of reactive. Everybody in the department has a niche, a place geared just for them. We have an officer who is geared toward gangs. He's studying gangs. He wants to understand how to work on gangs, and all the time he's patrolling he's looking."
Most are not full-time paid officers, but reserve officers with a full-time attitude, he says.
"They are working on a part-time capacity, either because there isn't a full-time position available, or they have other employment," Williams says. "We are not the highest paid people in the world, but there are people who have that passion. They have other things they are pursuing. Everybody just kind of has a niche. If there were full-time positions here, I would have more. It more or less comes down to the budget. We are trying to maintain what we have, and we have a positive outlook about it for the future."
He is working on the next year's budget now for a fiscal year that starts in July. He is hopeful but must also be realistic.
"The way the budget is, the town has to be looking at its resources in different areas," Williams says, laughing. "What I would like to have and what I would get are two different things."
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