By Catherine Pritchard
The Durham police chief called Gina V. Hawkins last year to ask if her friend was applying for the chief’s job in Fayetteville.
Hawkins, then deputy police chief in Clayton County, Georgia, was bemused.
“I thought she was talking about Fayetteville, Georgia, which is a small community,” she recalled.
Not at all, said Durham Chief C.J. Davis. She was talking about a much larger Fayetteville – the one in North Carolina.
Hawkins, then in her 28th year of police work, started considering the idea – and soon decided to put in an application.
On June 27, City Manager Doug Hewett announced she had won the job over two other finalists, including the officer who’d been acting as interim chief. Hawkins began work in Fayetteville in mid-August and now, a half-year later, is settled in and said she’s pleased with her new city and her new department.
She said the Fayetteville job had interested her in part because of the police department’s push to improve community engagement. In researching the department, she said she came to see it as top-notch and forward-thinking and she wanted to help it continue to improve.
And she liked Fayetteville.
“I saw the changes they were making,” she said of revitalization efforts in the city. “I was familiar with other cities doing that.”
It had happened in her own hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where she’d grown up poor in its inner city. She said revitalization happened there in the same fashion that she sees going on in Fayetteville. Similar things happened in parts of Atlanta.
“And because I had seen it happen in other communities, I said, ‘I can see they’re changing,’” she said. “‘They may not understand how they’re changing but they are and I want to be a part of that.’”
Hawkins, who is 50, is the first woman and the first minority to serve as chief of Fayetteville’s police department in a non-interim capacity. In announcing her selection last year, the city manager said he’d been impressed by Hawkins’ experience, education and diverse skills, including the willingness to listen to others, attention to detail, an ability to adapt and evolve, a sense of humor and the ability to connect with people.
Hawkins worked her way up through the ranks after graduating from Atlanta’s police academy at age 21. She then spent 18 years with the Atlanta Police Department, working in sectors such as patrol, crime analysis, investigations and internal affairs and rising to the position of assistant zone commander.
In 2006, she took a job as a lieutenant in a newly formed police department for the newly incorporated city of Sandy Springs, an affluent area north of Atlanta. Hawkins said she was one of 11 Type A personalities brought in to head different areas of the new department.
“That was the hardest part,” she said. “You had to be able to build consensus and get around cliques of who knew each other and who didn’t.”
She was able to navigate those tricky waters and was a captain in the department seven years later when Atlanta Police Chief George Turner called to tell her about another job prospect – as deputy police chief of Clayton County, south of Atlanta.
It would be a career boost.
But Hawkins initially held back. For one thing, it would mean a huge commute from her home north of Atlanta where her youngest daughter was in school and which was 11 miles from her current job. For another, Clayton County wasn’t Sandy Springs. It was, she said, “full of drama,” roiled by poverty, crime, community issues and political issues. She was about to reject the job when a trusted friend asked her to explain something – why she’d chosen her profession and why she continued to work in it.
“I said, ‘Because I want to make a difference,’” Hawkins recalled.
“As soon as I said it, I was like, ‘Why did I call you?’” she said. “‘Why did you make me repeat that?’”
But she knew what she had to do even as her friend underlined her decision by saying, “Don’t you think that community needs you?”
Yes, she thought. It did.
Moving into top leadership in Clayton County brought its own set of thorny issues, she said. She was the first person brought into the county’s police department from outside. Always before, promotions had been from within the ranks, which meant there was little incentive for officers to pursue further education and leadership training the way Hawkins had.
“I had to come in, knowing I had taken a position they thought belonged to someone else, and get them to trust me and to see that I was there for the organization,” she said.
Hawkins was there for four years – and loved it.
“I really enjoyed the community,” she said.
Then came the opportunity in Fayetteville.
Hawkins expected some resistance upon her arrival here. She was a newcomer. The department didn’t know her yet. And she was taking the job that many had hoped would go to Anthony Kelly, a well-liked assistant chief who served as interim chief after Harold Medlock retired.
But in fact, Hawkins said, she felt welcomed by the members of her new department more so than she’d ever experienced in her career. “I think I was very much welcomed,” she said. It felt like a great start.
Hawkins has a warm smile, a down-to-earth manner and an intense curiosity about how things work. In her time here, she has immersed herself in her new job and her new city and said she loves both and is committed to helping both become even better.
Often described as no-nonsense, she nonetheless believes her department must work as a team, with members helping and supporting each other and identifying their own strengths and needs for the good of everyone.
She said she wants the department to become more effective and more efficient and for its members to not only understand the importance of community but to realize they are themselves part of the community.
She recently instituted a major reorganization in the department, streamlining the command structure and moving at least 75 percent of the supervisory leadership into new positions.
Many supervisors will be doing things differently than they had before. An advantage to that is everyone gets a chance to learn something new and to help others who are learning as well, she said.
“I really, really believe in team effort and working as a team,” Hawkins said. “Nobody’s going to fail because we’re all going to support each other.”
Lt. Gary Womble, a spokesman for the department, said the changes are exciting.
“She’s breaking down so any walls and so many barriers in the way things are being done internally here,” he said.
“Once we got over being terrified, it’s created a lot of excitement,” said Major Laura Downing, now Hawkins’ chief of staff. “You see people moving and talking and getting excited about their new assignments and learning something new. It’s interesting to see.”
Downing said Hawkins has made it clear that every member of the department is a vital part of the team and if a mistake is made, “you talk about it and it’s over and it’s done and we all learn and we all move on.”
At a recent ceremony where 21 officers were promoted as part of the recent reorganization, banners on the stage proclaimed the department values that Hawkins says are key: Faith. Pride. Dedication. One – one agency, one community, one family.
Hawkins stood on the stage, congratulating each officer and posing for pictures with them and their loved ones. There were hugs and handshakes and big smiles as spouses, parents, children and other loved ones trooped onto the stage to celebrate with their promoted officer.
Hawkins said she believes the department will operate best if its members are well-trained, well-supported, engaged in the community, encouraged to be healthy and appreciated.
“We do a crazy kind of job that we love and every now and then all you have to do is say ‘thank you’ and we light up,” she said.
When someone in the community thanks an officer, she said it has a profoundly positive effect.
She said she will always thank her officers because it’s only right and it creates a healthier environment. Asked if this is a particularly female approach, Hawkins laughed.
“I don’t know any other way than a female approach,” she said. “But I’m taking it as I’ve grown and learned. I had to learn how to be patient. I had to learn how to listen. I had to learn that speaking up off the top of my head and the tip of my tongue was not best for everyone.”
That goes for personal relationships as well as professional relationships. The values can’t be separated from one realm to the next.
“I believe in love and I am strong in my faith,” she said. “I know other people have to grow and learn too. I think I have the ability to always look at everyone’s value. Everyone has a gift though they may not know what it is. Let’s see if we can help them figure it out.”