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Bill Kirby Jr.: Kemberle Braden to take oath as 25th police chief in city’s history

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When it comes to fighting crime in this city, residents are expecting only the best from Kemberle Braden.

Freddie de la Cruz is one of those residents.

“The fact that Kemberle Braden is a proven, decorated leader who served in various areas of the Police Department and has been in Fayetteville over 45 years is definitely a plus for our community,” de la Cruz, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor last year, said Tuesday. “I am hopeful that he will leverage police resources to reduce our high crime rate and ensure his police officers treat people with dignity and respect in the course of their law enforcement duties.”

Braden, 48, is scheduled to be sworn in by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons as the 25th Fayetteville police chief since 1832. The ceremony will be at 4 p.m. today in the City Council chamber of City Hall. He will succeed Chief Gina Hawkins, who announced her retirement after 51/2 years in July.

The ceremony will be broadcast on the city’s government access channel, FayTV, and available on Spectrum channel 7 or FayTV.net

Crime in the city was de la Cruz’s top priority in his election challenge of Mayor Mitch Colvin, and de la Cruz was quick to the point on June 12 during a candidate forum sponsored by the Fayetteville Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the downtown public library.

“It’s a sad situation we’re looking at how many people are being murdered in Fayetteville now,” said the retired Army lieutenant colonel with a military police background. “Just look at what’s going on with crime.” 

De la Cruz, who is 60, said he pursued the mayoral gavel immediately after protesters and provocateurs gathered at the downtown Market House on May 30, 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Hawkins held back city police officers as the downtown landmark’s stairwell was set on fire and the structure was damaged at a cost of $84,000 to the city. Officers did later respond to protesters as they later moved from downtown to Cross Creek Mall and north Fayetteville.

“The policemen were told to stand down,” de la Cruz said at the forum. “Why in the world would you tell police officers to stand down? If you're gonna arrest somebody, that would be the time to arrest him.” 

While Hawkins stands by her decision, Braden said in December that the chaos of May 30, 2020, could have been avoided had police officers intervened before the crowd grew and tensions escalated.

John Midgette, executive director of the N.C. Police Benevolent Association and a former Raleigh police officer, also has questioned Hawkins’ decision.

“To literally have officers stand down,” he told CityView in July, “it violates an officer’s oath.” 

Still, no matter the critics, Hawkins remains steadfast that protecting lives before property was the right call for all.

“I will always put life over property,” Hawkins told WRAL-TV reporter Gilbert Baez after her retirement was announced. “That’s a challenge for some to understand that. That is the best practice for experiencing and understanding what was going on in that moment.”

Mounting criticism

Hawkins would find herself at the center of more controversy  at the outset of 2022 that  would include the Jan. 8 shooting death of  Jason Walker, 37, by an off-duty Cumberland County sheriff's deputy.  The deputy was not immediately detained by police officers.  The drew criticism from community activists, including Shaun McMillan and Kathy Greggs, co-founders of the Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce; community activist Myah  Warren; and Mario Benavente, who in November was elected to the City Council.

And Hawkins was the focal point later in January after allegations of ethical violations filed by a Wake County attorney on behalf of 13 police officers. Hawkins was exonerated in all eight complaints by the Fayetteville Ethics Commission, whose members are Dymond Spain, Dale Knowles, Tracey Henderson, Stephen Rochman and Thomas Donnelly Jr.

The attorney also, in a related matter, represented Michael Petti in a civil lawsuit after Petti was demoted by Hawkins in 2019, from assistant police chief to lieutenant, as well as in 2020 over the termination of Lisa Jane, who was the coordinator of Operation Ceasefire that addresses gun trafficking.

Meanwhile, homicides became another point of criticism, with 44 in 2022, according to Hawkins. There were 43 homicides in 2021. 

“Crime in our city is our No. 1 issue,” Michael Pinkston, 70, would say as a candidate for the District 8 City Council seat during a June 30 forum sponsored by the Greater Fayetteville Chamber. “I am sorry to say this, but our city chief of police has to go. … We will never get a handle on crime until we get rid of Gina Hawkins.” 

Hawkins announced her retirement plans July 15.

‘Work cut out for him’

Pinkston, much like de la Cruz, welcomes City Manager Doug Hewett’s decision to hire Kemberle Braden as the next police chief.

“I have confidence in the new chief that he can pull it together,” Pinkston said Wednesday. “It’s something that will take some time, but I’m certainly willing to get behind him and support him.”

But ...

“He has his work cut out for him,” said Pinkston, who with his wife owns The Climbing Place just a block from police headquarters. “Gina Hawkins left behind a trail of bodies that doesn’t trust itself anymore. There is no love lost between me and Chief Hawkins. Hawkins left the department at such a low note as far as morale. I like that the selection was made in-house. But will he be a chief that stands on top of them or behind them. The new chief has a lot of damage control to do. Nobody trusted Hawkins toward the end. The FPD is at an all-time low on recruitment and morale.”

Pinkston also was highly critical of the firing of Lisa Jane and says he interviewed about 30 police officers about what happened to Jane.

But this day isn’t about the past.

This day is about tomorrow, and the tomorrows ahead.

De la Cruz, like Pinkston, is holding Kemberle Braden to a high calling.

“I would like to see him uphold his oath of office and arrest criminals in the course of committing a crime against people and property and that he is not influenced in any matter on account of personal bias or prejudice,” de la Cruz said. “That he will faithfully and impartially execute the duties in accordance with his oath of office.”

Epilogue

The police chief’s desk on the second floor of the Fayetteville Police Department overlooking Hay Street and Segra Stadium is soon to be officially occupied by Kemberle Braden, the son of a former police chief in Providence, Kentucky.

“I am ready for the responsibility,” Braden told our CityView reporter Michael Futch on Dec. 28, when the city manager said the $160,000-a-year job would be under Braden’s law enforcement watch.

Braden has the police pedigree, a lawman who was promoted through the ranks to assistant police chief by Hawkins. He’s been on scene for the drug busts, the domestic violence and the homicides, and literally in 2002 put his life on the line after taking five bullets during execution of a search warrant in Bonnie Doone.

“The city of Fayetteville will have a lot of people watching,” Gina Hawkins said on Aug. 18, 2017, when Hawkins became the first woman to lead the Police Department.

Her words were prophetic.

As prophetic then as prophetic this day of Feb. 3, 2023, for Kimberle Braden, chief of police, Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

Fayetteville, police, Kimberle Braden, Gina Hawkins

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