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Former Fayetteville police chief threatens lawsuit over alleged hostile work environment

Letter accuses mayor and councilmen of yelling at her; city says personnel privacy law prevents it from publicly responding  


EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify a point about Councilmember Mario Benavente. Benavente was not yet serving on the City Council in early 2022 when he is accused of yelling at former Fayetteville Police Chief Gina Hawkins and telling her he was going to get her removed from her position.

Former Fayetteville Police Chief Gina Hawkins says she suffered a hostile work environment at the city and she plans to sue if the city fails to reach a settlement with her, her lawyer wrote in a letter in August.

The Hawkins letter, first reported by WRAL, alleges Hawkins was treated poorly because she is a Black Hispanic woman. It outlines incidents in which Hawkins asserts she was berated, threatened and treated in both a racist and sexist manner.

The letter was written by lawyer James Hairston Jr. of the Hairston Lane firm in Raleigh.

The conditions that Hawkins endured violated federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commision regulations, Hairston wrote. He offered to negotiate with the city on Hawkins’ behalf “in the event the City is desirous of an amicable negotiation of her grievances” without the filing of a lawsuit. 

City officials, citing the privacy requirements of state personnel laws, declined to comment on the letter.

Hawkins was the Fayetteville police chief from August 2017 to January 2023.

Yelling, racial epithets, alleged affair 

Among the allegations in the letter:

  • In summer 2020 during a meeting of the mayor and several city leaders about civil unrest coinciding with the George Floyd protests, Mayor Mitch Colvin “continuously screamed at the Chief regarding police operations and the safe deployment of personnel. The deployment was proven to be the best and safest practice for the City of Fayetteville.”
  • At a City Council in summer 2020 which the public was barred from attending, the letter says, Councilman Johnny Dawkins used racial epithets about the Covid-19 pandemic. It also says he “screamed at the Chief during that meeting in front of the entire council.” Dawkins, too, disagreed with the chief about how she deployed her personnel, the letter says.
  • At the Police Foundation Ball in October 2022, Dawkins told Hawkins that a former city councilmember, Tyrone Williams, had claimed to have been in a relationship with her. This was false, the letter says. “It was offensive and a direct example of the culture created by council members spread lies about her as a female and being in a relationship with another council member,” it says. (Williams left office in 2018 amid accusations he had solicited a bribe from a developer.)
  • At a City Council meeting in early 2022, Councilmember Mario Benavente yelled at Hawkins and told her, “My objective is to take you down, I am going to get you,” the letter says. The meeting occurred before Benavente was elected and took office in summer 2022.

Defamatory blog, and the first of two investigations

The letter says an anonymous blogger began publishing lies about the police chief and the mayor.

It says two investigations were conducted to look into the blog and its allegations.

The first investigation was conducted by the city’s Human Resource Development Director Jerry Clipp at the behest of some members of the City Council, the letter says, and he interviewed Hawkins for it.

“During the interview, Clipp repeatedly asked the Chief sexist and racist questions which had nothing to do with the claims made in the blog,” the letter says. “The Chief continuously stopped the Director and told him the questions he was asking were sexist, racist, and offensive. The interview was so offensive that the Chief was emotionally impacted by the same.”

Clipp’s investigation found that there was “no policy or criminal violation,” the letter says, but Clipp also failed to interview Mayor Colvin.

Following Clipp’s report, the letter says, Colvin and Dawkins, who was mayor pro-tem, “demanded further investigation take place by an outside investigation contractor.”

The letter says the mayor’s order for another investigation without volunteering a statement or being interviewed for the first investigation “directed additional harassment towards the Chief” and “is just another example of the discriminatory environment, and evidence of how the Chief was treated as a Black/Hispanic female.”

The next investigation into the blog

The consultants hired by the city manager for the second investigation also looked into the blog, the letter says.

“They confirmed that the blog was filled with lies,” the letter says. “The consultants also noted that when they reviewed the interview that HR had with the Chief, they noted major issues on how the HR Director needed training on EEOC, interview techniques and active listening skills.”

EEOC is short for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision.

Continued fallout

Since Hawkins retired from the Fayetteville Police Department in January, “the hostility and discrimination has continued,” the letter says.

“The Chief has reason to believe that a member of the council contacted a prospective employer to recommend that she not be hired, based on some of the previously discussed matters,” it says.

City officials say they cannot talk about the Hawkins letter

Colvin and Councilmembers Dawkins and Benavente said on Thursday they cannot publicly discuss Hawkins’ allegations.

City spokesman Loren Bymer said North Carolina’s personnel privacy law restricts city officials from commenting.

“While the City would like to provide a response, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168 mandates that personnel files of employees, former employees, or applicants for employment maintained by the City may not be disclosed unless otherwise permitted under this law. As such, the City is prohibited from further commenting on the matter at this time,” he said.

Senior reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and pwoolverton@cityviewnc.com.

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