As she prepares to step down as Fayetteville’s top cop, Gina Hawkins has few regrets.
“It’s not one thing I’m proud of,” said Hawkins, the first woman to serve as chief of the Fayetteville Police Department. “I’m proud of so many things, from the Police Department and from the community. (Initiatives) that involved the people, that involved our engagement with the community.”
Hawkins, who was hired as police chief in 2017, announced her plans to retire in July.
Assistant Chief Kemberle Braden will assume the job of chief on Wednesday.
Over the years, Hawkins has received her share of criticism. In May 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, her decision to tell her armed police officers to stand down during a protest march that ended on Murchison Road was questioned. The protest came to a peaceful end with a show of solidarity.
An independent review of her handling of the situation by an organization called the Performance Evaluation Review Forum found that Hawkins’ order may have saved lives and lessened property damage but that she didn’t communicate her decision well with the rank and file.
There also have been reports of poor morale in the department, and it has struggled with recruitment and retainment of officers. As of Jan. 1, Hawkins said the department was 26 officers short.
Allegations of ethical violations were raised against her by 13 police officers a year ago this month. After a three-day closed hearing, the Fayetteville Ethics Commission decided to dismiss those complaints.
“I have no idea what those people were thinking of or what they’re saying,” Hawkins said of the allegations. “Because those people have no idea what a lie is. … It was very clear what was presented to the Ethics Commission was lies.”
She said she has “always operated in excellence” when asked how she would rate her performance as police chief.
“That has always been my focus,” she said. “That’s the expectation of the department as a whole. We are a high-performing police department. We come in the door, we expect to operate with a goal of being excellent and doing our best, trying our best.”
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Hawkins said that under her leadership, the department has increased engagement with the community and shared with the public what the staff does behind the scenes.
“Internally, every moment that I'm able to see one of my employees exceed or promote or accomplish a hard case and arrest a person is a huge, exciting time for me. We spend a lot of time trying to catch someone who’s been wreaking havoc on the community. That’s success., I can say, all day long. From 2017 through 2021, crime overall decreased. It decreased drastically.”
But that has not been the case in the past two years.
On Aug. 22, Hawkins and members of her team presented a quarterly update on crime statistics to the Fayetteville City Council, reporting that the overall crime rate and number of homicides had continued to rise over the previous six months
The city’s overall crime rate had declined from 2016 to 2021 to more than 4,600 incidents, Capt. Todd Joyce told the council. The crime rate had decreased each year in that period, “a relative percentage decrease of almost 27.3%.”
Hawkins reported that 44 homicides were reported in the city in 2022, an increase of one over 2021.
“I believe that being able to have consistent year-after-year a decrease in crime is a very difficult task to do,” Hawkins said after that August meeting. “You can’t always be doing the same thing. You always have to be innovative; you always have to look at new ways.”
During an interview in January, she said rising crime is a problem nationwide.
"Everybody is trying to figure this out right now," said Hawkins. “I think it involves every aspect of a community. These last 2½, three years, we’ve gone through COVID, we’ve gone through mental health crises as the result of a lot of things happening. We have this increase of guns being purchased when new presidential administrations came into office. … There are a lot of different things that can play in our community.”
Hawkins said she’s proud of what was done to combat crime.
“I think everything came out of the bag,” the police chief said. “There are so many initiatives that were implemented throughout my tenure. But even during the violent-crimes strategies, there were so many that were presented and are still coming to fruition now, or technology initiatives. We pulled everything out of the bag.
“We did everything from micro-grants for the community to get (people) more engaged and (get their) ideas. We also have our community public-safety program that we have going on now with the PROOVE project. Everything with the technology we saw with the biggest impact was the license plate reader that made us have access to real-time crime. …”
PROOVE, which stands for Proactive, Responsible Outreach Over Violence with Education, is another strategy to address violence in the community.
The next chapter
Hawkins said incoming Police Chief Braden is blessed.
“I feel like the department is better. Before I came in, it was already great. I think we have developed this department to an even higher-performing agency than when I got here in 2017. New employees with new ideas and new innovation — I think that’s the one thing he doesn't have to worry about. He’s got a lot of great people. He's got a good head start.”
Hawkins said with a laugh that she's waiting for God to tell her what’s next in her life.
She said she prefers to live where the weather is warm but she’s open to other possibilities.
“Maybe he's telling me I need to get a little more patience. And I'm going to do some of that because I try to rush now,” she continued. “As I said, I am grateful for this opportunity. It was purposeful, and he’s shown me that along the way. I trust that. Whatever’s next will be some aspect of public safety. I don't know what yet, but I do have a couple of irons in the fire that I’m interested in.
“But I'm going to wait for him to make it clear.”
Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.