Skip to main content

Changes bring 'cultural reset' to Wilmington police: Community to be given more of a voice


Emma Dill   | Wilmington StarNews

Even before becoming the head of the Wilmington Police Department, Donny Williams knew some things needed to change.

But when he became the department’s chief in June, protests and the firing of three of the department's officers for racist comments prompted him to fast-track those reforms. 

More: Wilmington police firings: Racist words, cops’ excuses

More: Firing of Wilmington police officers ’compounded’ need to remove Confederate monuments

More: Black leaders: Firing Wilmington police officers ’a good first step’

“With everything that was going on in the world, I'm going to be honest, it just helped accelerate a lot of things I wanted to do anyway,” Williams said.

Just one day into his new role as chief, Williams fired the officers who had been caught on a police vehicle camera making racist comments. Williams had addressed protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody earlier in the year during his time as interim chief.

More: PHOTOS: WPD Chief Donny Williams leads peace march

More: 8 local changes that could come from the Wilmington protests

All the while, the COVID-19 pandemic hampered the department’s community outreach efforts. Williams estimates the department has had to reduce its outreach by 80%.

That has allowed Williams time to examine and make adjustments to the department’s internal procedures. Williams put together a slate of procedural changes and reforms he believes will constitute a “cultural reset” for the department.

He presented to the reforms to the Wilmington City Council at their Oct. 6 meeting and many of the reforms are already well underway within the department, Williams said.

The proposed reforms involve enhancing officer training, revising department procedures, and promoting community engagement.

Among the changes, the department plans to add community members to the panel that reviews candidates for management positions, which could address some of the concerns of local activists and protesters who pushed for a citizens' review board to oversee the department earlier this year.

The department also plans to adopt a new approach to minor crimes in which officers will cite people instead of arresting them.

Revising the department's procedures

The department has updated its vision, values and mission statement to “reflect where we're at in 2020,” Williams said. He intends to put them into practice by tying employee performance to the department’s mission statement. 

Williams also wants to streamline the hiring process to appeal to qualified candidates and focus on promoting diversity and inclusion throughout the agency’s departments.

In addition, Williams is working to loosen some of the department’s appearance and grooming standards. Detectives and some plain-clothes officers, for example, can now wear beards. He also plans to relax the department’s tattoo policy.

“We want to attract candidates, and younger people like tattoos and beards,” Williams said.

The department will issue citations to people who commit minor crimes like shoplifting, property damage or another minor misdemeanor offense instead of arresting them, Williams said.

“In instances where we can release people on citation for very minor offenses, that's what we’re going to try to do,” he said. 

The department has adopted the approach as a pilot site for an evidence-based policing project from the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police and the UNC School of Government.

More: Wilmington police launch new app

Citing people for minor offenses will make things more efficient and help reduce overcrowding in jails. That’s especially important during the pandemic when COVID-19 has spread quickly between inmates in some holding facilities, Williams said.

The department has restructured its ranks to increase field supervision, Williams said, with corporals supervising lower ranking officers. That will help the department correct mistakes made by young officers early.

In addition, the department is working to add “soft” spaces that will allow space for officers to relax during their lunch breaks and time off.

The department is also looking to hire new personnel to investigate crashes in the Wilmington area. The department currently employs two civilian crash investigators who help investigate the approximately 6,000 non-injury crashes that occur each year in the area. Police officers also investigate these crashes.

Williams plans to convert four officer positions into new crash investigator positions. With police officer candidates in short supply in Wilmington and nationwide, this should make the positions easier to fill, Williams said.

More: Changes, new faces will 'push things forward' with Wilmington diversity

“Instead of using police officers to do it, we're getting the work done with civilian crash investigators, who should be easier to hire, and a lot easier to train,” he said

The department has also decided that it will no longer be the agency investigating car crashes involving their own department members. Although there haven’t been issues with crash investigations, Williams said, calling in ano party like the North Carolina State Highway Patrol will make the investigation more objective.

Promoting community engagement

Williams wants to give the community more of a say in department decisions and discussions about law enforcement.

The hiring process for the department’s managers will now include community input. In the past, the department brought in outside assessors to consider candidates for the department’s lieutenant and captain positions.

Now lieutenants candidates will be evaluated by a panel of community members and law enforcement. Community members will make up 80% of the committee and law enforcement will make up the remaining 20%.

In evaluating captain candidates, community members will make up 60% of the panel and law enforcement and city leadership will comprise 20% each. 

More: Activist weighs in on what a citizens’ review board of police should look like in Wilmington

More: Wheels in motion for Wilmington to form citizens’ review board for police oversight

“I just want the community to have an additional voice in who leads this department,” Williams said, “because at the end of the day, we work for the community.”

The department along the city of Wilmington's human resources department will reach out to citizens and work with community organizations to find community participants, according a department spokesperson. 

This new community involvement could be a step towards addressing the concerns of local activists and protesters who pushed for a citizens' review board earlier this year. The board activists envisioned would reach beyond the hiring process to allow community oversight of all department actions.

Throughout the summer Williams hosted community discussions about the department’s use of force policy, especially around chokeholds.

He has allowed community members to experience the department’s use of force simulator, which puts them in the “officer’s shoes” when faced with decisions about using force.

The department’s community engagement officer has also partnered with New Hanover County’s diversity and inclusion officer to examine what the department can do both internally and in the community to promote diversity and inclusion, Williams said.

Other measures, like the departments “Behind the Badge” series on Facebook, aim to make the department more transparent by introducing community members to the department’s officers and leaders.

Providing officers with more training

Wilmington police officers will receive additional training that aims to help them reduce bias, spot misconduct and better understand the Wilmington community.

The department's officers will complete a fair and impartial bias training led by Lorie Fridell. Fridell is a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and a national expert on biased policing, according to the program’s website

The department currently has 20 instructors who have received training, Williams said. Command staff will be trained by Fridell during the first week of December and other officers will begin the training in 2021.

The department was also selected to participate in an active bystander training program. The Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement Project will help officers spot and correct mistakes and misconduct from other officers.

More: WPD selected for training to spot mistakes, misconduct from other officers

Following the death of George Floyd, police departments nationwide began discussions around duty-to-intervene policies. Williams sees the project's training as a way to put duty-to-intervene into practice. 

“A policy is great if you use it,” Williams said, “but we wanted to take it a step further.”

Williams is also moving to add a local history and culture class to the department’s required training courses. This will help officers better understand the places and the people they police.

“We want our personnel to understand the history and the culture of the community that they’re policing,” he said, “and why some things are the way they are in this community.”

Williams said he will be able gauge the success of the reforms by the strength of the department's relationship with the community. 

These changes will take time to implement and might require adjustments in the future.

"To reset the culture of an organization is not an overnight process," he said. "It's going to constantly be ongoing."

Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or edill@gannett.com