One on One with…Chief James Fealy
High Point, North Carolina
Recently, the COPS Office released an exciting new publication, The High Point Drug Intervention Strategy. This strategy, which took the innovative approach of directly engaging drug dealers and their families, has led to dramatic decreases in violent crime in High Point, North Carolina, as well as the complete elimination of one of the city’s longest standing and most notorious drug markets. Chief James Fealy of the High Point Police Department recently spoke with Dispatch Editor-in-Chief Deborah Spence about the strategy’s success in High Point and why other agencies might want to try it.
CP Dispatch: Has your experience with this project had any effect on how you understand community policing?
Fealy: It has reinforced something I learned a few years back, which is that in the past, we’ve been too simplistic in how we talk about community policing. It was just the window dressing; having officers walk beats not for an actual operational reason but because that it made the community happy. But unless an activity produces results, why do it? It has to be about results and sustainability. The community takes it on faith that the police do what we do because it works. Also, police bring to the table a specific set of knowledge and expertise, and the community also has skills and expertise. Both sides need to contribute their expertise—that gets everyone the biggest bang for the buck. We can’t be trying to do each other’s job, and this project reminded me that the community understands this. This project, which included partnerships with local, state, and Federal Government agencies as well as nonprofit organizations, was the first time we really did this right. We used the knowledge, skills, and abilities of all the partners, and work continuously to monitor and sustain that accomplishment.
CP Dispatch: Does the success that High Point has had in closing down these drug markets through this initiative mean that the decades of traditional drug enforcement methods focused on arrest and prosecution were the “wrong” way to work?
Fealy: No, its not that traditional narcotics enforcement is the wrong way, it’s that it is not the only way. The most affluent neighborhood in my city surely has a dealer in it, and the traditional approach (when my officers have the time to focus on that particular problem) is going to be effective in closing that case. But the situation was different in the West End where the crack market and its ancillary problems of drive-by shootings and prostitution were toxic to the whole neighborhood. Unlike in the affluent neighborhood with one dealer in his house and the neighbors largely unaware, the West End market represented an incredible threat to the health of the wider community.
Narcotics officers also like to ask if this approach means ignoring the big volume dealers, but again, it is not an “either or” issue. The theory going into this project was that my officers would, as a result, have more time to deal with the high volume dealers when the open-air market was gone, and they were no longer overwhelmed with responding to the hot spot. And that is, in fact, what happened. So this approach is simply one more tool to put into the narcotics enforcement toolbox.
CP Dispatch: Where does High Point go from here? What are you goals for the future?
Fealy: The piece of our drug market strategy that has remained elusive is our ability to find jobs for repeat offenders. Our primary nonprofit partner, High Point Community Against Violence, takes the lead on this effort, but the department tries to support them whenever possible. As a group, they are integral to everything we do as a department, not just for this project. The High Point business community has begun to back their efforts, and we are hopeful that new assistance from America Works (a company that specializes in moving hard-to-place individuals into the private industry workforce) is going to help us solve the jobs problem. Also, we not only applied this strategy to our drug market problem. It has helped us with gun violence and gang problems, and we are hopeful that we might next be able to apply it to the problem of domestic violence.
CP Dispatch: There will probably be some chiefs out there who might read this new book and be impressed by the success you have had, but still wonder if they should try a similar approach. What would you say to them?
Fealy: I would say what David Kennedy told me the first time we spoke: If what you are doing now is producing the results you want, then don’t listen to me. But if you aren’t getting the results you want, then here is an idea for you to try. I went into this with an open mind. I was frustrated by years of unsustainable results and unintended harms to our relationship with the community. I had to do something, and it had to be different than what I’d always done. Kennedy helped put the pieces together for us, and I recognized that we could try this and that there would be nothing lost if it didn’t work. The only risk if the project failed was that I might have been embarrassed for having suggested the idea, and really that is no risk.
James Fealy has been the Chief of Police for the High Point Police Department since 2003. He previously worked for more than 25 years with the Austin (Texas) Police Department. While there he served as Assistant Chief of Police. Previously, he was Commander of the department’s Training Academy, through which he was responsible for all aspects of recruiting, hiring, and training. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University in Austin and Sam Houston State University’s Graduate Management Program and Leadership Command College.