by Amber Nimocks
photographs by Nick Pironio
To watch police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown work a room is to witness subdued charm in motion, armed with a service revolver and wearing a badge. Rather than back-slapping or glad-handing her way through a crowd, she stays in place. People come to her. She greets them with a warm smile and the brightness of her dark eyes, saying, “It’s so good to see you.”
Her direct gaze recalls both the sweet face of your grandmother and the stern one of your most competent grade school teacher, the one who held classroom chaos at bay with the tone – not the volume – of her voice. A first encounter may leave some wondering how this woman of small stature and quiet countenance made a career of shattering glass ceilings in the boisterous boys’ club of local law enforcement.
“I have always considered her to be a quiet storm,” says Southeast Raleigh community activist Octavia Rainey, who has known Deck-Brown for 15 years. “Even when she was patrolling, I’ve never seen her be in a mood when she was mean or nasty. She was always respectful, always firm. She had a way of saying, ‘Calm it down.’ You know when she arrived on the scene that she meant business and people would yield to that.”
Earlier this year, Deck-Brown, 49, became Raleigh’s first African-American woman police chief. It is the crowning achievement of a 27-year rise through the department, punctuated by firsts: the department’s first African-American woman sergeant in 1997; the first woman to command a Raleigh police district in 2003; and the first woman to attain the rank of major in 2006.
Hers might have been a different story if not for a chance encounter. At the time, Deck-Brown was a criminal justice major at East Carolina University, planning a career in the probation system. One summer, while visiting family in Philadelphia, she was sitting on the front steps of her great-grandmother’s house when a police car pulled up in front of a street fight about a block away.
From the car emerged an African- American woman with golden-blonde hair, about 5 feet tall, and in her 40s. As young Cassandra watched, the policewoman broke up the crowd,
arrested one of the quarrelers, put him in the back of her car, and drove away. The event couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes, but the officer’s commanding presence left a lasting impression.
“I said, ‘I think I want to do that,’ ” Deck-Brown recalls.
It was a glimpse of life on the front lines of the criminal-justice system, and it told her just where she wanted to be. “My thought was, ‘Here is my opportunity,’ based on what I saw her do,” she said. “It’s more proactive, and it’s on the front end of it.”
Women police officers were rare when Deck-Brown entered Raleigh’s Police Academy in 1987. She was one of four women in a class of 20, and one of two African-American women. Most of them are still there, and they’re still rare.
According to an FBI report, the profession has about 12 percent women. But those of Deck-Brown’s generation – those who have lasted – are now filling out the leadership ranks. Women helm police departments in cities like Newark, N.J.; Columbus, Ohio; Tampa, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; and Minneapolis, Minn.
As is characteristic of her cohort, Deck-Brown seems to breathe life into the idea that women can have it all. She answers to “Chief” at work, where she oversees a paramilitary organization of 770 police employees who serve a city of more than 423,000 people. She is paid almost $137,000 per year.
She is “Cassandra” to her sisters in the Raleigh alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta and to her friends at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church. Her service there includes a turn as senior warden, where she guided the operations of the church as a second-in-command to the pastor. She is also known for the beautiful gift baskets she assembles for friends to celebrate weddings, births, housewarmings, and the like. And, as her longtime friend Edna Rich-Ballentine attests, Cassandra sets a lovely table. The two women were among the contestants in the church’s recent Rainbow Tea table tablescape competition. Rich-Ballentine took top honors, but she described Deck-Brown’s autumn-themed arrangement as “very tastefully done.”
When Deck-Brown took the position of senior warden, Rich-Ballentine worried that the male members of St. Ambrose’s vestry would run over her. She need not have worried. “They were not able to get under her skin,” she said.
If Deck-Brown disagreed with them about an important decision, she would remain calm, but her voice would drop. She would tell them what she believed the correct course of action to be. And then, Rich-Ballentine recalls, she’d back off to let her words sink in. Her friend is slow to anger.
“If you make me mad, you know it,” she said. “If you make Cassandra mad, you don’t know it for a day or two.”
Deck-Brown is also a daughter, wife, mother and step-mother. She met her husband, retired police Sgt. David Brown, on the job at RPD. Her brother-in-law, Mitchell Brown, served as the city’s police chief in the mid-1990s. Deck-Brown has one son, one step-daughter and two grandsons, ages 3 and 6, to whom she is “Mama C.” The younger of the two likes to see her in her uniform with its shiny buttons. The older has a more concrete grasp of grandma’s day job.
“He thinks that Mama C is really cool,” she says.
After the police academy, Deck-Brown hit the streets as a patrol officer, writing traffic tickets and taking crime reports on Beat No. 113, around the intersection of Millbrook and Falls of Neuse roads. Her first arrest was a man she charged with DWI who gave her a little trouble before eventually getting into the squad car.
Since then she has worked throughout the department – in crime prevention, as a detective on assault cases and commercial crimes, in personnel, recruitment, and grant writing. She oversaw Internal Affairs inspections and accreditation in the chief’s office, and became deputy chief in June 2011, directing day-to-day administrative functions and professional standards. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in public administration from N.C. State.
Deck-Brown says she never experienced resistance from within the police department, where most of her colleagues were white and male. They did express an intense interest in her status, though. When the RPD posted promotions lists, officers were identified by number, not name. Her male counterparts were always eager to see how she had done.
“I was never disrespected or mistreated, but the level of competition was there,” she says.
Raleigh City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin says that Deck-Brown’s extensive experience in the department prepared her to lead it. The choice was also a boost of confidence for the troops.
“It was time for the officers to see someone could rise through the ranks and attain the position of chief,” she says. “I think the officers are very happy to have somebody from their ranks leading them. She’s one of them.”
Going to Charm School
When Deck-Brown was growing up in Bunn, a farming community about 30 miles northeast of Raleigh in Franklin County, her father kept a vegetable garden that yielded much more produce than the family needed – by design. The extra was in case a neighbor was ever in need.
It was this sense of generosity and community service that inspired her to found one of her favorite programs, the City of Raleigh Police Department Charm School for Girls. The idea for Charm School was born several years ago while the department was in the midst of a reorganization and seeking innovative approaches to the problems of drugs, gangs and gun violence.
“I was listening to a conversation about basketball, football and baseball,” Deck-Brown says. “And as a female, I just knew we were missing a population of the youth. The females aren’t going to do that, not a significant number of them. That’s when the brainstorming began, how can we reach girls?”
Charm School graduated its fourth class this summer at a white-tablecloth, chandelier-lit banquet at Brier Creek Country Club. A dozen at-risk young women completed the program, a four-week course designed to broaden their scope of life’s possibilities and firm up their self-esteem. Imagine the education Professor Higgins could have provided Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady if the professor had been as passionate about her academic and career prospects as he was about her elocution. Subjects include social etiquette, grooming, anger-management, how to handle a bully, and a stint at an IBM-sponsored Science Technology Engineering and Math camp, where each girl got to work with robotics to design her own scented lipstick.
After the IBM STEM camp, Deck-Brown, who continues to mentor the program, told the girls to use the experience as fuel for the future.
“I told them, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if one of you one day decides to be in a corporate office of Bath & Body Works,’ ” she said. “You could see them sort of nodding and thinking.”
In the banquet room at Brier Creek, the graduates dined on a three-course meal before each girl was introduced and made remarks at the lectern. Their outfits were suitable for church, with crocheted shrugs the most popular accessory for covering shoulders. (Shopping for appropriate dinner attire was part of the course.) The day after the Charm School dinner, the graduates worked a shift at the soup kitchen at the Church of the Good Shepherd downtown.
“The greater piece in all of that is that while much is given to them, we stress the importance of giving back to the community,” Deck-Brown says.
‘We’re not Mayberry’
During the Charm School banquet, speakers lavished praise on Deck-Brown before she stood to speak at the front of the banquet.
A few weeks later, in a cinder-block meeting room at the Worthdale Community Center in Northeast Raleigh, the setting was less grandiose.
Members of the Community Action Committee board sat behind a folding table dotted with a few crumbs left from hastily devoured chicken nuggets. A row of uniformed police officers lined one wall, with Deck-Brown, a full head shorter than most of the men, in the center.
After a couple of officers updated the crowd on recent break-ins and the number of arrests at a Maxway store, one of them shifted his attention to his boss: “If there aren’t any more questions, we’re going to introduce our chief, Chief Deck-Brown.”
Standing in front of the folding table, Deck-Brown turned her police hat around and around in her hands as she spoke.
Community policing is evolving to incorporate more of the information that residents provide, she told the group. The department is moving toward the new trend of intelligence-based policing, which lets computer software help officers detect patterns in criminal activity. Their accurate and timely reporting of crimes is key to this, she explained. A tighter budget means the department of a fast-growing city must find efficiencies.
“We’re not Mayberry, and we do have to be able to prioritize all of the needs and all of the resources that we have,” Deck-Brown said.
Then came a question from an older man about this new crime-reporting computer system. Unsatisfied by her reply, he challenged her again.
Her hat-fidgeting stopped. She sat it aside, and began to gesture with her hands. Her voice remained steady, and her focus sharpened. This is police work, and she rises to it. Deck-Brown might not hustle law breakers into the back of her squad car these days, but it’s clear she still relishes any chance to be on the front lines.