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Fayetteville Chief Of Police Comments On Government's Response To Protests

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Fayetteville, N.C., Gina Hawkins is the first woman and the first African American to serve as police chief. She was also sworn in early this year to a presidential commission on law enforcement. So when I spoke with her earlier today, I began by asking whether the mission of that panel has changed since the protests began.

GINA HAWKINS: I believe use of force was not on one of the items being reviewed, but I also know that when it first started, a few commission members did say, hey, this has to be one of the items that we put for discussion and put for evaluation.

SHAPIRO: This is a presidential commission that reports to the attorney general. And so when the attorney general defends firing tear gas on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park so the president can take a photograph in front of a church, or when the president tweets when the looting starts, the shooting starts, does it make your continued participation in this commission more difficult?

HAWKINS: It does. Personally, as the police chief in my city, as a leader in law enforcement as a whole, it definitely does because I'm responsible for when things happen in my community. On the inside, which is where I believe I make the most efforts for understanding what the community's frustrations are, we have experience on what it looks like to try to make sure people have their constitutional right to protest and at the same time maintaining law and order with the least amount of force necessary.

SHAPIRO: And so why is it worth it to you to stay on the commission in light of those statements and actions from the people you report up the chain to?

HAWKINS: So I've been doing this profession for 32 years. I haven't been in this profession because it's been easy. I'm a minority. I've always stood up for what's right, and I've seen things that aren't right all the time. But if not me, then who? Throughout my years, it's been difficult. I've had to fight a lot of injustice all the time. But that's why I'm here. I am still part of the solution that I believe can happen, which is being open and listening and understanding on all parts.

SHAPIRO: Well, we saw police in other parts of the country crack down on protesters. You took a different approach. In Fayetteville, you joined the march, and you told demonstrators we've been wanting to be part of protests. We've been wanting to speak out. Why did you do that?

HAWKINS: Because it's not a secret. How do we build to getting a more conversation of resolution? It does not come with a force of I am going to overpower you. That's not how it comes. It comes with the force of I'm listening. I'm hearing. I know my role. I enforce the law. But you don't need me to enforce the law if all you're trying to do is talk to me. What happened when you see the military enforce against a community? What happens when you see firehose be put onto a community? What happens when you see dogs released on a community? We don't ignore history. We look at it. We see. We make decisions of how is that going to look like? We are just repeating history unless we take this opportunity to use the least amount of force necessary to be able to hear a conversation. We hurt as officers. We hurt as members of the community. We hurt as, may it be, the minority or not.

SHAPIRO: Chief Hawkins, you've been a trailblazer through your career. When you became police chief in 2017, you were the first woman and the first African American to hold that job in Fayetteville. And you have talked about the discrimination that you have faced over the decades. Do you think that the problems with discrimination, racism, sexism are too deeply ingrained for police departments to be able to root them out themselves?

HAWKINS: We absolutely cannot root that out ourselves. You are absolutely right. It's not just our job. It's everyone's job to figure out. First, get educated. Be aware. Acknowledge it. You know, the mere acknowledging of, oh, I kind of want to try to understand how you feel as a community member if you feel that you're different. No matter what your demographic, no matter what your religious culture, just understanding someone else, who they are, makes a difference. That can't come solely from the police department. That has to be a societal issue.

SHAPIRO: Police Chief Gina Hawkins of Fayetteville, N.C. - she serves on the President's Commission on Law Enforcement - thank you for speaking with us today.

HAWKINS: Thank you. I appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATCHING FLIES' "WHEN THE SUN BURSTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.