By Dianne Gallagher and Jacquelyne Germain, CNN
The mass exodus of an entire police department after the hiring of a Black town manager in North Carolina has opened a conversation about public safety and race relations in a small town of just over 1,500 residents.
Last week, the entire police department in Kenly, North Carolina, resigned, citing a “hostile” work environment less than two months after Justine Jones, a Black woman, began her role as the town’s newly selected city manager.
Joy Wright, a local business owner, said the community is concerned about what the collective police retreat means for the future of the town. Wright also said she was mostly frustrated because the town hadn’t been keeping residents in the loop with any developments.
“It’s just weird, and for us to not have any information as to what to expect,” Wright said. “Are we going to have police? Are we going to have a town manager?”
Following an emergency, closed-door meeting last week, the Kenly town council released a statement this week saying, “The prudent course of action is to find out what happened and not make any rash decisions.”
Alan “Chip” Hewett, Kenly’s town attorney, told CNN that he will oversee an investigation conducted by an outside firm starting next week when all the resignations take effect. Technically, the police chief and officers are still on the job through the beginning of next week. The police chief’s resignation is effective Tuesday.
CNN obtained eight resignation letters in total, consisting of longtime police chief Josh Gibson, four full-time officers, one part-time officer and two town clerks. The letters are similar in language, with most referencing a stressful work environment, though they don’t provide any details about the allegedly “hostile” workplace, nor do they explicitly blame Jones.
However, Gibson has placed blame on Jones for the resignation — both in a Facebook post that has since been made private and in an exclusive interview with Fox News.
Gibson told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that Jones had written him up multiple times in her short time on the job.
“She came in, first of all, to start giving us tasks and all these projects all the time. And unfortunately, we are — we only have five officers and I was working double shifts at the time to try to keep up officer safety and be there with the officers in case something happened,” said Gibson, who claimed the manager wrote him up for being late if he wasn’t sitting at his desk, among other things “She wrote me up for going to businesses and talking with businesses. She wrote me up for talking with council members I’ve known for 20 years.”
CNN has not seen any of the disciplinary records referenced by Gibson and therefore cannot verify the write-ups. The town said it was unable to turn over any documents right now that were requested by CNN this week.
Jones started as Kenly’s town manager on June 2, according to an announcement from the town that notes she was unanimously approved by the council and touted her 16 years of experience working in “progressively responsible positions with local governments” in multiple states.
Residents split on whether it’s a ‘race issue’
Brittney Hinnant, a Kenly resident, said she feels like the situation is a “race issue” given that Jones is Black, while the entire Kenly Police Department is White. Hinnant also said she doesn’t think the police department supports Black people and she feels they often harass Black residents.
“I feel like they don’t want a Black woman over top of them, basically managing them or telling them what to do,” Hinnant said.
Studies show people in organizations often think Black women are more likely to have angry personalities, with studies also suggesting that this negative perception is a unique occurrence for Black women, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Jones told CNN that since this is a personnel matter, she can’t comment on the police resignations.
Others in the community say they believe there is not a racial component to the situation due to the fact the previous town manager was a Black man. Some residents also cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying they’ve always had a good relationship with the police department.
Wright, who owns the Granny Barn, an embroidery and vinyl gift shop located two doors down from Town Hall, said she doesn’t think the situation was a “Black vs White thing.”
“I’ve never seen that being a problem,” she said when asked if she thought race played a role in the situation.
“I think there are too many jumping to conclusions, we really don’t know what is going on. I know I have never met this town manager, I have never had any problems with the police, so I really don’t know what dynamic could have led to these types of decisions,” Wright said.
Michelle Dawes, who’s from Kenly and used to work for the town, told CNN that she thought the situation was complicated. She said it’s possible that race and gender played a role in the resignations, but issues of accountability are really at the center of the situation.
“I have never had any personal problems with [Police Chief Josh] Gibson, but as a former employee of the town, I know how it works there,” said Dawes. “I immediately knew, this is someone new. She doesn’t know what, I call them, the ‘off the books rules’ are. Basically, when she came and got hired, she poked the bear by making him accountable.”
The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, which already serves Kenly, will increase its presence in the town now that the police department will effectively disband.
Denise Bennett, a Kenly native, said the timing of everything makes her suspicious, adding that the situation seems to be more about power rather than resolving work-related issues. Bennett also said some residents have stated the resignations are not about racism, but she doesn’t think race-related issues can be completely thrown out as an explanation.
“When I realized the short amount of time that she had been on the job, and the drastic decision that was made, it just did not compute in my head,” Bennett said. “With the fact that there are so many things one can do if they think they have a nightmare supervisor, there’s so many things that can be done. But for an entire police staff to make the choice to quit when they have agreed to protect and serve, rather than to use all of the things in front of them to change the situation… it just didn’t make sense to me.”
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CNN’s Wesley Bruer contributed to this report.