GREENSBORO — Brian L. James knows that he doesn’t fit the profile of an outsider who can be a change agent for the city’s police department.
He may be the ultimate insider.
But the veteran Greensboro officer, who was named police chief on Tuesday, said he’s determined to do what it takes to earn the public’s trust in an organization that has suffered withering criticism.
“What I know about law enforcement is if you’re not in a constant mode of looking to how you can get better and improve, you’re getting behind,” said James, currently a deputy chief. “You can’t come in here ... and not change anything and then look a year or two from now and say you’ve been successful.”
James, 49, will succeed Wayne Scott, who retires at the end of the month. The Page High and N.C. A&T graduate, who grew up near Phillips Avenue, will receive an annual salary of $150,000. He assumes his new role on Feb. 1.
He was selected through a four-month process that began with nearly 40 candidates.
Now that he has the job, there’s no shortage of things that demand his attention.
One top priority: looking at what can be done to stem the city’s homicide rate. Last year, there were 44 killings, tying the record set in 2017.
Another concern: He’ll have to restore public trust in a department that has come under widespread criticism for its recent treatment of African Americans and what many see as a history of malfeasance dating back 40 years to the Greensboro Massacre of 1979.
City Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy, who was critical of the 2015 process that culminated in Scott’s promotion, said she believes “we made a really good choice in this particular instance.”
As the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, Kennedy assists homeless people. She believes James understands the friction between police and the people she serves.
“I truly think Brian is ready to tackle the problems of Greensboro head on and he’s the right person for the job,” Kennedy said. “I’ve known Brian. He was over the folks who worked directly with the homeless community. He’s quiet but very, very smart. He’s not afraid to say we should do something differently.”
That attitude is certain to come into play as he tries to curb the number of killings plaguing the city.
James said many of the city’s homicide victims are young people who are killed by other young people. He added that the city has resources, from social services to crime-prevention programs, that need to do a better job of identifying at-risk youth and finding ways to prevent them from resorting to violence.
“We certainly have to take a look at how we have those resources allocated,” he explained.
That does not mean, James said, flooding high-crime areas of the city with more patrol officers.
“I always say that one homicide is too many and 44 is definitely too many,” said James, who joined the department in 1996 as an officer with the Southern Patrol Division. “And we’ve got to do better than that. Greensboro is still a great community. We have had an uptick in violent crime and we need to figure (it) out.”
Many of Scott’s critics allege a decades-long pattern of police corruption in Greensboro and say that fuels a lack of trust between police and residents, especially African Americans. During the selection process, some of the most vocal residents said a new chief should come from outside the city.
Healing that mistrust begins with better communication between the police department and the community, James said.
“We’ve got to have real conversations,” he explained. “We have to literally seek out those people that say they don’t trust the police department. And I want to talk to people and find out the specific reasons why. If we can sit down and have an honest conversation about how they feel ... I think that’s a start.”
Because James grew up in Greensboro, many believe he understands the city from a variety of perspectives, especially as an African American.
“Anyone who’s a lifelong resident of Greensboro, particularly a black man, will have a different perspective than our current (police) chief will have and I think it’s a perspective that we desperately need in a role like this,” Kennedy said.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan also thinks those ties will be beneficial.
“Certainly he understands the city of Greensboro and what our issues are,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to be in community meetings where he was present and spoke. Just recently there was a meeting at a local church and we were talking about gun violence and he really connected with people there on a very deep level and that’s important.”
James said he believes his love of the community will help him be an effective leader.
“I think there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to being an inside chief or an outside chief,” he said. “One thing I’ll say is that having been at this department and also having been in this community, I have a number of community connections that I’ve been able to establish over a number of years.
“I certainly understand that everyone has an opinion about who they would like to be the police chief. I want to serve in this role and I want to make sure that we build a police department that the community can be proud of.”
Community activist C.J. Brinson, who has advocated for programs to curb gun violence, on Tuesday expressed support for James on his Facebook page.
“When it comes to the things that concern our community around accountability, serving marginalized citizens and holistic approaches to policing,” he wrote, “I think Brian James gives this community the best opportunity to gain some ground on these issues.”
As a veteran of the department, James said he didn’t necessarily set out to reach the top.
“It’s kind of a surreal feeling,” he admitted. “I can’t say that I was in the academy having dreams of being police chief.”
James takes over as the city is being sued by the family of Marcus Smith, who died 16 months ago after police restrained him by binding his hands to his feet, face down on a city street.
Marcus Hyde, founder of the Homeless Union of Greensboro, is one of the police department’s biggest critics and often points to the Smith case as an example of an agency out of control.
Hyde believes the city’s selection process stopped short of full disclosure when officials chose not to invite the community to comment after it had selected James and another candidate as finalists.
He said Tuesday that James faces the weight of the Smith case and other controversies as he seeks to mend relations with residents and change the department.
But Hyde is optimistic.
“We hope he’s serious about listening to the community and that we don’t repeat the mistakes of Chief Scott,” Hyde said. “We’re going to give him a chance, but he’s got a heavy load if he’s going to change the police department.”
RALEIGH — North Carolina Republicans in the General Assembly fell short on Tuesday trying to overturn Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes on teacher pay and the budget, ensuring their spending impasse will extend into spring and perhaps longer.
On a party-line vote, the Senate failed to override Cooper’s veto of a measure that would have enacted pay raises for teachers, teacher assistants, school custodians and other staff at least at levels contained in the larger two-year budget Cooper also vetoed last June.
Senate Republicans would have needed one or maybe two Democrats to vote with them for the override. With Senate Democrats showing during the teacher pay vote they were united supporting Cooper, Republicans decided to call off a scheduled veto override vote on the broader budget during the brief one-day session.
Cooper and other Democrats have said the average educator pay increases offered by the GOP were feeble compared to what the governor sought.
“Today was a win for Senate Democrats, but more importantly it was a win for fighting for meaningful investment in public education, including raising teacher pay,” said Senate Minority Whip Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County after the session, which was completed in about three hours. Now the legislature won’t return to work until late April.
The level of teacher pay, the absence of Medicaid expansion and presence of corporate tax cuts in the budget measure led Cooper to veto the budget bill almost seven months ago, prompting a stalemate in which attempts at compromise sputtered. State government continues to operate despite the lack of a budget deal, thanks in part to several separate “mini-budgets” that were approved and included pay raises for state employees. Cooper signed most of them into law.
But K-12 educators and staff still don’t have increases for this school year given Tuesday’s override failure, save for experience-based raises already approved.
“We are not asking for anything that we do not deserve or that we can’t afford,” Erica Johnson, a teacher assistant and local North Carolina Association of Educators leader in Alamance County, said at a news conference Tuesday before the session began. “This is about choosing to treat educators with respect and dignity, or choosing to give corporate tax breaks.”
Had the teacher pay bill veto ultimately been overridden, K-12 instructors would have received an average 3.9% raise through mid-2021. Cooper wanted twice that amount.
Senate leader Phil Berger said after the session it’s possible the budget override could still happen later this year: “It’s my hope that at some point we will find a single Democrat that will stiffen their spine and stand up.”
But the override failures could serve as political ammunition during the fall elections in which all 170 seats are on the ballot, with the party winning majorities gaining the power to perform redistricting in 2021.
Four Senate Democrats actually voted for the final budget in June, before Cooper’s veto. But Democrats have rallied around Cooper, particularly since House Republicans rammed through a budget override vote in a half-empty chamber in September.
The governor, Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore and their surrogates have argued over why no budget agreement has been reached, accusing each other of failing to negotiate in good faith. Republicans have blamed Cooper for failing to let go of his demand to expand Medicaid as part of any budget agreement.
“Senate Democrats have now given their votes to Gov. Cooper, who likely has convinced them that somehow they would still get what was in the budget and he would get his Medicaid expansion,” said Berger, a Rockingham County Republican. “Instead, they and North Carolina get neither.”
Cooper has said there was no Medicaid “ultimatum” and pointed to his willingness to negotiate teacher pay separately from the budget. Republicans should “end their partisan obstruction,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Tuesday.
Tuesday’s actions mean Republicans have yet to override any of Cooper’s 14 vetoes since early 2019, after Democratic seat gains following the 2018 elections ended the GOP’s veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Senate Republicans were unable to override another Cooper veto on Tuesday, this one on the legislature’s annual regulatory overhaul measure.
Lawmakers did manage to approve unanimously one bill Tuesday that gives an additional $2.4 million this fiscal year and next to cover a shortfall for scholarships for the children of wartime veterans. The bill now goes to Cooper, who is expected to sign it.
Hard to swallow: As Prohibition’s 100th anniversary looms, Americans drink more now than ever. Page B1
EDEN — Miguel Bahena walked through fire for his family. Literally.
The 30-year-old father, who suffered major burns rescuing his family from a house fire just two years ago, died Saturday in a single-car accident that left his three small children injured but recovering well.
The specialty baker and playful dad had a passion for music and had celebrated his landmark birthday only three days prior to the accident that sent his southbound SUV off N.C. 87 near Crumpton Road around 4:45 p.m. Saturday.
State troopers said Bahena’s car went off the roadway to the right, then across to the left. When Bahena overcorrected, officials say, he went off the road again and collided with a tree. He died at the scene. Investigators said Bahena was not impaired or speeding at the time of the crash.
Children, Mason, 6, Anna, 3, and Madison, 3 weeks, were safely buckled in car seats, but were injured, according to a news release from the Highway Patrol.
Their grandfather Jeff Margensey of Eden was at Brenner’s Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem on Monday, visiting Mason and Madison, who were undergoing treatment for a broken arm and skull fracture, respectively.
Mason suffered a fracture to his upper left arm, while the infant, born Dec. 20, was said to be recovering well and had “just completed her third bottle’’ Monday morning, said Margensey, who expected the children to be released early this week.
Middle child Anna, originally transported to Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro on Saturday with her siblings, was released the same day with only scrapes and bruises, Margensey said. Cone transferred Mason and Madison to Brenner’s on Saturday.
“I was very proud of him because he was a great dad and a great husband to my daughter,’’ Margensey said, noting his daughter Hannah married Bahena eight years ago. “With his marriage and his children, he was just a wonderful son-in-law, and he will be sorely missed.’’
Reflecting on the May 2018 grease fire that consumed the Bahena’s Eden home, Margensey described his son-in-law’s courage.
“He went through the fire to get Mason. And he got burned. He carried Mason out around his waist, and Mason had some burns, but they got out. It was like a miracle.’’
Mason was treated for third-degree burns at Brenner’s in 2018 and has healed well, as did his father, whose face was significantly seared in the tragedy.
“He (Miguel) said all he could think about was to get everybody out of the house,’’ said Bahena’s friend and employer Chris Cusato, owner of Kalo Foods bakery in Stokesdale.
“He ran upstairs and told his wife and little girl (Anna) to get out. And the fire spread so fast. He went in to get Mason and Miguel was able to get him out.’’
The blaze destroyed all of the young family’s belongings and they lived with Margensey until they could re-establish a new household in Eden.
“Miguel loved his family and his kids and was always showing pictures of them,’’ Cusato said through tears.
“He’s been with us for six years and he has got a wonderful personality … charming with a very sharp wit and extremely funny and talented,’’ she said. “ I felt like he was one of my kids. We got really close. Sometimes it was just me and him baking, and we talked about lots of things.’’
Endowed with a multitude of talents, Bahena performed quick calculations in the bakery and swiftly developed refined piping skills for icing cupcakes with rosettes and the like, his boss said.
Bahena was also known for his ability to play several instruments, Cusato said.
The gentle dad, who did not believe in spanking, sported a beard and mustache and a teddy bear countenance.
Dozens of photographs on his family’s social media sites are windows to happy times for the Bahena family. Snapshots chronicle fun times with the young family at The Polar Express theme park in the Great Smoky Mountains, days at the arcade, swimming practice, jolly Christmas mornings, Halloween exploits, and most recently — photos of the family embracing their newest member, baby Madison.
“We are going to miss him terribly, just terribly,’’ Margensey said.
A celebration of life service will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Eden with the Rev. Linda Nye officiating. The family will receive friends from 6-8 p.m. on Saturday at Boone & Cooke, Inc. Funeral Home.
Bahena was the son of Hugo Bahena and Anita Davis.
Bahena is also survived by Scott Mateo Lindemann of Florida; and his siblings, Monica Sanchez Natalia Bahena and Tony Bahena, both of Reidsville.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be directed to the Friends of the Eden Animal Rescue, 1027 Rhodes Road, Eden, NC 27288.