CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you spotted Rodney Monroe on Tryon Street when six Greenpeace protesters were arrested, you might not have picked him out as Charlotte’s chief of police.
Monroe, 55, watched from the sidelines, resting his hands in his pants pockets, his .40-caliber Smith & Wesson hidden beneath a black athletic jacket.
His commanders orchestrated the arrests, then fielded questions from reporters. Only after the crowd dispersed did Monroe step forward to debrief the officers and critique their performance.
“This is part of a test,” he said that morning in February, welcoming the protest as the first of several trial runs before the Democratic National Convention. “It gives us a live snapshot of what we’ll see during the DNC.”
It’s been four years since Monroe weathered a bumpy start in Charlotte over the way he got his college degree, and some people still believe he broke the rules.
Now he faces his biggest test yet. As police chief, his job is to work with the U.S. Secret Service to keep Charlotte safe during the DNC, requiring an extraordinary level of planning and coordination never before undertaken in this city.
If something goes wrong – whether it’s an unprecedented terrorist attack or the mass arrests that tarnished St. Paul’s image in 2008 – Monroe will be judged.
“When you think of the number of eyes internationally that will be on Charlotte, that the president of the United States will be right here in this city, and when you think of all the security needed to ensure his safety and all the citizens of this community that need to be protected, there is no heavier weight than Chief Rodney Monroe will bear,” said Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon. “How he serves, secures and protects … will define him forever.”
National security experience
On the wall of the chief’s office, on the third floor of headquarters uptown, is a photograph of Monroe when he worked for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. He is on a balcony on the dome of the U.S. Capitol looking down at the Million Man March.
Hundreds of thousands of black men filled the mall that day in 1995. Inspector Monroe was 38 and in charge of logistics.
Two years later, he helped coordinate security for then-President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, a time of such heightened vigilance that vendors were not allowed to sell hot chocolate because of fear their propane tanks might pose a danger. In Monroe’s office is a photo of him shaking Clinton’s hand.
Because of his experience with national security events, Monroe’s former chief in Washington believes Charlotte is fortunate to have him here at this critical moment in the city’s history.
“He’s calm under pressure,” said Isaac Fulwood Jr., now chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission. “He communicates well. He’s not afraid to talk with people, listen and hear their advice.”
City Manager Curt Walton said he could not have predicted when he hired Monroe that Charlotte would be hosting the DNC this September.
“The connections he has in federal government, the Secret Service, the FBI, the CIA … brings him a voice of credibility,” Walton said. “As soon as we got the convention, Rodney was one of the first to come see me. He said, ‘We have got to get on this. We have got to start planning.’ ”
Some days, Monroe’s schedule includes up to six meetings about the DNC, ranging from daily intelligence briefings to discussions about airspace security.
“We’re starting with basic core services throughout the city – what it will take to ensure that coverage,” he said. “Then we’re just layering things on top of that. It’s a massive undertaking. But I love it when a plan comes together.”
Deputy Chief Harold Medlock, who is in charge of the planning, said he has emailed Monroe at 3 or 4 in the morning only to get an immediate reply. The chief was awake, too.
“There are so many different parts,” Monroe said. “What keeps me awake mostly is the ‘what ifs.’ ”
Good cop? Bad cop?
To understand Monroe and how he operates, it helps to look back to his predecessor, Darrell Stephens. Stephens, who declined to be interviewed, was a nonconfrontational boss known for his book smarts but criticized because of the city’s soaring crime rate.
Residents from diverse neighborhoods felt so uneasy that a group converged on city hall in the spring of 2008 and demanded a crackdown. So the city brought in a cop’s cop, a tough law-and-order chief who learned policing during 21 years in Washington.
In Charlotte, strong opinions follow Monroe.
Love him. Hate him.
Even before he arrived in June 2008, some officers grumbled because one of their own was passed over for the job. Monroe further aggravated the troops with a massive shakeup.
He took cars away from some veterans, reassigned others and removed 89 officers from specialized investigative units and put them on patrol.
Instead of tapping a CMPD veteran for his chief of staff, he brought in his second-in-command from Richmond.
Monroe made similar changes when he took over as chief in Macon, Ga., and Richmond, Va., and faced criticism there. In Charlotte, the bickering has never let up.
Anonymous bloggers regularly spew vitriol, accusing the chief of fudging data to make it look as though crime is going down, questioning his ethics, even suggesting he’s pretentious for wearing the customary five gold bands on the sleeves of his dress uniform that signify he’s the chief.
“Chief Monroe has run the city’s police department like his own fiefdom,” one blogger wrote in November. And then in March: “Rodney Monroe is a man of poor judgment and questionable moral character.”
It’s difficult to say whether a few disgruntled officers are feeding the blogs or whether dissatisfaction within the department is widespread. Monroe’s critics, including current and former officers, declined to talk on the record.
“Darrell had a different group of people who didn’t like him,” said a city insider who doesn’t like Monroe’s style but appreciates what he has done for Charlotte. “Now you’ve got a more stern approach to law enforcement and a different group of people is unhappy. We didn’t hire him for love.”
‘A hint of racism’
City and county officials, neighborhood activists and even some of Monroe’s detractors give him credit for doing what he was brought here to do:
Though crime was up 12 percent in the first three months of this year, police statistics show that crime dropped more than 37 percent from 2007 through 2011.
There were 55 homicides last year, the fewest in Charlotte in 23 years. Whether Monroe can take credit is debatable; the dramatic decrease in crime mirrors a trend throughout the U.S. that has baffled criminologists.
“He brought a sense of urgency and a need to respond quickly to people that CMPD needed,” said Fire Chief Jon Hannan, who has lived in Charlotte more than 50 years and served on the panel that helped select Monroe. “There’s a stronger CMPD presence on the street than there ever has been in my memory.”
District Attorney Andrew Murray, who worked with Monroe to repair a fractured relationship between their departments, said: “I expect he’s ruffled a few feathers but he’s getting the job done. It’s a tough job. He’s under the microscope every day.”
Monroe said he doesn’t let his critics define him. He said he stopped reading the blogs.
“When I came here, I changed how we did business and that didn’t sit well,” he said. “These who didn’t like it have taken it upon themselves to come after me at every turn. I had to turn that off. It used to affect me, but it doesn’t anymore. More people see the nonsense associated with it than the reality of what I do every day.”
And this: “I believe there’s a hint of racism about it, no doubt in my mind.”
Monroe is the city’s first African-American police chief. For six months after he was hired, Walton said he got half a dozen anonymous racist phone calls about Monroe every week, and he still gets an occasional racist call.
Walton praised Monroe as a “connector.” “He was what I was looking for going forward, and I haven’t regretted it a day since,” Walton said. “Rodney’s a rock star. Whenever I go anywhere with Rodney, there will be people who come up to him that he doesn’t know, who interface with him like he’s their long lost best friend. … Across the board, black, white, old, young, male, female.”
Working a crowd
Not a flamboyant rock star. Monroe is soft-spoken and smiles more with his eyes than with his mouth. His face is not particularly expressive, except for the three deep lines on his forehead that invariably deepen when he’s concentrating.
He knows how to work a crowd, though, greeting people with hugs and handshakes and how-do-you-do’s.
At an officer promotion ceremony, he high-fived a little boy who marched on stage with his father and afterwards guided the officer’s wife and child back down the stairs.
He’s not good at remembering people’s names, but he remembers their faces and details about their lives. “How’s the new business?” “How’s your husband doing?”
He’s a regular guest on a Latino radio talk show. He meets the fire chief for lunch twice a month.
He volunteers with different causes, from reading to students at the summer Freedom School to escorting Secret Santas at Christmas. In the middle of the night, he’s been seen consoling a distraught parent at the scene of a homicide.
Twice he has been guest speaker at the YWCA, where his wife, Marvette, is incoming board chair.
Kirsten Sikkelee, the CEO of the Y, remembers Monroe quietly reaching out to a stranger last year when he spoke at Men Matters, a program that encourages fathers in high-poverty communities to help their children succeed in school.
Monroe noticed a father standing outside the meeting room. He introduced himself and asked the man why he didn’t come on in.
The man was a janitor, wearing his work clothes. He told Monroe he didn’t feel dressed appropriately.
“I’m still in my uniform,” the janitor said.
“I’m wearing my uniform, too,” the police chief told him. “Be proud of who you work for and what you do. That sends a much stronger message to your child. … Please. Come in.”
A change agent
Some critics claim Monroe is a different man within the police department – that he rules by intimidation, berating officers in front of other officers.
“He’s smart enough not to do that publicly,” said a former cop. “A guy that will stand up to his top (officers) and berate them and cuss them in their face and get right up in their face is a guy that rules by fear.”
Monroe shakes his head when he hears the criticism. “People call me a bully. They say I’m abrasive. I believe in dealing with issues head-on. If there’s something I don’t like, I let people know. I don’t hold anything against anyone. I deal with the issues and move on. I don’t hold any grudges. Life is too short. It’s over.”
John Buckovich, deputy secretary of public safety for Virginia, worked under Monroe in Richmond, and said Monroe could be “a very hard person to work for, very demanding.”
Buckovich is among a chorus of former and current officers who said you always know where you stand with Monroe. He’s direct. He doesn’t raise his voice. He delegates but will correct you.
“He was fair, but he didn’t cut you any slack if he didn’t think you were doing what you should be doing,” said Buckovich, who credits Monroe with teaching him leadership. “I got called into his office a couple times, especially in the beginning.”
Medlock said he was called in, too. “When he got here,” Medlock said, “it was an intense learning experience.”
Monroe knows when to release some of the tension, Buckovich said, and often does it with humor.
Buckovich once returned from vacation and a picture of his wife was missing from his desk. Turns out, the chief had moved it to his own desk.
“I had her in a cheap plastic frame from the drugstore,” Buckovich said. “He said, ‘John, you can’t disrespect your wife like that. You can’t put her in a cheap frame. She’s mine now until you get a frame that’s suitable for your beautiful, darling wife.’ ”
Marvette: His best friend
In Monroe’s office are photos of his wife, Marvette. There are pictures of their daughter, Hollye, 28, with their 4-year-old grandson, Jace, and of their son, Brandon, 25. All are in nice frames.
Marvette and Rodney Monroe were high school sweethearts, and he describes her as his best friend. Marvette, a former banker, works for H&R Block during tax season.
“I don’t have a guy best friend,” Monroe said. “Marvette is the one who keeps me balanced. She wishes I would talk more and use my Blackberry less.”
On the day Monroe started policing 33 years ago, Marvette gave him a gold cross he still wears beneath his uniform. Raised Baptist, he converted to Catholicism because of her, and they attend Our Lady of Consolation in Charlotte.
Monroe’s schedule is fairly regular, except when a public appearance or a homicide intervenes – or during the DNC, when he expects to sleep on his office couch, if he sleeps at all. He said he usually wakes up around 6 a.m., gets to the gym around 6:45 a.m., where he works out on an elliptical machine and takes a steam bath. “It gives me energy just to get through the day,” he said.
By 8:30, he’s at work “fast and furious.”
Around 6:30 or 7 p.m., he returns home for dinner with Marvette (she’s the cook – he takes out the trash). He enjoys TV sitcoms – “Mike and Molly,” “Two Broke Girls,” “My Family” and “The Big Bang
Theory.” Monroe said he tries to get to bed by 9:30. He keeps his gun and his phone close on his nightstand.
Marvette said she has trouble reconciling the image some people have of her husband as a bully with the man she loves.
“It takes a lot to make him angry,” she said. “I can’t even really say that I’ve ever seen an outwardly angry side to him. He internalizes a lot, too, which can be bad, instead of talking about something that might be bothering him. That’s what I try to provide for him, that outlet for him to do that. When he does, it’s always better.”
Words of advice
At police headquarters one evening, Monroe shook hands with three teens who were waiting in the lobby. He met one of them a few months earlier at a breakfast for the nonprofit Police Activities League and had become an informal mentor.
“He struggles,” Monroe said, “but I think he has so much potential.”
The chief is passionate about helping young people. He almost quit policing 12 years ago to work with troubled youths, but his boss in Washington convinced him to stay and set up a youth intervention team within the department.
Monroe had invited the teenager and his friends to a Bobcats basketball game. He told them to enjoy themselves, then sent them to the arena with this advice:
During the convention, Monroe will send his officers to the streets with this advice:
Anticipate problems before they arise.
Beginning with the Greenpeace protest in February and continuing through the demonstration outside Bank of America May 9 and Food Lion Speed Street this week, police are refining their tactics as they prepare for the worst. Thousands of protesters are expected.
Monroe said he recognizes the protesters have a mission, and police will work with them. If they cause harm, however, they will be arrested.
“This DNC is going to test everyone’s patience,” Monroe said. “Short of someone physically harming someone or physically destroying property, we have time.”
During the bank protest, hundreds of chanting demonstrators commandeered an intersection uptown and refused to budge. That’s against the law. Rather than arrest them, officers redirected traffic and eventually the protesters left.
“Locking up 300 to 400 people,” Monroe said, “is not in our best interest.”
This weekend, 100 CMPD officers are getting additional hands-on experience in Chicago, where they are helping handle NATO Summit protests. Monroe is there observing, along with Medlock and eight other police officials.
Chicago police, in turn, will be among some 2,000 officers Monroe is bringing here to help Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 1,757 officers during the convention.
The expanded force will work 12-hour shifts. Monroe said he will divide his time between a new $1.73 million video observation center at headquarters and a multi-agency command center. If conflicts arise, he said he will be on the streets with his officers.
With 15,000 journalists expected, Monroe will face scrutiny over how a mid-sized Southern city handles the political turmoil.
Monroe had plenty of experience in Washington, where protests and national security events are commonplace. But his officers don’t have that background. After a melee uptown at last year’s Speed Street festival, police were criticized for their response when two rival groups of suspected gang members started fighting. Two people were shot, one died and 70 people were arrested before the chaos ended.
Can Monroe prepare his troops for the huge and potentially ugly protests the DNC will attract?
“I think the weight on his shoulders is that he has to trust us to get it done, but ultimately he’s the guy who’s out front,” Medlock said. “I don’t think he worries about his job or his reputation. I think he worries about the city and whether this will go well. He takes that responsibility very seriously.”
A loose end: His degree
Despite his experience and his accomplishments, a question lingers about Monroe: the validity of his college degree.
When he was hired, a whistleblower suggested that Monroe had failed to complete enough courses for his degree, a requirement for the Charlotte chief’s position. Two investigations found that Virginia Commonwealth University erred in awarding him a degree in interdisciplinary studies in May 2007. VCU requires a minimum of 30 hours to graduate, but only six credit hours of Monroe’s coursework came from there. Most of his credits came from the online University of Phoenix.
Two deans resigned, but VCU found no evidence that Monroe sought favors. The university let his degree stand.
For Monroe, to be challenged about his competency and accused of not following the rules, that was wrenching. He devotes long hours to his job and demands the same from his staff.
He holds them accountable because he feels accountable. In an emotional news conference, he acknowledged he had received special treatment but said he didn’t know about it at the time. He said he might go back to college or give up the VCU degree.
The controversy faded, but the insinuation that Monroe’s degree is inauthentic continues to rankle some people in Charlotte. In January, a report called out “the chief’s missing college diploma.”
An elected official, who declined to be named, told the Observer: “He said he would take care of the degree, and he never has. I would have felt a lot better about him had he done that.”
Monroe did take care of it. He’s told only a few people. He made good on his promise. He enrolled in additional online courses and now has another degree.
Marvette shared the news. In February, he earned a B.S. in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix. Asked why he never announced it publicly or mentioned it during several interviews over four months, Monroe said:
“It’s personal to me. I did it for my own personal reason.”
He said he had long wanted a degree in criminal justice. A family goal, he called it. But he said he doesn’t believe he needed it to be an effective chief. When the DNC comes to Charlotte in September, he won’t be leaning on any coursework. The experience and knowledge from 33 years in law enforcement will be his guide.