Campus News

New police chief talks about his unique role at Carolina

Two months in, Chief Brian James discusses his admiration for his mom, transitioning from city to university policing and more.

Chief James with hand on Bible and wife Stacy by his side at swearing-in ceremony.
Samantha Cabe, a judge for the 15B judicial district, administers the oath at the swearing-in ceremony for UNC Police Chief Brian L. James with his wife, Stacy, at his side on Aug. 2, 2022. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Brian James credits his mother, who taught him honorable values, and the Greensboro community in which he grew up for leading him to a career in law enforcement.

James worked in the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office before returning to his home city and serving in the Greensboro Police Department for 26 years. He spent his last 2½ years there as chief and joined Carolina on July 1. James earned a master’s degree in business administration from Pfeiffer University and a bachelor of science degree in business administration from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

During an interview with The Well, Chief James talked about how his personal compass pointed him to serving people and how he hopes to connect with Carolina’s community.

What in your life influenced you to enter law enforcement?

I was primarily raised by my mom. She’s been the biggest influence on my life. A lot of things that I do and talk about, such as values, she taught at home. I grew up in the Woodmere Park neighborhood. We knew every family on the street that we lived on and a lot of people beyond that. It was a really strong community. A lot of those people have passed on, but my mom still lives in the same house I grew up in. Her name is Norma, and she worked so hard to give me and my sister a chance to be successful. I just didn’t want to disappoint her.

I had a chance to go to college. I didn’t play sports in college, but I did at Page High School. A lot of teachers and coaches in the public school system in Greensboro, my mom, my family, my community — all were big influences on me. It was a great experience, honestly, growing up there. Just like anybody, I ran into some obstacles and some bumps and bruises here and there, but overall I had a great upbringing and really enjoyed growing up there.

At N.C. A&T, I majored in business but wanted to do something with a positive impact on the community. There are many ways to do that by serving in law enforcement. I felt that there needed to be more minority representation in law enforcement. Oftentimes people say that but don’t necessarily want to step into those roles. I chose to step into that role. I feel like throughout my career there, I made a lot of positive impact on the community, not just as the chief, but as I was coming up through the department as a patrol officer serving in different roles.

Why is building relationships in the community one of the most important things that a police department does?

Law enforcement is a difficult job, and it can also be a controversial job. The only way you can be effective at it is if you have relationships with the people that you serve. It gives them the ability to know you as a human first, not just as someone who wears a uniform and answers calls. It also opens communication. In any community, the people that you serve typically know more about that community than you do. For instance, our students are here for the most part 24/7 and know a lot of things that happen on campus that we may not know about that could contribute to the safety of the overall campus. If we don’t have those relationships and we’re not talking to the students, they won’t feel comfortable talking to us. We might miss a lot of things that we could either address or prevent.

In law enforcement, things happen that could be controversial. Sometimes we’re wrong, sometimes we’re right, but there has to be a space in there where we can have a conversation with people who have questions. If we haven’t established those relationships in advance, they can’t be established during a crisis or a controversial event. That’s why the foundation of any law enforcement agency is the relationship with the community that you serve.

The department was already getting out into the campus community. It doesn’t always have to be a formal event. I’m very comfortable, and I want my officers to be comfortable, going out, walking around, having conversations. It doesn’t have to be about law enforcement. A student could come up and ask a question, then it spins off into a conversation. “Where are you from? What are you majoring in?” You start to find some commonalities. As they talk to you about things that aren’t necessarily around police work, that’s when we start to humanize each other and put a name to a face. That may open up a conversation later on regarding law enforcement, but for lack of a better term, it could be an icebreaker.

I like formal events, but I enjoy it more when it’s organic, when it just happens. FallFest had those moments. We were out there first and foremost to make sure that the environment was safe. It was a great event that gave us as a department, me included, opportunities to interact with students.

What’s different about law enforcement on a college campus instead of a city?

Greensboro’s population is around 300,000 people. As I worked in the community and saw it grow, I developed a lot of personal relationships. But because there are so many people, I never got a chance to know some people in a positive way. Carolina is a large campus, but much smaller than Greensboro, so I’ll have opportunities to develop personal relationships with a larger percentage of the people that we serve.

And, because my department is smaller, I can develop more personal relationships with officers. Greensboro had over 600 sworn police officers and about 114 civilian employees. So it was difficult to have a lot of one-on-one conversations. Here, I hope to get to know officers a lot better.

Carolina has a specialized population, with the majority of people probably between the age of about 17 and 22. Also everyone is here for a purpose, to get an education. Plus, as a class graduates and new students arrive, large numbers are brand new to our community every year. That’s not the case in a municipality where the population doesn’t turn over as fast. Our department wants to make a great first impression on those new students.

What partners will be important for you to learn about and work with, especially as you begin the job?

Building on and enhancing those partnerships started on day one.

We have many on-campus resources that not only assist students but also can help us as a police department get better. We often are the ones who respond to a situation, and we may not have all the skills necessary to solve the problem. Because we’re the first point of contact, we can connect students to where they need to be. For instance, it could be a service through Student Affairs like the Dean of Students team or CAPS, which offers psychological and counseling services and other resources. If we get the call at 2 a.m. because a student or someone on campus is in crisis, we could serve as that conduit to bring the services to that person.

In a city, it’s difficult sometimes to pull in entities that provide services because they may not be under your umbrella. Carolina’s wealth of knowledge and resources can benefit everyone, including our staff in the police department.