LELAND — Leland Police Chief Mike James always wanted to be a cop.
“My mother told me when I was young, that’s all I ever talked about,” James said.
As a high school senior, he worked second shift after class, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. as a 911 dispatcher in his North Carolina hometown, Mayodan.
Home to just over 2,300 people, Mayodan sits outside the fork of the Mayo and Dan Rivers, a 40-minute drive north of Greensboro. The mostly-rural mill town is rooted by a historic downtown that was settled at the turn of the 20th century that stretches just a few blocks, 10 miles south of the Virginia line.
Growing up, James said a police officer assigned to a school crossing, Freeman Cook, would pat him on the top of the head each day on the road to get to school. “Freeman was about 6’6″, 6’7, 300 pounds. Just a gentle soul,” James said.
“He just — I don’t know, something about Freeman just impressed me.” When James eventually finished Basic Law Enforcement Training, he was able to work for Cook before the Sergeant retired.
After Mayodan, James served as chief of Stoneville — just over five miles down the road — looking after the town of 1,100.
He went back to school later in life so he could teach D.A.R.E. “I’d been out of high school 20 years before I tackled college,” James said. He didn’t stop until he got his Master’s, which allowed him to become a criminal justice instructor. “I just got bit by the bug. Of course, my wife’s a school teacher. My oldest daughter is a school teacher,” he said.
His favorite students were the grade-schoolers he encountered during D.A.R.E. and C.A.R.E., a child abuse training program. “That’s the best job I ever had,” James said. “The kids. Just the kids are so honest. You get them at second grade — I would come up every day and I would have snot marks on my pants where the kids would run up hugging me.”
With three adult children of his own — who all studied public service-related fields — James has seven grandchildren, with one more on the way.
After arriving in Brunswick County as a deputy in the training division in August 2011 (James said Chief John Ingram hired him on the spot at the Fourth of July parade), and eight years as Leland’s top cop, James is ready to return home. Last year, he and his wife were able to buy a house they’ve always wanted in Mayodan, and James turns 55 on Jan. 31. He plans to retire the following day.
“I would have been the last one if anyone would have bet would have moved away from home,” James said. So how’d he get here?
He knew Brunswick County chief deputy Charlie Millier’s father, Bill. Both were familiar with James’ role in turning around Stoneville’s ruffled department as chief.
At the time, Leland needed the same kind of help.
A clean house
Between 2008 and 2014, Leland lost more officers through terminations or resignations than it had on active duty, according to the StarNews. After James took over in late 2012, 11 officers were fired or resigned after the department initiated investigations into their conduct. His predecessor was fired, and the interim the town hired to fill the former chief’s role was also fired.
In August 2014, the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) began its own investigation into the department over hydrocodone, an opioid painkiller, that was missing from evidence. A uniformed officer who was being investigated resigned at the outset of the SBI investigation, as did a detective (who was not being investigated). Another detective was fired for multiple policy violations. The SBI investigation concluded without criminal charges.
Looking back on his eight years in town, earning back the resident’s trust is James’ proudest accomplishment. “One person can poison a well,” James said. “We — we made a decision that we would rather work short than just fill positions with warm bodies,” James said.
Just twice during his tenure has the department been fully-staffed — “we’ve got three openings right now … It’s worked out better for us to not hire a problem.”
An open-door policy, both inhouse and with the community, has served him well, James said. “I think about everybody in town has my cell phone number,” he said. “When I came here, I wanted to be transparent.”
Shortly after joining, the department installed in-car and body cameras. It reviewed every complaint that came in using audio and video available. “We didn’t sweep anything under the rug,” he said.
Asked whether the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement had changed his department’s relationship with the community, James said he felt the town was somewhat insulated. The 1992 brutal beating of Rodney King was a more familiar turning point for James, where he said he and his colleagues reckoned with video and photo accountability.
“That really changed the way we — well one, we had to take a look at ourselves. and ill be honest with you, I think we needed to change.”
The rise of the community policing concept, paired with advances in technology, were positive shifts that followed the King case. “Back in the day, it was us against them. We have found out somewhere during time that we can get a lot more accomplished if we can get the community on our side.”
For the last several years, Leland’s safety rankings have increased, with fewer violent crimes per capita than any other area in the Cape Fear region.
Leland is the 15th-safest town in the state, according to a 2018 SafeWise ranking, with a 1.38 violent crime and 22.6 property crime rate per 1,000 people.
One standout incident — James’ most difficult moment — was the December 2016 Windsor Park shootout. Since-retired officer Jacob Schwenk was shot six times responding to an erratic drunk driver, Brent Quinn, who he fatally shot in the exchange. “Unfortunately it caused a lot of damage in [Schwenk’s] lower extremities and he couldn’t stay on — over, we still don’t know what it was over. Still don’t have a clue,” James said.
After staying up all night long, Leland Police Department officers still had to work the Christmas Parade. People who knew what had just happened showed officers support James won’t forget. “The respect that they showed us was just unbelievable.”
“When I came here, I don’t know if people knew what to expect. But, the town said to me, you’re learnin’ on pretty quick,” James said.
“So that’s the bittersweet part, leaving, really, my second hometown.”
When James moved to town, he bought a house behind the Piggly Wiggly off Village Road because it reminded him of home — “it’s a hometown feeling”. Many locals affectionately — and sometimes dismissively — refer to this side of town as “old” Leland
In the nearly 10 years since James arrived, Leland has nearly doubled in population, adding 8,300 new residents with a total population of about 22,000. Most growth is sprawling in “new” Leland, in master-planned communities home to more people than James’ entire hometown on either side of Highway 17, but townhouses and single-family subdivisions are popping up off Village Road, too.
“The people are still the same,” James said of Leland’s newer residents. “They may be from New York or New Jersey but they’ve kind of adopted that southern hospitality.”
Every member of Leland Town Council lives in “new” Leland, but its long-running and first female mayor, Brenda Bozeman, grew up in “old” Leland (she calls it “traditional”; in Bozeman’s October candidate interview before winning her fifth term, she explained: “The word ‘old’ is out for me. I like to say ‘traditional.’ Sometimes, people forget — I am ‘traditional’ Leland”).
“I tell the guys back home I get hugs from our mayor every time she sees me,” James said of Mayor Bozeman. “Of course she’s hugging me to make sure I’ve got a vest on.”
Since he started, Leland Police Department doubled its patrol, from three to six on a shift. In 2012, the town had two detectives; now, it has nine.
After serving three towns and two counties, James said Leland Manager David Hollis is “probably the best bossman I’ve ever had to work for.”
“When I came in, like most places, they’ll tell you, we’re family here. And most times, you find that that’s smoke and mirrors. But the whole time I’ve been with Leland, it’s been that way,” James said.
Now that he’s heading back to his first hometown, James said he hopes Leland will stay true to its roots. “No matter how much we grow – I don’t want to lose that small-town feel,” he said.
“I know that there’s no such thing as Mayberry. But it would be nice if it was. “
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at firstname.lastname@example.org