WILMINGTON — David Donaldson came to UNCW from the farms of Bladen County. He joined the university police department in 1992 as an officer, became chief of police in 2003, and will retire this coming June.
Donaldson’s 30-year career spanned a gauntlet of shifting landscapes in the law enforcement arena. Property crime, cybercrime, active-shooter fears, the opioid crisis, the digitalization of the drug trade, and most recently the tension between law enforcement and communities, in some areas, following the death of George Floyd last year — the past three decades have seen a variety of challenges, Donaldson said.
“This community can be forgiving,” Donaldson said in an interview. “It can also be very fragile.”
The university police department comprises 36 sworn personnel and 54 individuals total. Assistant Police Chief Chris Bertram will lead the department on an interim basis after Donaldson departs this summer.
One of the most significant challenges of Donaldson’s career occurred early on in his tenure as chief.
Two UNCW students were murdered in 2004; Jessica Faulkner was killed in Cornerstone Hall, and Christen Naujoks was killed outside an off-campus apartment building where she lived.
During a Zoom interview, Donaldson said photos of the two victims are posted in his office. He looked at them as he spoke, he said.
“Those cases still haunt me,” he said.
More recently, the impositions of Covid-19 converged with the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Additional responsibilities were handed to law enforcement at a time when, within agencies, questions were simmering about the potential for everyday police interactions to turn south quickly, Donaldson said.
“I think a fair question that we all asked early on was: ‘Is the engagement, is the enforcement, at this point and this time, worth the potential consequence?’” he said. “We took the position that enforcing some of the components of the executive order would be secondary to other interactions.”
Three students earned disciplinary probation last year for hosting off-campus parties, and three more received probation for attending, gatherings, according to WWAY. Nearly 300 students total were accused of not complying with Covid-19 restrictions last semester, the bulk of those stemming from overcrowding violations in residence halls.
“We were facing the circumstances of the pandemic, and the governor’s executive order, at the same time some agencies were working to build or establish or re-establish trust and confidence in their communities,” Donaldson said. “There was a whole lot of, I think at times, competing priorities.”
Donaldson vouched to continue using multiple distribution channels for Covid-19 residence hall cluster announcements last semester. When university leaders had discussions about potentially dropping the email or text message cluster disclosures, Donaldson advocated for keeping them.
While UNCW police typically patrol just the main campus, the university built upon an existing partnership with the City of Wilmington to crack down on neighborhood college house parties amid the pandemic. The agreement facilitated UNCW PD’s involvement in what would otherwise be WPD cases; UNCW PD ascertained if party hosts were students, and in some cases, forwarded names to the administration.
Donaldson said the university’s police resources are best spent on campus. In 2004 a task force, later changed to alliance, between UNCW and Wilmington stakeholders was formed to tackle the ramifications of student sprawl into single-family neighborhoods, among other topics. More recently, multi-unit housing projects designed for the college-aged demographic have burst onto the College Road corridor and further west toward Kerr Avenue.
“For it to become a primary policing responsibility of the university just doesn’t seem appropriate to me,” he said. “That’s really for a number of reasons, but quite frankly we, too, have resource limitations.”
Donaldson said, in regards to advice for his replacement, only a few decisions of great importance should ever be made rapidly.
“When I joined the university, I never thought that I brought much more than a farmer’s work ethic, a love for people, a desire to be successful, and an unbridled excitement about my chosen profession,” he said. “This community allowed me to embrace it, them, and they in turn embraced me. I just don’t think you’ll find a more grateful police chief than I.”
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