In 2011, Raleigh’s new police chief, Estella Patterson, and Lance, her husband of 24 years, adopted their 9-year-old nephews after their fathers were sent to prison in Memphis.

“My husband and I raised them until they graduated from high school,” Patterson told the INDY late Friday afternoon, one day after she was sworn in as the top cop in North Carolina’s capital city. Their biological mothers are Lance Patterson’s sisters. 

“We were just committed in our minds that they were not going to end up in prison,” she explains. “We were going to get them out of that pipeline.” 

After a year of protests and continuing uncertainty, Raleigh residents hope they will benefit from a police chief who works proactively to prevent crime, in tandem with interventions to help troubled young people and by building better relationships from the ground up with communities throughout the city.

Gracious, personable, with a warm smile at the ready, Patterson becomes Raleigh’s third woman, and second Black woman, to head the department. She’s part of a growing tradition across the Triangle, where more and more women are at the helm of local, county, and state law enforcement agencies.

That list includes her Raleigh predecessors, Jane Perlov who served from 2001 through 2007, and Cassandra Deck-Brown, who retired in June after she was hired as chief in 2013. It also includes former Durham police chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, Morrisville police chief Patrice Andrews, former Cary police chief Pat Bazemore, former SBI director Robin Pendergraft, and the agency’s former assistant director, Melanie Thomas.

“I’m super proud of the women who came before me, who paved the way,” Patterson says. She adds that women bring a “different element” to police leadership.

“Women are known to be a bit more detail-oriented, and we’re more organized in a sense,” she says. “That’s something you need in this job, especially because you’re multitasking things. And women bring more compassion. We’re maternal by nature. We care deeply most of the time. At this stage, where we are in law enforcement … that is so needed. To be able to take care of the community, take care of your personnel, and just having that natural strength, that God-given strength to be able to do all those things.”

It’s not, she adds, that men can’t do these things, but that women “are naturally wired to do that.” And as a Black woman leading a major police force, Patterson says she brings “relatability” to the job during a time when much of the polarization taking place across the country has focused on race.

“I can relate to what is occurring in our Black, underserved communities,” she says.

Patterson’s first encounter with a member of law enforcement was not a pleasant experience and could well have soured her on a career in the field. She’s not even sure whether the person driving a Mustang who stopped her on I-95, when she was 18 years old, was even a legitimate member of the South Carolina State Highway Patrol.

“I didn’t know if it was a trooper because it was an unmarked car,” she says. “He told me he had stopped me for speeding. I had never had any dealings with law enforcement so I didn’t know how to respond. I just did everything he said to do. And he told me he was going to write me a citation for speeding. He was a legal person so I listened to whatever he said. He told me, ‘You can pay it now, or go to jail.’”

Patterson paid the fine but later found out the ticket wasn’t on her record. 

“There was never any record of it anywhere,” she says. 

Patterson says the questionable traffic stop didn’t change her viewpoints about policing. In college, at UNC-Charlotte, Patterson had a formative encounter that prompted her to consider a life in law enforcement. She met a Black woman who was a police officer and recruiter.

“She looked sharp in her uniform,” Patterson recalls. “She looked good. She was a woman of color. And I could see myself in her. And so I applied and she ended up being my background investigator, and walked me step-by-step through everything. It was important for me to see somebody who looked like me in the profession, wearing the uniform, and she really was that person.”

Patterson was born in Panama and is of Panamanian descent. The youngest of three children, she says her father was a military man, a paratrooper “who jumped out of planes.” Her mother was a homemaker. The family moved a lot. While growing up in Sacramento and San Francisco, she wanted to be a nurse or a teacher—“just driven to professions where you serve,” she explains.

Her father’s military career influenced her decision to enroll in the Reserve Officers Training Corps while an undergraduate. She went to Officer Candidate School. At the end of her nearly decade-long career as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, Patterson attained the rank of captain.

Before she was tapped to lead more than 800 sworn officers and 108 civilian employees in the nation’s 41st largest city, Patterson spent 25 years with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD), where she worked her way up through the ranks as a patrol officer, instructor, sergeant, division commander, recruitment director, and internal affairs commander. 

In 2019, Patterson was named deputy chief of CMPD, North Carolina’s largest police force, with more than 2,000 employees.

Each Raleigh police chief has left their unique imprint on the department. Perlov decentralized the department and Raleigh saw a 30 percent drop in major crimes by the end of her tenure.

Perlov’s successor, the eminently quotable Harry Patrick Dolan, advocated for community-oriented policing that addressed quality-of-life issues in tough neighborhoods,  gaining more recreational and educational outlets for young people accompanied by a get-tough approach to dealing with violent criminals.

Deck-Brown, too, focused on building community relationships, most notably with a series of “face-to-face meetings” several years ago where residents at various locations throughout the city sat down with police officers to share their concerns. 

But last year, the wheels fell off those efforts.

As the INDY reported, Deck-Brown oversaw the creation of a police advisory council, but personally, she vehemently opposed the group. She also came under fire for her handling of a series of protests last year when officers used expired tear gas on protesters. Meanwhile, an independent review recommended a series of changes to the department. 

Months before the George Floyd protests in downtown Raleigh, where many businesses were damaged, a group of protesters demonstrated outside of the former chief’s home after the police shooting of  26-year-old Javier Torres, who officers say had a gun. Deck-Brown said the protest crossed a line. She announced in December that she was retiring. 

Patterson says she supports a community advisory board but stopped short of saying its members should have subpoena powers.

“At this point … I’m still learning what the policies [are] here … So, I think it’s too soon for me to talk about subpoena power,” she says. “Once we get this advisory group functional and really running, and have some structure to it, then we can talk about that.”

Akiba Byrd, a community activist, former leader with the city’s Police Accountability Community Task Force (PACT), and executive director of N.C. Fair Share, says that, in addition to exploring subpoena powers, he hopes the new chief will support PACT’s “whole ask” for transparency and a board with investigative and disciplinary powers—“or at least work with us and not hide behind police personnel matters and things get swept under the rug,” he told the INDY.

Byrd, who was sharply critical of Deck-Brown, says he hopes the new chief will also make a “real, good-faith effort to address past community issues, including officers who have violated the community.”

“She needs to clean house,” Byrd adds.

Patterson says her leadership approach will focus on “community” and “really repairing the relationships in this time.”

“Because last year was damaging, and so being able to come out of that—rebuild, restructure, strengthen the relationships—that’s going to be my signature,” she says. 

Patterson says she wants to rebuild trust for the police department with high visibility, starting with her, and every officer, being visible in neighborhoods and meeting leaders and community members. She says every officer should be a community officer.

If the past is an indication, and Raleigh communities get their wish, Patterson will see success. 

Her two adopted nephews, whom she and her husband were determined to keep out of the prison pipeline, “both went down the path of serving their country:” one serves in the U.S. Army, and the other just got out of the Air Force. 

“I’m so proud now,” she says. 

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