Kenly, North Carolina (CNN) — The mass exodus of an entire police department following the hiring of a black city manager in North Carolina has sparked a debate about public safety and race relations in a small town of just over 1,500 people.
Last week, the entire Kenly, North Carolina police department resigned citing a “hostile” work environment, less than two months after Justine Jones, a black woman, began her role as the new city manager. .
Joy Wright, a local business owner, said the community is concerned about what the collective resignation of the police means for the future of the city. Wright also said she was mostly frustrated that the city hadn’t kept residents abreast of any developments.
“It’s just weird, and for us to not have any information as to what to expect,” Wright said. “Are we going to have police? Are we going to have a city manager?”
Following an emergency closed-door meeting last week, Kenly City Council issued a statement this week saying, “The prudent course of action is to find out what happened and not make any rash decisions.”
Alan “Chip” Hewett, a Kenly city attorney, told CNN he will oversee an investigation by an outside firm starting next week, when all the resignations take effect. Technically, the police chief and officers remain in place until early next week. The police chief’s resignation will take effect on Tuesday.
CNN obtained eight resignation letters in total, consisting of veteran Police Chief Josh Gibson, four full-time officers, one part-time officer and two city employees. The letters’ language is similar, with most referring to a stressful work environment, though they do not provide any details about the supposedly “hostile” workplace, nor do they explicitly blame Jones.
However, Gibson has blamed Jones for the resignation, both in a Facebook post that is now private, as well as in an exclusive interview with Fox News in which he said Jones had written to him several times and had something against him. .
“The new one [gestora municipal] has created an environment where I don’t think we can fulfill our duties and service to the community,” Gibson said in his Facebook post.
Jones began as a city manager for Kenly on June 2, according to a city announcement that says she was unanimously approved by the council and touts her 16 years of experience working in “positions of progressively greater responsibility with local governments” in multiple state.
Residents are divided as to whether it is a “race issue”
Kenly resident Brittney Hinnant said she feels the situation is a “race issue” given that Jones is black while the entire Kenly Police Department is white. Hinnant also said that she does not believe the police department is supportive of Black people and feels that Black residents are often harassed.
“I feel like they don’t want a black woman on top of them, basically directing them or telling them what to do,” Hinnant said.
Studies show that people in organizations tend to think that black women are more likely to have aggressive personalities, and studies also suggest that this negative perception is unique to black women, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Jones told CNN that since this is a personnel matter, he cannot comment on police resignations.
And other residents warned against jumping to conclusions, saying they have always had a good relationship with the police department.
Wright, who owns the Granny Barn, an embroidery and vinyl gift shop located two doors from City Hall, said she doesn’t think the situation was a “black vs. white thing.”
“I’ve never seen that be a problem,” he said when asked if he thought race had played a role in the situation.
“I think there are too many who jump to conclusions, we really don’t know what’s going on. I know I’ve never met this city manager, I’ve never had problems with the police, so I really don’t know what dynamic could have led to this kind of decisions,” Wright said.
Michelle Dawes, who is from Kenly and used to work for the city, told CNN she thought the situation was complicated. She said race and gender may have played a role in the resignations, but questions of accountability are really at the heart of the matter.
“I have never had any personal problems with [el jefe de policía Josh] Gibson, but as a former city employee, I know how it works there,” Dawes said. “I immediately knew this was someone new. She doesn’t know what they are, I call them, the ‘unofficial rules’. Basically, when she came in and was hired, she woke the beast up by holding him accountable.”
The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, already serving Kenly, will increase its presence in the city now that the police department will be effectively disbanded.
Kenly native Denise Bennett said she finds the timing suspicious, adding that the situation appears to be more about power than resolving work-related issues. Bennett also said some residents have claimed the resignations aren’t about racism, but she doesn’t think race issues can be totally ruled out as an explanation.
“When I realized how short a time I had been on the job and what a drastic decision was made, I couldn’t get over it,” Bennett said. “With the fact that there are so many things you can do if you think you have a nightmarish supervisor, there are so many things you can do. But for an entire police force to make the decision to resign when they have agreed to protect and serve, rather than to use all the things in front of them to change the situation… it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
— CNN’s Wesley Bruer contributed to this report.