If you spotted Rodney Monroe on Tryon Street when six Greenpeace protesters were arrested, you might not have picked him out as Charlottes chief of police.
Monroe, 55, watched from the sidelines, resting his hands in his pants pockets, his .40-caliber Smith & Wesson hidden beneath a black athletic jacket. His commanders orchestrated the arrests, then fielded questions from reporters. Only after the crowd dispersed did Monroe step forward to debrief the officers and critique their performance.
This is part of a test, he said that morning in February, welcoming the protest as the first of several trial runs before the Democratic National Convention. It gives us a live snapshot of what well see during the DNC.
Its been four years since Monroe, who served as Macons police chief from 2001-05, weathered a bumpy start in Charlotte over the way he got his college degree, and some people still believe he broke the rules. Now he faces his biggest test yet. As police chief, his job is to work with the U.S. Secret Service to keep Charlotte safe during the DNC, requiring an extraordinary level of planning and coordination never before undertaken in this city.
When you think of the number of eyes internationally that will be on Charlotte, that the president of the United States will be right here in this city, and when you think of all the security needed to ensure his safety and all the citizens of this community that need to be protected, there is no heavier weight than Chief Rodney Monroe will bear, said Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon. How he serves, secures and protects ... will define him forever.
National security experience
On the wall of the chiefs office, on the third floor of headquarters uptown, is a photograph of Monroe when he worked for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. He is on a balcony on the dome of the U.S. Capitol looking down at the Million Man March. Hundreds of thousands of black men filled the mall that day in 1995. Inspector Monroe was 38 and in charge of logistics.
Two years later, he helped coordinate security for then-President Bill Clintons second inauguration.
Because of his experience with national security events, Monroes former chief in Washington believes Charlotte is fortunate to have him here at this critical moment in the citys history. Hes calm under pressure, said Isaac Fulwood Jr., now chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission.
City Manager Curt Walton said he could not have predicted when he hired Monroe that Charlotte would be hosting the DNC this September. The connections he has in federal government, the Secret Service, the FBI, the CIA ... brings him a voice of credibility, Walton said. As soon as we got the convention, Rodney was one of the first to come see me. He said, We have got to get on this. We have got to start planning.
Some days, Monroes schedule has included up to six meetings about the DNC, ranging from daily intelligence briefings to discussions about airspace security. Its a massive undertaking. But I love it when a plan comes together, he said.
Deputy Chief Harold Medlock, who is in charge of the planning, said he has e-mailed Monroe at 3 or 4 in the morning only to get an immediate reply. The chief was awake, too.
There are so many different parts, Monroe said. What keeps me awake mostly is the what ifs.
Good cop? Bad cop?
In Charlotte, strong opinions follow Monroe.
Even before he arrived in June 2008, some officers grumbled because one of their own was passed over for the job. Monroe further aggravated the troops with a massive shakeup that included removing 89 officers from specialized investigative units and putting them on patrol.
Monroe made similar changes when he took over as chief in Macon and in Richmond, Va. In Charlotte, the bickering has never let up. Its difficult to say whether a few disgruntled officers are feeding the blogs or whether dissatisfaction within the department is widespread. Monroes critics, including current and former officers, declined to talk on the record.
City and county officials, neighborhood activists and even some of Monroes detractors give him credit for doing what he was brought here to do: Reduce crime.
Though crime was up 12 percent in the first three months of this year, police statistics show that crime dropped more than 37 percent from 2007 through 2011. There were 55 homicides last year, the fewest in Charlotte in 23 years. Whether Monroe can take credit is debatable; the dramatic decrease in crime mirrors a trend throughout the U.S. that has baffled criminologists.
He brought a sense of urgency and a need to respond quickly to people that (the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department) needed, said Fire Chief Jon Hannan, who has lived in Charlotte more than 50 years and served on the panel that helped select Monroe.
Monroe said he doesnt let his critics define him.
When I came here, I changed how we did business and that didnt sit well, he said. These who didnt like it have taken it upon themselves to come after me at every turn. I had to turn that off.
And this: I believe theres a hint of racism about it, no doubt in my mind.
Monroe is the citys first African-American police chief. For six months after he was hired, Walton said he got half a dozen anonymous racist phone calls about Monroe every week, and he still gets an occasional racist call.
He was what I was looking for going forward, and I havent regretted it a day since, Walton said. Rodneys a rock star. Whenever I go anywhere with Rodney, there will be people who come up to him that he doesnt know, who interface with him like hes their long lost best friend. ... Across the board, black, white, old, young, male, female.
Not a flamboyant rock star. Monroe is soft-spoken and smiles more with his eyes than with his mouth. He knows how to work a crowd, though, greeting people with hugs and handshakes and how-do-you-dos. At an officer promotion ceremony, he high-fived a little boy who marched on stage with his father and afterwards guided the officers wife and child back down the stairs. He volunteers with different causes, from reading to students to escorting Secret Santas at Christmas. In the middle of the night, hes been seen consoling a distraught parent at the scene of a homicide.
Some critics claim Monroe is a different man within the police department -- that he rules by intimidation, berating officers in front of other officers.
Hes smart enough not to do that publicly, said a former cop.
Monroe shakes his head when he hears the criticism. People call me a bully. They say Im abrasive. I believe in dealing with issues head-on. If theres something I dont like, I let people know. I dont hold anything against anyone. I deal with the issues and move on.
John Buckovich, deputy secretary of public safety for Virginia, worked under Monroe in Richmond, and said Monroe could be a very hard person to work for, very demanding.
He was fair, but he didnt cut you any slack if he didnt think you were doing what you should be doing, said Buckovich, who credits Monroe with teaching him leadership.
Marvette: His best friend
In Monroes office are photos of his wife, Marvette. There are pictures of their daughter, Hollye, 28, with their 4-year-old grandson, Jace, and of their son, Brandon, 25.
Marvette and Rodney Monroe were high school sweethearts, and he describes her as his best friend. Marvette is the one who keeps me balanced, Monroe said.
On the day Monroe started policing 33 years ago, Marvette gave him a gold cross he still wears beneath his uniform. Raised Baptist, he converted to Catholicism because of her.
Monroes schedule is fairly regular, except when a public appearance or a homicide intervenes --or during the DNC, when he expects to sleep on his office couch, if he sleeps at all. He said he usually wakes up around 6 a.m., gets to the gym around 6:45 a.m. It gives me energy just to get through the day, he said.
By 8:30, hes at work fast and furious. Around 6:30 or 7 p.m., he returns home for dinner with Marvette.
Words of advice
During the convention, Monroe will send his officers to the streets with this advice:
Stay focused. Anticipate problems before they arise. Dont overreact.
Thousands of protesters are expected.
Monroe said he recognizes the protesters have a mission, and police will work with them. If they cause harm, however, they will be arrested.
Monroe, who observed security operations in Tampa during the Republican National Convention, is bringing in some 2,000 officers to help Charlotte-Mecklenburgs 1,757 officers during the convention. The expanded force will work 12-hour shifts. Monroe said he will divide his time between a new $1.73 million video observation center at headquarters and a multi-agency command center. If conflicts arise, he said he will be on the streets with his officers.
With 15,000 journalists expected, Monroe will face scrutiny over how a mid-sized Southern city handles the political turmoil.
I think the weight on his shoulders is that he has to trust us to get it done, but ultimately hes the guy whos out front, Medlock said. I dont think he worries about his job or his reputation. I think he worries about the city and whether this will go well. He takes that responsibility very seriously.
A loose end: His degree
Despite his experience and his accomplishments, a question lingers about Monroe: the validity of his college degree.
When he was hired, a whistleblower suggested that Monroe had failed to complete enough courses for his degree, a requirement for the Charlotte chiefs position. Two investigations found that Virginia Commonwealth University erred in awarding him a degree in interdisciplinary studies in May 2007. VCU requires a minimum of 30 hours to graduate, but only six credit hours of Monroes coursework came from there. Most of his credits came from the online University of Phoenix.
Two deans resigned, but VCU found no evidence that Monroe sought favors. The university let his degree stand.
The controversy faded, but the insinuation that Monroes degree is inauthentic continues to rankle some people in Charlotte. An elected official, who declined to be named, told the Observer: He said he would take care of the degree, and he never has. I would have felt a lot better about him had he done that.
Monroe did take care of it. In February, he earned a B.S. in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix. Asked why he never announced it publicly, Monroe said:
Its personal to me. I did it for my own personal reason.
He said he doesnt believe he needed the degree to be an effective chief. As the DNC comes to Charlotte he wont be leaning on any coursework. The experience and knowledge from 33 years in law enforcement will be his guide.
Charlotte Observer writer Cleve Wootson contributed to this story.