Local heroes are hard to find, especially a heroine that you do not call Mom. But Winston-Salem has benefitted from a local heroine named Patricia Norris. “Hero” is not a title that Chief Norris would claim for herself, but it fits her well. She recently retired as Chief of Police at Winston-Salem State University after almost 11 years, and before that, served as the Chief of Police for the City of Winston-Salem, the first African American to hold that honor. After 42 years of service in her hometown, her accolades are numerous, but her love of community is even more impressive.
Her strong, steady voice continued to practice community policing with an emphasis on “meeting people where they are.” This approach decreased crime rates in pockets of the city where increasing crime called attention to the need to listen to people and their reasons for problem behavior. This approach gave them a voice, and police listened. As a young girl growing up in Winston-Salem, Norris listened to her grandparents when they gave her “The Talk.”
“The Talk” for Norris, one of the first to integrate into the once all-white Wiley Middle School from Paisley, the “Black” middle school, urged her to work harder and be better than the white students, not just because she wanted to do well academically, but because she had to prove that a black student could perform as well as her white peers. “Once the white students talked to us, they figured out that we were just like them,’ Norris recalled from that time. “The Talk” was probably quite different for the white students. Changing schools did not present an obstacle for her.
After graduating from RJR High School, she enrolled at Winston-Salem State University.
She completed two years of college and then decided to become a police officer instead of a nurse. At that time, all rookies had to complete public safety training, which consisted of police and fire training. The fire department, many of whom were males, doubted the ability of a female to complete the training.
Norris, and four other women in her rookie class, graduated despite the physical hardships. Her ability to build relationships, starting in rookie training, helped her in every role in the police department, and served the students at WSSU well when they needed a hug from “Mom” and words of encouragement (with some grandmotherly advice mixed in). During her four years as the Winston-Salem Chief of Police, she mentored several female officers and made it a point to listen. She learned the first and last name and personal details of every one of the 600+ employees under her watch. Her voice as Chief of Police called for transparent, compassionate, and community-centered service.
Our community is currently navigating through the changes that must occur for every citizen to thrive in what can grow into a more equitable and inclusive place to live. Listening to the steady voice of Chief Norris can go a long way towards helping us understand each other and find that equal playing field. Her grandmotherly advice for our community would be to, “Listen and meet people where they are. To do that, we should recognize that we are all human and make mistakes and that we all come to the table with different resources.” As a community, she urges us to action by seeking ways to build each other up and solve the disparity in resources. She recognizes the need for better public transportation as one way to help narrow the resource gap, and she urges the public to seek education on how the justice system works.
One of the most significant problems in the criminal justice system, in Norris’ opinion, is the disparity in outcomes when someone charged with a crime lacks the resources to secure an attorney on their own and lacks knowledge of the criminal justice system. These outcomes can be just as impactful as the lack of funds for medical care or proper nutrition. Her voice and message are clear. “Listen and care about your community.” Listening to her voice has changed our community!