Christine Dunning Hired as Wilmington’s First Female Police Chief, Proves She Can Handle the Heat
Laying it out on the line: Christine Dunning is Wilmington’s first female police chief. Can she rally the old boys’ network?
Photo by Michael Sahadi
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It’s May 2012, in Rockford Park, during the Wilmington Flower Market. Mayoral candidate Dennis P. Williams is doing the politics thing, greeting as many people as he can, telling all who will listen that, if he’s elected, his strategy for fighting crime will include reaching outside the city to find a leader for the Wilmington Police Department.
One prospective voter, a city police captain ready to start a shift, runs into Williams. She’s not feeling his strategy.
The captain is Christine Dunning.
“I told him I didn’t think it would be a good idea, and it would take a long time for an outsider to learn the department,” Dunning says. “There are times when you have to go outside—like if there is a lot of corruption and you have to clean house—but this is not one of those times.”
Dunning’s words had no impact on Williams’ campaign. He stuck to his guns through the Sept. 11 primary, when he vanquished four Democratic rivals for the nomination, and beyond the Nov. 6 election, in which he faced a token write-in campaign from Republican Kevin Melloy.
“I respect her for that,” Williams says, recalling the Flower Market meeting. “That’s boldness. She’s honest, forthright. She laid it all on the line.”
So the mayor-elect changed his mind. The week after Thanksgiving, he asked Dunning to serve as chief of police, making her the first woman to hold the position.
“I knew Christine from my years on the police department,” Williams says. “When I was going through my folders of all the people I was looking at, I kept coming back to her. [It’s] 4 or 5 in the morning, and I said, ‘You know what? This is it.’ I called her up the next day and offered her the position.”
Williams’ reversal stunned many. Dunning isn’t flashy. She isn’t known for her PR skills. But she’s a dedicated cop with serious street cred.
“She is a very well-rounded police officer, very well-liked,” says Michael R. Brown, the only Republican on City Council and chair of its Public Safety Committee. He worked with Dunning when he was a civilian youth intervention specialist in the police department. “She treated everybody fairly—on the street, inside the police station,” he says.
“She has what it takes,” says Michael Lawson, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, the city police union. “She’s not afraid to speak her mind.”
“There’s no doubt that she’s tough,” says Capt. Clayton Smith, commander of the organized crime and vice division.
Courage, boldness and fairness may be Dunning’s defining characteristics, but they are just part of what she brings to the job.