Debra Chenault recently became the first African-American female to be promoted to the rank of captain in the 170-year history of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. She will serve as the detention security services B/D Team Division commander and has worked her way up within the office for the last 27 years.
How does it feel to be the first black woman promoted to the rank of captain in 170 years?
It’s actually amazing. It’s very humbling, and I’m honored. With that said, it is also a responsibility to inspire other women of color to just pursue their goals and pursue their dreams. I’d want to see them think about entering the law enforcement field; there are so many opportunities here.
What made you want to go into criminal justice?
I always thought that the criminal justice system was very interesting. Thinking about how people enter the criminal justice center. The detention center serves as the entry point as law enforcement where we’re caring for people in incarceration. We mostly work with pretrial detainees who are waiting to go to trial. The love of people and wanting to get to know the criminal justice system firsthand was why I got into it.
What is your favorite part about your job?
As detention captain, the ability and the authority to make certain decisions like providing officers with the guidance and the tools to be successful. Also, to provide leadership skills to the next generation and guide them throughout their career. I’m concerned about the whole person, not just the person attached to badge. When a person knows you are invested in their life, that contribution will push them forward in their life.
What about your interaction with those who are detained?
After entering into a law enforcement career, you meet people from all different types of backgrounds. One of the things most evident is, people’s lives were in chaos when they are booked into our facility. Some people suffer from mental illness, physical or mental abuse, and some are neglected. If I did not have close interaction with those that I do in custody, I wouldn’t be able to find out what their needs are. If we know what their needs are, we can effectively help those people.
It says in the press release that you grew up in Winston-Salem. How, in your opinion, has the city changed since your childhood?
I have a lot of pride when it comes to our city. The city has changed a lot through the years; just look at the development downtown. It’s a beautiful place for families to live.
Since the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement a few years ago, more attention has been brought to the killings of black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement. What do you think about the movement and how do you see your role in it?
The impact of community is very important. Every life is valuable. For law enforcement in general, we would like to have a certain level of transparency. We work on that every day.
What are you most looking forward to as captain?
To continue to touch the lives of the officers and provide them with the tools to be successful. For those incarcerated, I want to continue to make assessments on what their needs are and how to impact their lives in a positive way. I also want to help the families of those incarcerated. When families are in the middle of crisis, the best thing we can do is give them information to give them peace of mind in the middle of the storm.