After a year running Chapel Hill PD, Chief Lehew still loves her work

Chapel Hill Police Chief Celisa Lehew. Photo Courtesy of Town of Chapel Hill.


By Fraser Sherman

Chapel Hill Police Chief Celisa Lehew has learned the importance of pacing herself.

“I could be here 24/7 and continue to work,” Lehew, who was sworn in as CHPD’s top cop in January 2023, told The Local Reporter. “I have to pace and I have to balance. I really love this job as much as I did the first day I walked in the door.”

Only 8.3 percent of U.S. police chiefs are women; Lehew is Chapel Hill’s first female chief. Lehew said her gender hasn’t been a problem. Having served 20 years in the department before her current position, she was already well-known to the community and the force when she became top cop.

Lehew says she’s fortunate to be working in Chapel Hill, but her arrival here wasn’t blind luck. Growing up in Northern Ontario, she became interested in criminal justice because of her father’s work on a re-entry program for offenders. After she completed a criminal justice degree in the U.S., Lehew faced the question of where she wanted to launch her career.

“I wanted to be in a culturally diverse area,” Lehew said, “I picked eight cities around the country. Chapel Hill called me first.” She said she’d applied to CHPD “for its progressive and forward-thinking policing, inclusivity culture, diversity and university relations.”

After joining the force, Lehew said, she worked in the patrol division, investigations, community policing and the K9 unit. Immediately before assuming her current position, she served as assistant chief.

Lehew said CHPD’s Crisis Unit is an example of the progressive approach that drew her to Chapel Hill. Founded in 1973, the Crisis Unit responds to situations including domestic violence, sexual assault, mental health emergencies, suicide assessments, runaway juveniles, stalking, harassment and trauma from violence, fire or natural disaster. Team members trained in crisis intervention and social work respond alongside police officers.

In the past year, Lehew said, the Crisis Unit has added peer-support personnel who have personal experience with substance abuse and homelessness. “Their role or responsibility is to meet the person where they’re at, meet the crisis and provide short-term resources.” After that, the unit connects the person in crisis to a professional or agency that can work with them long-term.

Lehew cited the Crisis Unit as an example of CHPD’s determination to prioritize “deflection and diversion” policies for steering people away from the criminal justice system when it’s not the best path. Depending on an individual’s particular problems, she said, they might be sent to mental-health professionals, substance-abuse experts or sent for some form of education.

Chief Lehew added that the Crisis Unit is trained to respond to rape and sexual violence calls. This is particularly helpful because the Orange County Rape Crisis Center has suffered heavy federal funding cuts, forcing it to lay off staff. However, Lehew said, CHPD still works closely with the center.

When Lehew was still assistant chief, Chapel Hill committed to the 30×30 Initiative, a police program for increasing the number of women officers to 30 percent of law enforcement by 2030. In 2023, Lehew said, Chapel Hill increased the percentage of women on the force by 3 percent. She said the department is continuing recruitment efforts and reaching out to girls 14 to 19 with the GEMS (Girls. Empowered. Motivated. Spectacular) program, a six-week introduction to careers in law enforcement.

Lehew says CHPD has been lucky in staffing, with vacancy rates running from 4 percent down to zero the past year. Part of that is emphasizing the takeaway at the end of the day and how it feels to be part of the department, rather than more conventional messaging. However, she said, police departments everywhere struggle with veteran cops retiring. Even when new officers fill the positions, she said, you can end up with an experience gap.

Chief Lehew said she still needs to do more work on leadership development at CHPD: “It’s a challenge but it’s also an opportunity – I can’t wait to see where Chapel Hill goes long after I’ve stepped away because we’re tackling it now and in the moment.”

Lehew says she wishes the public knew “that the police are always here. We’re available 24/7. We have always operated on having that service and making those connections. We have to call upon all our community partners and such it’s a collaborative effort.”

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.

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