‘Servant leader’: Gardner broke barriers while making a difference

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There are seminal moments in life that propel us forward and place us on a path to our destiny.

Charles Gardner vividly remembers his.

Born in St. Louis in 1958 and raised in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, Gardner — who just retired from his position as Chief Deputy of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office — bore witness to the vestiges of Jim Crow and simultaneously, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.

“I can remember seeing signs that said ‘Whites Only,’ at the water fountains,” Gardner said. “My father was somewhat of a history buff. He used to take us around as a family and he used to talk about certain things. You could see the black and white signs that said, ‘Colored Only,’ for the bathrooms.”

In 2014, Ferguson became the epicenter of civil unrest related to the treatment of Black citizens by the police after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Gardner recalled a specific interaction with Ferguson police from his own childhood that ultimately led him to pursue a career in law enforcement.

He and his brothers were playing football with their white neighbors and friends in the cul-de-sac adjacent to his home. Two Ferguson police officers approached the young boys and singled out Gardner and his brothers to be frisked and searched while their white friends looked on in dismay.

The incident is seared into his mind.

“And when neighbors came to the house and told my parents what happened, there were phone calls being made and nothing was ever done,” Gardner said. “That’s what catapulted me to want to be in law enforcement — because people shouldn’t be treated like that.”

A sense of fairness

Gardner, who became the first African American Chief Deputy in the 250-year history of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in July 2018, credits his parents with giving him the strength to transform the pain inflicted by racism and bigotry into positive action.

“I was always raised to make sure whatever you do you work hard at it, but you make sure you have a seat at the table, to ensure that not only are you being treated fairly but others are being treated fairly,” Gardner said.

After a stellar 20-year military career in the U.S. Marine Corps, Gardner graduated from Ashworth College with a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice and an associate’s degree in criminal justice administration. Gardner also graduated from the FBI Leadership Command College, and in 1997, joined the Chatham Sheriff’s Office as a deputy sheriff.

Twenty-five years ago, Richard Webster was serving in the same capacity as Gardner, but in 2002, Webster was elected sheriff and Gardner quickly became an integral part of his team.

“Charles did a lot,” Webster said. “He was a working lieutenant, he was a working captain, and obviously he was a working Chief Deputy. My staff is what made the sheriff’s office and from where I was standing, Charles was one of my heroes.”

Webster lauded Gardner for his dedication to community service and educating young people on how to safely interact with law enforcement. Webster says Gardner’s passion for community outreach permeated the entire department.

“It was just doing the right thing for the people and doing it the right way, and also at the same time, having people of the caliber that you wanted in your office,” Webster says. “We raised the bar, and Charles, among other people, was part of that bar.”

Breaking barriers

Judge Carl Fox understands what it means to break barriers as a Black man in North Carolina. Fox holds the distinction of being the first Black district attorney in state history, when he ascended to that position in the Orange-Chatham judicial district in 1984. In 2006, Fox became the first Black judge to serve in the Orange-Chatham district.

Fox, who retired from the bench in 2020, said he was always so impressed with Gardner’s law enforcement acumen, professionalism and calm, military demeanor.

“Charles is one of those people who has the right stuff,” Fox said. “I think he has the kind of personality and skillset and experience that makes it easy for him to go from one community to the next, talk to anyone and make them feel good about what it is he’s telling them.”

The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Davis, former pastor at Mitchell Chapel AME Zion Church, counted Gardner among his parishioners. He described Gardner as a servant leader, who “gave his highest and best not only to the church but to law enforcement.”

“Every day of the week, Charles was committed to making sure there was a connection between law enforcement and the community,” Davis said. “He served two sheriffs and both sheriffs wanted Charles Gardner to be in leadership roles relative to that community. Why? Because he was not only visible — he was also valuable — valuable in the sense that there was so much suspicion of law enforcement.”

Rev. Davis characterized Gardner’s promotion to Chief Deputy in 2018 as a timely appointment by Sheriff Mike Roberson.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, tension between law enforcement and communities of color reached its zenith — both locally and across the U.S.

In a show of solidarity, Gardner participated in a ceremony at the Chatham County Courthouse in which protesters laid on the ground for 9 minutes and 29 seconds to reflect the amount of time Derek Chauvin’s knee was on George Floyd’s neck.

“That was an extremely long time,” Gardner said. “It made the point, because when you tell somebody just 9 minutes that’s what they look at, just 9 minutes. But if you tell somebody to hold a weight in their hand and they got to hold it level and keep their arm parallel for 9 minutes, it’s a struggle — it’s painful.”

In the summer of 2020, Gardner recalls often being approached by members of the Black community in Chatham who would openly question how he, in good conscience, could remain in law enforcement after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.

“It makes it difficult when people come up to you and they ask you how can you represent an organization that do folks like that,” Gardner said. “Bad things happen and whether you do it or not, being associated with law enforcement, you’re going to feel the brunt of all of that.”

“The biggest thing we have is how we communicate with the community and I think that’s one of my strong suits,” he added.

Gardner never wavered in his rock-solid belief he could make the biggest impact by working within the system to make the world a more fair and just place, despite encountering prejudice and bigotry on a daily basis.

“Early in my career, when I was a sergeant, and we would be serving a warrant and it was me and probably a couple of officers — the individual wouldn’t even talk to me,” Gardner recalled. “They would talk to some of the officers that were under my leadership and I would have to confront them and say, ‘Hey, when it’s all said and done, I’m making the decision of what’s going to happen here, so you need to talk to me.’ And it was pure racism.”

Gardner said he clearly remembers reporting to the scene of a homicide in the Fearrington Village area and having a witness identify him as the killer.

“I was walking down the hall, and one of the [witnesses] pointed me out and said, ‘That’s him!” Gardner recalled. “Investigators told the woman, ‘No, that’s not him. He’s one of the investigators.’ I was just a tall black guy, but in her mind, I was that guy.”

In addition to speaking with church congregations and high school students on a regular basis, Gardner focused his education efforts within the sheriff’s office by encouraging deputies under his command to use discretion in the discharge of their duties by always erring on the side of kindness and compassion.

“I can go into a community that is suffering economically and doing whatever they can to survive and a driver may not have their car inspected at that time,” Gardner stated. “But if I write him a ticket and send him to court, I just took more money off his table and made the problem a lot worse — this is what you communicate to young officers.”

Gardner said he was always cognizant of his status as a role model to other officers of color and felt an obligation to impart his philosophy of law enforcement to deputies under his supervision to help weed out individuals who are simply not cut out to be police officers. He made it clear to new deputies the badge they wear on their uniform does not imbue them with any special powers — it is merely a symbol.

“It’s the respect of the badge that you stand behind,” Gardner said. “That badge means dignity, that badge means respect and that badge means doing things the right way.”

Stepping up, stepping away

Quite often, heavy is the heart that wears the badge.

Webster recalled a time when Charles Gardner had to deliver tragic news to him and his family.

“We do a lot of tough things in our career and he came to my house in July of 2018, which was a very tough drive out, and he gave me the news that one of my children had been killed in an automobile accident,” Webster recalled. “I appreciate Charles stepping up to the plate and doing that. That was a tough one, but he did it.”

When Fox received the news of Gardner’s retirement, he admitted he was shocked and somewhat disappointed. Fox said he had high hopes Gardner would one day run for sheriff, and break yet another color barrier in Chatham County.

“If [Gardner] were to become sheriff at some later point down the road, I think it would be a very positive thing,” Fox said. “It would be one of those things that says it’s not just a situation where the sheriff is always going to be a white male.”

Roberson, Chatham’s sheriff, described Gardner as “an amazing employee, friend, and role model for many, many years.”

“He has earned our gratitude twice over, serving both at home and abroad with honor, distinction, and a true compassion for others,” Roberson said. “We love him dearly and will miss his humor and insights at the office. We are grateful to his family for loaning him to us these last 26 years. Charles has missed birthdays, holidays, and many special events to answer the call to serve the people of Chatham. Now is his time to enjoy the fruits of his labor and spend precious time with his beautiful family.”

Fellow co-worker Lt. Sara Pack said Gardner was a legend within the department.

“Charles is a man of faith, experience and perspective,” she said. “He is a true legend and an inspiration to all. He led impressive careers in both law enforcement and the military but remains one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever known.”

He was there for all the proudest moments of Pack’s career, she said.

“My swear-in, my induction into the Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard, every promotion, and every professional graduation,” she said. “He has been there for me during the hardest parts of my career, too, like delivering death notifications to families who lost loved ones, or when I lost loved ones of my own. I am one of many who can say the same! His legacy will carry on in the heart of everyone he has mentored, trained, or counseled with his leadership over the years. We are forever grateful to him and for him — he is family to us, and we wish him health and happiness in retirement.”

Davis, the retired pastor, said he’s pleased to know his former parishioner is embarking on the next chapter of his life, while expressing gratitude for Gardner’s lasting legacy.

“It now gives other young officers of color something to look forward to — that there is no glass ceiling as it relates to law enforcement,” Rev. Davis stated. “His promotion to the rank was long overdue and it speaks to a culture of inclusion in Chatham but that’s not always the case. Captain Gardner was the first one sitting in that seat, but moving forward, we have to make sure he’s not the last.”

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