As a child growing up in Wilmington’s Creekwood neighborhood, Wilmington Police Department Chief Donny Williams remembers wanting to become a police officer and a firefighter.
He still vividly remembers watching Wilmington firefighters extinguish a house fire on N. 30th Street when he was about 10 years old.
“I always had a desire to do both,” Williams said. “As I got older, I didn’t think there was a way to do both, so I decided that I wanted to be a Wilmington police officer.”
Williams was sworn into the Wilmington Police Department as an officer in December 1992, and he’s been there ever since. After rising through the ranks, Williams stepped into the department’s top role as interim in early 2020 following the retirement of Chief Ralph Evangelous. Wilmington leaders made him the department’s permanent chief a few months later.
In his first months at the helm, Williams led the department as it navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, protests following the killing of George Floyd and the firing of three Wilmington officers over racist comments caught on video.
All the while, Williams has found a way to live his dream of fighting fires while head of the Navassa Volunteer Fire Department.
Williams joined the fire department in the early 1990s. As he remembers it, he was driving through Navassa when he stopped to talk to the former chief’s wife, who was doing yard work. After talking with her about the department, it seemed like a good fit, so Williams joined as a volunteer.
“I knew that department was struggling. It was one of the few volunteer departments that was left at the time,” he said. “There were none in New Hanover County.”
He became the fire department’s chief in 2006. It’s a role he continues to hold alongside his leadership of the Wilmington Police Department. Williams said he’s learned to compartmentalize the two positions when it comes to his schedule and duties.
“I’m very clear when I am in Wilmington police mode … I purposely do not mix the city of Wilmington and the town of Navassa,” he said. “They are totally separate.”
For instance, he reserves Monday evenings for the fire department’s training exercises and equipment maintenance.
The city of Wilmington always comes first, but Williams said he’s notified when the fire department’s volunteers are out on a service call. If Williams is available, he’s going to respond to the calls.
When he became chief of the Wilmington Police Department, former Wilmington City Manager Sterling Cheatham asked Williams to take a temporary step back from the fire department to ensure Williams could lead both agencies.
“He wanted me to give it a year to make sure that I was comfortable with this [role],” Williams said.
The fire department’s assistant chief led the organization for a year until Williams picked up the role again. The Navassa Fire Department responds to about 250 calls in a year. Traffic accidents typically make up most of those calls because of the department’s proximity to Interstate 140. In contrast, the Wilmington Police Department will respond to 500 calls in 24 hours, according to Williams.
The fire department’s annual budget is around $300,000, while the city of Wilmington’s current budget allocates more than $40 million to the police department. The police department employs more than 350, while the Navassa Volunteer Fire Department has eight part-time employees and 12 to 14 volunteers, including Williams.
Despite the differences, both organizations face many of the same issues, such as program funding and personnel. Williams uses his experiences in one role to inform the other.
“Having a smaller department with limited funding causes you to be creative on projects, and I think I’ve brought a lot of that creativity to the Wilmington Police Department,” Williams said.
In some cases, the police department has purchased various vehicle parts from different vendors to “cut out the middleman and save money,” Williams said.
It’s a practice Williams uses at the fire department, and it’s saved the police department thousands of dollars, he said. Williams has also used his training and management experience at the police department to help lead the fire department.
Williams said he wants to see the fire department evolve with paid staffing 24 hours a day and an emphasis on additional training.
As for the police department, Williams wants to continue a focus on reducing violent crime and on traffic and pedestrian safety because “those are two areas where people are losing their lives,” he said.
Even after he retires from policing, Williams said he plans to continue leading the Navassa Volunteer Fire Department. That’s partly because of a commitment Williams made to Clarence Brown, the previous chief who died in 2008.
“I made a promise to my former fire chief, who was my idol,” Williams said, “that as long as I was capable, I would run that fire department.”