I want to pick your brain at the beginning of this next story. I know we all have heard of a chameleon, the extraordinary lizard capable of changing its color to fit whatever environment it’s in. I know it's a random introduction, but it reminded me of the next person that I had the pleasure of speaking with. Sheriff Darren Campbell is so versatile and well-rounded that it left me stunned. Like a chameleon, he is able to blend and fit in pretty much anywhere, and everywhere. He is a man of many suits, and it didn’t come without hard work and discipline. I hadn’t met someone like him yet, and I was so excited to learn about him and the town he cherishes and loves. Now that we are on the same page, grab some coffee and let’s dive in!
Sheriff Darren Campbell was born and raised in Statesville, NC. It is small and quaint, resembling a Hallmark Christmas movie (who doesn’t love those?!). He grew up with a mechanic’s background where he learned to focus on details and thrived with an intricate knowledge of how things run. He knew by 15 years old what his life was going to be dedicated to. Law enforcement was a calling, an integral part of who he was meant to be. He was a man on a mission, and success was the mountain he was going to travel up no matter the challenges on the way.
He started in a program called the “Explorer Program” offered in his town. He explained it to me as a program for young teens who want to try out law enforcement and gain some insight into what officers do on a daily basis. The teens get to go on ‘ride alongs,’ help with fairs, booths, and community events. He absolutely loved it. The pattern of his life was set in stone.
Darren decided he wanted to become knowledgeable in all aspects of the system. Venturing off to college, he gained his criminal justice degree. He gathered and obtained the education he needed and came back to begin working. He began as a reserve officer where he basically “worked for free” but learned priceless lessons that would help him in his future. Though he didn’t receive outstanding benefits in monetary form, the seed he planted for his future became the tree that would live on for lifetimes.
Gathering plenty of insight on what was needed to be an asset to his community, he had an opportunity to put it to work in a detention center (jail).
“I wouldn’t trade that time there for anything. I learned so much about different types of issues: mental health, addiction, and how to really talk to people that don’t trust you yet. If you can learn to function in the jail with 300 different inmates, then there’s really nothing that someone can throw on you that you aren’t prepared to deal with on the road. Number one weapon you have in a jail is your mouth…That’s what you have to defend yourself with, and you have to learn how to communicate with people.”
Given his mindset, and his ability to communicate efficiently with anyone, he made connections of all sorts that helped him later on in his career.
“I still see people to this day on the street that I met there. Whether positive or negative, it’s important to maintain a line of communication with each other. Some people became my resources, and others I knew how to handle, or even the help they needed. Both are equally useful to what I do every day.”
Darren is a man of multiple talents, and a man that never had just one course to conquer. He was promoted quickly and became a road patrol deputy. Of course, he excelled at his new position and again moved upwards on his mountain of goals. He became a K9 Officer (which personally I was so excited to learn about, as I am a huge dog lover). Through this role, he was able to help on searches and rescues that saved many lives. He had many, many stories about missing kids, seniors that had dementia, and one time in particular where he hunted down a murderer that had killed a deputy in Mecklenburg, NC.
“The dog handling business is very rewarding. It is very gratifying, and something I loved. I took my position seriously and received two dogs which was very rare. I enjoyed this part of my career because it challenged me on different levels. There were highs and of course there were lows…but we had a very high success rate and I attribute that to our training. Without that, you diminish possibilities which are otherwise obtainable.”
Darren has been in law enforcement now for 28 years and is the longest-serving full time employee at the Sheriff’s office in Iredell, NC after being elected.. He has held this position unmatched since 2014. But, when discussing his career with me, he reflected on many situations where it wasn’t always “rainbows and butterflies.” He absolutely loves what he does, but nothing great ever comes without some saddening times. He recognizes the hardships and trauma that can occur when dealing with situations that he or anyone is unable to stop.
“Looking back…I remember a scene I will never forget. I’m pretty sure it’s burned in my mind like a branding. It created a scar that won’t ever quite heal… I had to walk into a scene where a dad had shot and killed his 3 and 5-year-old children. I just remember seeing these Pull-Ups with Buzz Lightyear on them…It ripped my heart because I had a daughter and two little boys at the time. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and it was one of the worst scenes I've ever been in.”
Mental health has to be dealt with, and catered to, during each and every troubling situation. As Sheriff, he takes this extremely seriously, but sometimes even when every measure is taken, it still is just too much to handle.
Even though training and de-briefs were in place after that scene, it just wasn’t enough for some. Not one person that was in that horrifying situation was able to stay on duty.
(Personally, when I write these parts of the stories I myself feel so sad. It is heartbreaking, and I can’t imagine moving forward in my everyday life “simply.” I see the pain on each and every officer’s face when they tell me the parts they usually keep bottled up. It’s like they have to pull on a door that they try to keep locked…building up cobwebs and dust and never really getting to be cleaned and purified. It’s a reminder in their mind...for the rest of their lives.)
Darren made a statement that I’m sure many officers, and first responders can relate to.
“Yes, you eventually gain more experience…You definitely become more seasoned…But you NEVER stop feeling that pain…that heartbreak…and it never stops hitting home…You feel a tear in your heart for each and every person that you couldn’t save. I remember every name of every person that I have shown up for... I remember every stop on a road, or every house that I have been called to… I’ll never forget.”
Darren emphasized to me that he couldn’t do anything without the support of his family. His wife’s dad was in law enforcement, so she empathizes with what he deals with and understands what he goes through. At home “they are his best friends.” He keeps an open line of communication with his family, and it is what keeps him strong, able, and continuously going.
Darren and his wife know the impact of what a strong foundation, family, and friends can have on someone so they created a Family Auxiliary for young deputies and spouses to be able to come to talk, reach out, and find guidance from more senior deputies and their spouses.
“If something happens to an officer, or a tragic incident occurs they can come and we will be their stronghold. They will be lifted up, and we will be their support.”
They do stuff at Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, etc. They are there to help in any way possible. Darren and his wife have been married for 18 years, so they know how balance and communication are the keys to success in every form. Darren emphasized that every part of his life needs attention. Whether he’s going to see the new “Spider-Man” with his kids, going on vacation, or taking a trip to Carowinds, he makes time for it all.
As much as his family supports him, Darren said he couldn’t be half as successful and driven without the support of his community. He stays extremely connected and is involved in every aspect of what is going on, and what needs catering to. He makes it a point to support different causes no matter the time or day. His department holds events, visits churches, hospitals, and recently one of his deputies was captured buying and having lunch with a homeless man on the street. Those are the men and women that surround and work with him.
Iredell County has over 200,000 people, and Darren pointed out that “Even though the count of people keeps going up, the crime rate keeps going down.”
Darren and his department, take the community involvement personally and have events to gear up positivity and morality as much as they can. One event, in particular, he told me about was an athletic league during the summer. They have over 360 girls that sign up, and the department supplies the shirts, and the fun, for everyone. They also have a teen academy for three weeks where kids can learn about crime scenes, what they do, and dive into some educational police work with the officers.
“If you build the children up young they will always remember that. They will remember the encouragement, support, and comradery. That’s how you drive down crime rates for future generations. It has to start now.”
However, it doesn’t stop with just the kids. Darren hosts a radio show on WSIC and WAME on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons for adults/citizens to call and discuss concerns, ask questions, and talk about whatever is going on in their community.
“Customer service is law enforcement, and there is no problem that we can’t handle or we can’t find the resource to help” Darren stated.
The Department also held Active Shooter classes (pre-COVID) where 400 people would show up to gather much-needed insight on what to do and how to deal with scary or unpredictable situations. Darren made it very clear to me that they have an SRO in each school, and they are always available.
He also created a Candidate Program where if someone is a single parent, young in their career, facing financial difficulty, and they can’t afford to quit work to go to “rookie school,” then they will hire them and put them through school. Afterward, they will have a job waiting for them. He takes who is on his team and who supports the community personally so he is always ready to be a helping hand to someone who has the desire to serve.
Darren expressed very passionately that “He is blessed to have great deputies. They always step up, and go out of their way to be of service for anyone, and everyone.” He always wants to be able to reach a hand down to anyone that needs help to stand up, and that is the mindset of anyone in the department.
Darren acknowledges the needs of his staff and takes pride in being able to meet them at any juncture, question, or issue. I mentioned before that Darren is versatile and very well-rounded. Well, that doesn’t just stop at the jail, road patrol, K9, or even Sheriff. He has experience in SWAT and narcotics and became a Tactical Commander, Sharp Shooter, Patrol Lieutenant, and Patrol Sergeant. He has worked in sex crimes, on statewide task forces, and has experience in preventing drug trafficking and drug mules traveling up the interstates. Whatever resources of monetary value he obtains during those arrests he uses to hold events, boost community projects, and supply his town with whatever they need. If you come to Sheriff Darren Campbell, you can pretty much guarantee he has advice and will help in some way.
When hearing about all of his experience and his vast skills, I was curious if he had ever wanted to seek new positions outside of his state or town. Being that he is so well-rounded and capable of handling pretty much anything, I just figured that was a possibility. Well, Darren stated:
“I have never so much as applied anywhere else. I love Iredell County and the citizens. I am the second Vice President, and also the only Sheriff from NC to serve on the Board of Directors of the National Sheriff’s Association. This place is where I belong. I need this town as much as they need me. We are a unit and a team.” This is our community. We just happen to be in a uniform.
I knew right then and there that he was a person that wears the badge because of the heart behind it….
Sheriff Darren Campbell left an impression on me. He is a man of true substance. His love for his town and his passion for his people were not only obvious but rare and beautiful. He pours his whole heart into Iredell County and bears no burden from doing it. It was very easy to see that while he wears a badge and the title of Sheriff… his compassion, and devotion for his community surpass both.