Gainesville Chief of Police Carol Martin, WC '88, talks with some attendees during a Coffee With A Cop event. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Hail to the Chief, Carol Martin

Brenau alumna Carol Martin improves the beat for women in law enforcement

At 21 years old, Carol Martin, WC ’88, became a Gainesville police officer because of the retirement benefits. “My dad was big on that,” she says. “But I also wanted to join this department because it’s always been busier than other agencies, and I like to stay busy.”

Martin has been busy. Chief of the Gainesville Police Department, she sits in a tidy conference room in the massive, red-brick Public Safety Complex on Queen City Parkway. She reflects on her 30 years with the department – an anniversary marked by the city with a celebration and certificate of appreciation in January – and the steps she climbed throughout them.

Martin graduated from Brenau in May 1988, but she had already been a Gainesville police officer for more than a year.

“I started in January of ’87,” she recalls. “I stayed on there until ’93, and during that time I did traffic, domestic violence, trained other officers – just about everything. After that, I moved into criminal investigations.”

For the next five years, Martin tackled some of the messiest and most painful cases: juvenile investigations and sexual assault against women. “It was very gratifying, being able to help those victims,” she says.

In 1998, she began her supervisory track. She was promoted to sergeant and stayed in criminal investigations until 2003, when she transferred to the office of professional standards. Following her promotion to lieutenant shortly after, she returned to command criminal investigations until her promotion to captain in 2011.

Three years later, Martin filled in as interim chief following the August 2014 resignation of then-chief Brian Kelly. The sole candidate for the position, she took over officially as chief in January 2015.

“She came in when the department had endured a difficult stretch,” says Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan. “Officer morale was extremely low, but she stepped in and her leadership reestablished a pride in being an officer of the Gainesville Police Department.”

Martin is the first female chief of the department, but her gender wasn’t a factor, according to Dunagan. Throughout her ascent to chief, Martin says she never hit a proverbial glass ceiling.

“Not here at Gainesville,” she says. “It was always very open to women. It’s actually always been very progressive in that sense. Now we’re trying to recruit, and have been for several years, to match our demographics.”

There is a festering culture today of negative attitudes toward law enforcement, and both Dunagan and Martin say Gainesville is certainly not immune to it. She hopes to recruit bilingual officers to relate to Gainesville’s large Hispanic population. “But it’s hard, especially in the climate right now,” she says. “When I came in as chief, I wanted to know the community. I wanted to do more. And we do. We do cook-outs, Coffee With A Cop, outreach, even self-defense at Brenau a good bit.”

Dunagan says Martin rises to every challenge and creates a “culture of community and conversation.”

“She’s done a wonderful job establishing a community approach to policing that’s helped build trust in the police department during a time of national unrest.”

Gainesville Chief of Police Carol Martin, WC '88, hugs Judy Grove, after having a conversation during a Coffee With A Cop event. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Gainesville Chief of Police Carol Martin, WC ’88, hugs Judy Grove, after having a conversation during a Coffee With A Cop event. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

A leader formed at Brenau

When asked if she always wanted to be in law enforcement, Martin replies “Oh, no!” with a laugh. “My major was changed several times, from accounting to teaching to criminal justice. Criminal justice always interested me, and when I got into it, I found the instructors at Brenau at the time were all ex-law enforcement.”

Martin says she enjoyed it from the beginning because, “really, it was just something different to do every day, and that’s stayed true.”

Martin crossed the lake from home in Forsyth County to attend Brenau at the suggestion – or perhaps urging – of her father, Clyde Thomason, who at the time worked in facility maintenance at the university. “He knew how well-structured it was, and he appreciated that after retiring from the military.”

That structure helped Martin prepare for her role in law enforcement – particularly her eventual position as chief.

“There were a lot of research papers about management,” she says. “I learned how to deal with specific crimes, as all the classes were incident-based. Most important, I learned how to deal with speaking to people.”

Those courses strengthened her in her first two and a half decades as a law enforcement officer, but the public speaking skills have been what she has used the most since becoming chief. “Being chief is much more working with the community, getting out and being more hands on in trying to hear their problems,” she says. “That’s my favorite part. I’m no longer saying, ‘Maybe we can do this or that.’ I’m able to say, ‘We can do this. We should do that.’”

A legacy of law enforcement

Martin says she strives to treat all her constituents equally, including her closest friends. The hardest part, she says, is “having to tell people no.”

“Even my best friend,” she says. “If someone gets a citation and they aren’t happy about it, well, I won’t sweep that under the rug. I’m sorry, but my integrity is worth more than doing away with a parking ticket or a speeding ticket.”

That sense of integrity and justice runs in Martin’s family, including her son, Kasey, 24, who is an officer in Doraville, Georgia. “I told him not to!” she exclaims. “I told him to be a firefighter. Everybody loves firefighters. But being a police officer gets in your blood, and you really love doing it.”

Martin says she would encourage anyone today to consider law enforcement, especially women.

“You are able to help other women,” she says, “and women can see different crimes, such as domestic violence or aggravated assaults, from a different eye; they take a different approach to it.”

Today, 12 of the Gainesville Police Department’s 102 officers are female. While it’s a rather small percentage, it’s a number that has grown and pleases Martin. She wants all her officers, male or female, to know the community. She encourages them to get out of their tinted-windowed patrol cars – “They’re often a barrier,” she says – and talk to people.

“You want the community to see more than the uniform,” Martin says. “We’re humans, so we do make mistakes, and we own up to them, but we need people to meet us halfway. It’s harder to be mad at someone you know, and if they can see past the uniform and know us – know me as their chief – that makes it a whole lot easier.”

Gainesville Chief of Police Carol Martin, WC '88, poses for a photo near a law enforcement monument in downtown Gainesville. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

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