Garner’s police department has a new spokesman – not that Lt. Chris Clayton is new to the town, the department, or even the role itself. After all, he’d served as the department’s spokesman during one of the most chaotic events in Garner history.
Clayton takes the reins as the chief media contact point for the department, replacing Lt. Wayne Moore, who retired at the end of June. Clayton, a Garner native and officer since 1993, served that role before command restructuring moved the responsibility to a lieutenant a few years ago while Clayton was still a sergeant.
Aside from his duties as Public Information Officer, Clayton serves as a staff officer for Chief Brandon Zuidema, works on special projects, oversees Internal Affairs and helps with accreditation and strategic planning.
Back when Clayton was spokesman the first time – actually while he was on the tail end of a vacation – the ConAgra factory exploded. Such a rapidly changing situation represents the PIO’s biggest challenge. In fact, a spokesman course Clayton took after the event used the explosion and aftermath as a case study. He admits that with something that fluid, there are always things that could be done better but didn’t think there were any big mistakes.
“It was a little nerve-wracking with people watching you again,” Clayton said of being the class guinea pig. “A lot of times there’s rapidly changing or evolving facts, but we’re sort of methodical planning what we are going to talk about,” he added about managing information after the explosion.
Clayton says he prefers to provide as much information as possible, a position Zuidema echoed at a Tuesday meeting with members of the media.
“We believe the public has an absolute right to know what’s going on in the community,” Clayton said, acknowledging that some details have to be kept quiet to give detectives advantages during investigations. “Our philosophy is to ask, ‘can we give it out,’ not ‘can we not give it out.’”
Moore’s retirement came just in time for Clayton’s return from the FBI’s National Academy Program in Quantico, Va. The 10-week course consisted of advanced investigative, management, and fitness training for selected, experienced officers.
Clayton is also a fitness instructor, firearms instructor, and lead traffic reconstructionist. He serves on the Police Athletics and Activities League board of directors and helped start the Crisis Intervention Team.
Like any 20-year police vet, Clayton has seen a lot. Asked of his most vivid memories, the first thing that came to mind were not anecdotes but a general recounting of human response to adversity.
“I continue to be impressed by the resiliency of the human spirit. Some very bad things happen to people,” Clayton said, noting that most of us have pretty good lives. “We see things that, quite honestly, people weren’t meant to see, just like firemen and paramedics. But there have been huge strides in keeping our people well mentally.”
Asked if there had ever been a case that impacted him deeply enough that he considered a different line of work, he didn’t hesitate.
“Not seriously,” Clayton said, noting that the job keeps him engaged, as “no two days are the same.”
Clayton grew up in Garner and graduated from Garner Senior High School in 1989. He studied government at Campbell University. He helped as a trainer for sports teams while in high school and had an interest in being a paramedic.
But classes in college and meeting some police officers shifted his interest toward law enforcement. He had an internship with Garner PD during his senior year and worked on the department’s first CALEA accreditation attempt.
“That pretty much sealed the deal,” Clayton said.
He served as the department’s school resource officer at his former high school from 1995 to 1998. He said at the time the concept was relatively new and innovative. He later returned to patrol.
After a promotion to sergeant in 2001, he served as a patrol team supervisor, traffic safety team supervisor, interim accreditation manager and public information officer.
After a promotion to lieutenant in August 2012, he became the criminal investigations commander. Moore remained spokesman.
The lifelong resident plans to retire in a decade from Garner Police. He even said that he would have no interest if a higher job, like chief, were offered in another town.
“Part of that’s financial, too; the town has good benefits,” he admitted. “But our council supports us, our citizens support us, the (town) manager and (police) chief support us. I have no desire to go anywhere else.”