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The Daily Tar Heel

Meet the women in charge of Orange County's public safety system

Megan Johnson poses for a portrait at the Chapel Hill Police Department on Sunday, Apr. 4, 2021. Johnson is the department's Police Crisis Unit Supervisor and a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor.

On the heels of Women’s History Month, the Daily Tar Heel is spotlighting six women in Orange County’s public safety system who have helped each of their departments reform the old and create new protocols to aid the community. This is the first section of a two-part series. 

These three women focus on documenting and maintaining the portions of Orange County’s public safety system dealing with community involvement and mental health.  

Alicia Stemper, director of public information and special services for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office

Alicia Stemper is the director of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Public Information and Special Services, a job that she said she has repurposed with her various skills in law enforcement, photography and writing.

During her early years in Chapel Hill, Stemper worked as a crisis counselor, then later in the magistrate’s office in Orange County. Before that, she worked for 13 years as a mitigation officer, traveling across the state for death penalty cases.

Ten years ago, Stemper was focusing on her career in law enforcement and practicing photography on the side. Now, the self-taught skill has become a crucial part of her job. 

“So when Sheriff Blackwood was looking for someone who kind of spoke law enforcement — and had those skills — for me it was almost like turning the light backwards and going 'oh now I see where I was headed,'” Stemper said. 

Along with her work as the public information officer for roughly two years, Stemper has adopted other working outlets, like project Vitamin O. This is a joint venture she began in 2015 with the Government and Community Relations division of Orange County to highlight the lives of residents in nearly 100 essays and various photo galleries.

The project is currently dormant, but Stemper said she hopes for more “doses” spotlighting the young, old, women, men and children of Orange County in the future. 

Caitlin Fenhagen, director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department

Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department Director Caitlin Fenhagen said she grew up wanting to be a public defender. 

“I had an uncle who was a public defender in San Francisco who was sort of my role model,” Fenhagen said. “I never wavered. I went through high school, undergrad and law school knowing that that's what I wanted to do, but I did not see shifting to the work that I'm doing now.”

After spending some time in Philadelphia and a few years in the Bronx, Fenhagen landed her job in Chapel Hill as the director of the Criminal Justice Resource Department.

Some of her work involves operating the Local Reentry Council, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals reenter into the community, as well as the co-organization of the SOHRAD program. Fenhagen is one of the few women running programs like this in Orange County. 

“I would hope that young girls growing up see these positions being held by women and feel that there is a place for them in public safety,” Fenhagen said. “I hope traditional notions of what public safety means can be broadened so women will feel much more encouraged to be part of the process for making sure our communities are safe.”

Megan Johnson, supervisor of the Chapel Hill Crisis Unit 

The Chapel Hill Crisis Unit has been active since 1973. For the past three years, the team of six responders has been led by Megan Johnson. 

The team follows the same safety protocols as law enforcement, responding to calls and following the same radio channel to see if they’re needed on the scene. 

“If it's a mental health crisis, we're going to complete an assessment," Johnson said. "If it's sexual assault or domestic violence, we're gonna listen to the identified person that wants our support and ask them what is going on from their perspective, try to identify needs they may have, then work connecting them to services.”

As a certified mental health counselor, Johnson applied and moved to the Triangle from Virginia for this job – she's the third person to hold this position in the fifty years of the program’s activation. Johnson said most poor responder models tend to focus on mental health issues, but only what’s on the surface. 

Johnson said she noticed many other factors contribute to a mental health crisis. They may be suicidal, but it might be because of instances of substance abuse, domestic violence or past trauma. 

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"We prevent some of those mental health crises from even occurring because we address some of the issues that contribute to them,” Johnson said. “That's one of the other things I really liked about this program.”

With the recent national notice law enforcement protocols have seen, the co-responder model — also used by the Chapel Hill Crisis Unit — is receiving positive attention within the public safety communities across the country. 

“I think the most significant part of our program is just being so ahead of the times,” Johnson said. “There are units out there that have been around for 15 years — but 50 years, it's really quite unique.”


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