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Bobby-KinlawNightly bank deposits led Bobby Kinlaw to a career in law enforcement. A love for Elizabethtown and Bladen County kept him here.

On Aug. 27, the former convenience store manager will retire after 34 years with the Elizabethtown Police Department, including the past 15 as its chief.

“I could have retired five years ago,” Kinlaw said, “but I love this job, love what I do, and love the people I work with. Because it was such a pleasure working with the officers that I work with, the other agencies that I work with, dealing with the other people that I work with, the public, I just didn’t see a benefit to retiring.”

Kinlaw readily admits he’ll feel sad when he walks out the door for the final time, but, he says, at 55 years old, now is the right time.

“I’m not getting any younger, and I’d like to retire while I’m still young enough to enjoy some of life that I’ve missed out on for all these years,” Kinlaw said. “To have a chance to not worry about what might happen at any minute that interrupts what I’m doing at the time. I want to go out on a high note. I don’t want to get to the point where I just can’t do it anymore.”

So, whether it’s traveling, spending time working in his yard, or meeting friends for breakfast in downtown Elizabethtown, Kinlaw will do “just whatever I decide to do.”

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Kinlaw was born at Bladen County Hospital in 1960 and grew up in White Oak. He attended White Oak School through eighth grade, went to Tar Heel High School in ninth grade, then attended East Bladen High School for three years. He graduated in 1978.

He remembers always having a job while attending high school, including a third shift job at the former West Point Pepperell plant in Elizabethtown. “I got off work at 8 in the morning, went home and took a quick shower, then went to school.”

In the spring of 1978, as Kinlaw was nearing graduation from East Bladen High, construction on a Pizza Hut restaurant began on East Broad Street. It’s where Christopher’s Steakhouse is today. The enterprising teenager landed a job with the company, worked his way up to assistant manager, spent five months in Aberdeen helping train a new manager, then was sent to other Pizza Huts in the area to help train new managers. Since he wasn’t 21 years old yet, Kinlaw couldn’t be a manager.

In 1980, Kinlaw left Pizza Hut for a job as manager of the Super Six convenience store, which was located across from Bladen County Courthouse. The site now is a vacant lot beside the H&R Block office. No longer would he have to travel around the region, helping in several restaurants. Kinlaw had found a job where he could be in Elizabethtown and stay in Elizabethtown.

Little did he know that his new job would lead to a long and distinguished career with the Elizabethtown Police Department.

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Among the responsibilities of a Super Six manager, was to make the nightly bank deposit. He would ride with an Elizabethtown officer to the bank after closing the store.

“I became friends with a few of the officers, then started riding with them on my day off,” Kinlaw said. “I got really interested. So, when I turned 21 I applied with the police department. Charles Taylor was the chief and Bill Keith was the mayor. I got hired.”

In 1981, officers weren’t required to be trained before going out on patrol as they are today. There was a state-mandated Basic Law Enforcement Training class that new officers had to complete within their first year, although Kinlaw needed an extension since it was difficult to set up a time for him to attend the seven-week course at the N.C. Justice Academy.

So, Kinlaw finished his shift at the Super Six on a Friday night, then reported to the Elizabethtown Police Department at 3 p.m. Saturday for his first shift as a police officer.

“You had to furnish your own gun and your own pair of shoes,” Kinlaw said. “They basically briefed me on what I needed to do. I went out and got in the car by myself, and that’s how my career started.

“When I got in the car and drove away, I guess I won’t ever be able to have that same feeling again, but it was a little scary, although I had been exposed to it while riding with other officers (before joining the force).”

As luck would have it, Kinlaw had to make a traffic stop within a few minutes, pulling over a driver who had failed to stop at a stop sign.

“I’ll never forget it,” Kinlaw said. “I got the driver’s license and registration card and came back to sit in my car. I was so nervous that I couldn’t read the driver’s license. I was shaking so bad. I had to literally stick the license in the steering wheel of my car to hold it still so I could read it while writing the ticket.”

Kinlaw had officially begun his law enforcement career in his hometown. It created, he admits, some awkward situations.

“I lost some friends,” Kinlaw said. “There were some situations where I would stop somebody that I had been friends with. Of course, they thought just because we were friends that they should get a free ride. I took my job seriously. One of my goals throughout my career was to never let my personal life interfere with my professional life.”

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Losing a few friends over a traffic stop pales in comparison to the real dangers of the job. Kinlaw learned in November 1981 that police officers really do put their lives on the line every day.

There were reports of break-ins in Clarkton, including a theft of firearms. The suspect was traveling in a vehicle headed toward Elizabethtown, according to the radio. Kinlaw spotted the vehicle and attempted to stop it on Mercer Road.

“It continued to drive down Mercer Road, turned left on McLeod Street, then turned right into a driveway and drove up behind Elizabethtown Nursing Center, where, basically, it was obscured from sight.” Kinlaw said.

“There was a male driver and female passenger. I brought the driver around to the back door on the driver’s side to pat him down for weapons. When I did, he broke away, ran around behind the car and started opening the back door on the passenger’s side. At that point, I pulled my weapon and told him to freeze. As he was starting to reach into the back seat, he stopped. I got him in handcuffs and was able to call for backup.

“Once we got the two people detained, I walked up and looked in the back seat. There were several guns laying there, and a shotgun within his hand’s reach. There’s no question in my mind that is what he was going for.”

The suspect, who was from Greensboro, was linked to 24 break-ins in Bladen County. When the man appeared in court, he escaped. “To my knowledge, he has never been found,” Kinlaw said.

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The incident taught Kinlaw that officers have to have a certain amount of courage to do the job, and also a certain amount of fear.

“There’s no question that if there’s any officer that doesn’t have a certain amount of fear, they won’t survive very long,” Kinlaw said. “I think fear is what makes you smart. It helps you to be a better office, a safer officer.

“There are so many situations where an officer has an opportunity to either do his job or turn his head, and it takes courage to do the job. You get into this mindset that that’s what you want to do, and, in order to get that criminal off the street, in order to protect the citizens’ life and property, you’ve got to do your job.”

Kinlaw says he believes the overwhelming majority of people appreciate the job that law enforcement officers do, although, these days the profession has come under increasing scrutiny nationwide. Yes, he admits, there are a few “bad apples” in law enforcement who slip through the screening, but most officers do want to serve and protect.

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Kinlaw served as a patrol officer until the late 1980s when he was promoted to patrol sergeant. He then became an investigator, was promoted to captain, and was named assistant chief to Mike Royston in 1999. Royston retired in December 1999. Kinlaw was hired as the new chief on Feb. 28, 2000. The department now has 16 full-time officers.

“When I started in law enforcement, I had no plans of staying here and making a career here,” Kinlaw said. “My intentions at that time were to either move on to a larger department, whether it be the Highway Patrol or a larger municipal agency, a state agency. I wasn’t real sure. I knew it wasn’t going to be here.

“Then, as time went on, I had job opportunities with larger agencies that I turned down because when I got to thinking about it, there was something to be said about being at home, serving my own community where I live and where I grew up. This is home to me. Money’s not everything, money is a necessity. I felt it was a better choice for me to be here. So, while I made less money, I felt like I would be happier here. I was making enough to sustain life, and that was enough for me. This county is so full of good people. I’m just not sure you can find that everywhere.

“I have no regrets. It’s been a very fulfilling career and I’ve been blessed,” Kinlaw said.

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