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Sheriff Birkhead, seeking reelection, boasts of “great successes”

Saying that he is “doing great things,” Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead says he deserves a second four-year term.

Birkhead, 61, cites recent accreditation from corrections groups and the progress he’s made modernizing the equipment carried by sheriff’s deputies.

Clarence Birkhead. (Campaign photo)

“We’ve had great successes,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “We’ve laid the foundation to do greater things in my second term, even in the midst of the COVID pandemic, the ‘defund’ movement, the tragic murder of George Floyd.”  

Birkhead said that under his leadership, the sheriff’s office has achieved accreditation from the American Correctional Association, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. This is the first time the office has simultaneously held all three credentials.

Birkhead has received endorsements from INDY Week, the People’s Alliance, and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. 

The sheriff serves as the county’s chief law enforcement officer. His office enforces laws in the unincorporated areas of the county and works closely with local police departments.   

Birkhead, a Democrat, won the May primary election and will face unaffiliated candidate Maria Jocys in the general election on Nov. 8. Jocys is a retired FBI special agent who directed the agency’s Raleigh office. Early voting is already open across the state.

Birkhead has worked in law enforcement since 1984. He served most recently as chief of police of the town of Hillsborough. Prior to that he was the chief of police at Duke University. After defeating the incumbent Michael Andrews for the 2018 Democratic nomination, he ran unopposed in the general election and became Durham’s first Black sheriff.

The Jocys campaign billboard on Hillsborough Road near Interstate 85. Photo by Chase Pellegrini de Paur – The 9th Street Journal

Jocys’ campaign has questioned whether he’s done enough to reduce crime and has highlighted a March 2022 clip of Birkhead saying, “I am not responsible for the violent crime that occurs inside the Durham city.” The Jocys campaign bought billboards on the Durham Freeway and Hillsborough Road with a photo of Birkhead that included that quote and asked, “Sheriff Birkhead Not Responsible?”

Birkhead said the quote has been taken out of context. While the City of Durham is within Durham County, he is not responsible for reporting the city’s crime statistics. That is the job of the Durham Police Department. “I report the crime that is in the 250 unincorporated miles of Durham County,” said Birkhead. 

There have also been questions about his hires. In February, the News & Observer reported on staffing changes in the sheriff’s office in an article headlined, “Among some hires by Durham sheriff: political ties, past firings.” The article cited Birkhead’s hiring of two employees who were previously fired from North Carolina law enforcement roles and two campaign allies with no previous law enforcement experience.

Birkhead said the hires were necessary for his department. “You got to bring in the people at the highest level that you have confidence in and that are qualified to do the job,” he said, adding, “I hired qualified people. I didn’t hire my buddies.”

Also in February, The 9th Street Journal reported that Black football players at Duke were bothered by a presentation given by the sheriff’s office to the team on how to behave during traffic stops. The players said it distorted the facts of police shootings in which Black men were unjustifiably killed. The sheriff said he disagreed.

“I didn’t think it was insensitive, but everyone’s reality, everyone’s perspective, is their reality,” he said. “I am saddened by the fact that that presentation may have offended someone and more than happy moving forward to tweak that particular presentation.” 

INDY Week has raised questions about staffing shortages in the county jail that led to “unqualified deputies” working as detention officers. Birkhead acknowledged the shortage but denied it has led to unsafe circumstances. “We have a staffing issue in our detention center, like every sheriff’s office in the state of North Carolina.”

He said, “No officer is hired and put in any situation, whether it’s in the jail or on the street, by themselves. They have a senior officer or field training officer with them.” 

If he is elected to a second term, Birkhead said he will prioritize safety in the detention center. This includes improving care for those suffering from opioid addiction or mental illness. “I want to make sure they are as comfortable as possible, and they are treated with dignity and respect.” 

Thanks to his opponent’s billboards, Birkhead’s face looms over thousands of Durhamites on their daily drives. Even though it’s a critical ad, he doesn’t find the billboards entirely insulting.

“It’s a great picture,” he said.

Chase Pellegrini de Paur