Who is watching the men and women in custody at the Durham County jail while they await their day in court?

This week, the INDY received an anonymous letter from a self-described county detention center employee who claims that county sheriff Clarence Birkhead last year issued a new mandatory requirement that orders all deputies to work overtime at least two days a month at the jail.

Problem is, the officers haven’t been certified to watch folks in the slammer—and the officers won’t begin training to become certified until November—leaving anyone incarcerated in the county jail to be guarded by unqualified deputies for over a year.

“Now, the uncertified deputies are actually manning entire pods within the jail, by themselves,” says the whistle-blower, who mailed to the INDY their complaint on the sheriff’s office letterhead. “These men and women are not Basic Detention Officer [Training] (BDOT)–certified,” meaning they haven’t taken the detention officer training course that’s typically required for someone working in such a position.

The anonymous employee says the new requirement has led to “dangerous and deeply troubling situations,” both at the sheriff’s office and at the jail, as a consequence of detention officers who are not trained and certified to monitor people in custody. (The sheriff’s office has not yet responded to the INDY’s request for records of assaults in the county jail since 2019.)

The letter writer asserts that the sheriff’s mandatory overtime order to work at the detention center is in response to unprecedented staffing shortages that law enforcement agencies all over the country have endured since the police murder of George Floyd.

Sheriff’s office spokesman David Bowser says the current number of vacancies among the law enforcement ranks is 28. But for detention officers, that number is much larger.

“Our detention officer vacancy is 82,” he says.

Bowser counters the letter writer’s claims by noting that, with the sheriff’s office’s current training requirements, “both deputies and detention officers are trained in use of force, report writing, de-escalation techniques, mental health, first aid, subject-control arrest techniques, crisis intervention, transporting detained individuals, and other skills.”

He adds that the deputies currently working in the detention center “have already demonstrated mastery of many of the skills required of detention officers,” even though they don’t share the same level of certification as detention officers.

Moreover, Bowser says, “all new personnel—including new hires and deputies—in the detention facility receive on-the-job training, access to post orders, and access to our general orders.”

Cool beans. The sheriff’s deputies are trained and skilled, but what’s missing from the sheriff’s spokesman’s response is any refutation of the whistle-blower’s claim that folks in custody at the county jail have been under the eyes and care of non-certified detention officers for more than a year.

But they’re working on certifying these officers, Bowser states.

Bowser says that since last fall, the sheriff’s office has “worked closely with the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Commission regarding the certification process.”

Bowser adds that, in June, the commission granted a one-year extension for Durham deputies working in the detention facility. These deputies will have until early summer of next year to become certified.

“We anticipate a new two-week certification course will be launched in November, with Durham County hosting the first class across the state,” Bowser says.

“The deputies who have been working in the detention facility have until June 30, 2023, to become certified detention officers and will be compensated for their dual certification.”

Bowser says the sheriff’s office and Durham Tech last year formed a partnership “that allows us to run both training academies—detention officer and law enforcement officer—at the same time.”

“The next detention officer certification course will begin soon,” he adds.

But the whistle-blower writes that that lack of training for deputies guarding jail pods is “disturbing.”

“Not one single minute of training has been provided or offered to non-BDOT certified law enforcement officers,” they write. “This means no basic orientation, no field training of any kind, no in-service training for 2020 or 2021, and no policy and procedural training.”

The self-alleged sheriff’s employee emphasizes that they sent the letter due not to “harsh feelings” or ill will toward their employer but as a consequence of “dire safety measures not being met and violations being committed daily.”

“The men and women of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office are at risk as are the inmates that are currently incarcerated at the Durham County Detention Center.”

According to the NC Department of Justice (DOJ), the minimum training standards for detention officers are 172 hours of instruction, offered at the NC Justice Academy, along with in-house training at local sheriff’s offices and community colleges.

Once a detention officer becomes employed with a sheriff’s department or confinement facility, they are placed on a probationary period for 12 months and “should” complete a certification course, according to the minimum training standards posted on the DOJ’s website.

However, a detention officer who does not complete a course during the probationary period “will no longer be able to perform the duties of a detention officer,” according to the DOJ.

Bowser says the sheriff’s office “is committed to ensuring the security and safety of detainees and staff in the detention center.”

He also confirms the whistle-blower’s assertion that sheriff’s deputies—including captains and command staff—have been required to work shifts at the Durham County Detention Center since last summer.

“We are in compliance with all state regulations governing detention officers, including noncertified personnel,” Bowser adds.

Bowser also notes that the state’s general statutes allow a county sheriff to have the “exclusive right to hire, discharge, and supervise employees in his office.” He points to a November 2018 document from the NC Sheriffs’ Association that recognizes a sheriff’s exclusive authority to supervise and discharge employees.

On this, the sheriff’s office whistle-blower agrees with Bowser. Birkhead has the authority “to place different individuals within his office for up to one year before they are required to be certified in that position.”

“However, during that one year, no employee that is non-certified is supposed to be in direct contact and directly responsible for the welfare and/or confinement of inmates while working alone,” the whistle-blower says.

Nonetheless, the alleged sheriff’s employee writes, the sheriff’s “law enforcement officers are tasked with this duty, daily. I have firsthand knowledge of this as I am one of them.”

The whistle-blower also notes that sheriff’s employees are ordered to perform “virtually every task” as a certified detention officer.

“More times than not, they oversee entire inmate pods, alone,” the whistle-blower adds. “Some of these pods can contain 60-plus inmates.”

A cursory search of the sheriff’s office website indicates the agency is hiring and offering detention officer applicants a $6,000 signing bonus and a starting salary of $44,575. Minimum requirements include being at least 21 years of age, U.S. citizenship, and a high school diploma. That starting salary increases if the applicant has earned a degree, has military or previous experience, and is fluent in a foreign language.

Job responsibilities include “custodial work with the transportation, security, and supervision” of people in custody at the county jail, in relation to the “care, direct supervision, desk duty, and transportation” of the detainees.

Applicants “must meet all the applicable standards and qualify for State Certification in accordance with the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Training & Standards Commission as well as the policies of the Office of the Sheriff of Durham County,” according to the sheriff’s office website.

The whistle-blower says the sheriff’s office has tried to comply with law enforcement standards by amending sheriff’s office policies. It appears that Birkhead, whose office reported the graduation of 14 cadets last week from the Basic Law Enforcement Training Academy and seven detention officer cadets from the Detention Officer Certification Academy, amended the sheriff’s office policies to address staffing shortages.

“However, the rules and regulations” established by state authorities “have not changed, yet Durham County continues to violate these standards set by the North Carolina Sheriff’s Training and Standards Commission daily since June, 2021,” the sheriff’s employee writes.

Bowser, however, says that the sheriff’s office “is in compliance with all rules, regulations and training requirements. And it is why we have worked closely with the [state Sheriffs’ Education and Training Commission] in developing training for our certified deputies.”

However well intentioned the sheriff’s amended policies are, the whistle-blower calls them a “horrific example of malfeasance.”

“Who will be civilly liable if and when something tragic happens to a non-certified deputy or an inmate?” they ask. 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.