One of the more interesting candidacies to emerge during this election cycle is the campaign of retired law enforcement veteran Maria Jocys, who expects to challenge incumbent Durham County sheriff Clarence Birkhead in November’s general election.
Birkhead recently updated his campaign website to tout endorsements from the city’s most influential political action committees: the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the People’s Alliance, and the Friends of Durham, along with endorsements from the Progressive Caucus of the NC Democratic Party and the INDY.
On his website, the incumbent, who was one of seven Black men elected in 2019 to serve as sheriff in the state’s largest counties (and also the first African American elected sheriff in Durham), lists first-term accomplishments. They include serving on Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, rejecting ICE detainers that “target marginalized communities,” banning “no-knock warrants,” and implementing “Eight Can’t Wait” polices to reduce police violence following George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“We’re making progress,” Birkhead states on the website. “There is still much to do.”
Jocys told the INDY this week that Durham needs a different vision of leadership.
“Durham needs a sheriff for all of Durham County,” Jocys says. “Durham needs someone who will partner with the Durham Police Department and the district attorney’s office and rebuild trust in law enforcement.”
Jocys notes that, even after Durham endured a record number of shootings in 2020 and a record number of homicides in 2021 and is currently on pace to surpass both records in 2022, Birkhead said his office is not responsible for violence that takes place inside the city.
Jocys is referring to comments Birkhead made at a virtual event, the Leesville Road Coalition candidate forum, that took place on March 22.
During the forum, Birkhead asserted that he is “not responsible for the violent crime that occurs inside the Durham city.”
“This is my county,” he says. “This is my city. I have citywide jurisdiction, but I do not carry the stats.”
“A city resident is a county resident, a city taxpayer is a county taxpayer,” Jocys counters. “It’s an admission that he’s not focused on the city’s gun violence. The current sheriff, for all of his tough talk, is just talk, and not leadership.”
Birkhead is expected to win in next week’s Democratic Party primary against challenger Paul Martin. He declined comment this week about the March 22 forum.
Jocys, pronounced “JO-cees,” is a Durham native who retired from the FBI in December. Soon after retiring, she says she has contacted local media and political action committees, talked with friends, reached out to community members, and set up a website in a quest to persuade 4 percent of Durham’s registered voters to sign a petition that would allow her to run as an unaffiliated sheriff’s candidate in November.
Late last week, Jocys announced that the Durham County Board of Elections (BOE) validated 9,599 signatures from the county’s registered voters in support of her campaign and certified her as a candidate.
Jocys handily surpassed the 9,248 signatures needed before the May 17 deadline.
“I am humbled by the overwhelming support from Durham County voters for our campaign,” Jocys said in a Friday press release.
“Durham County deserves a sheriff who can focus and lead on both the urgent need to bring down Durham’s gun violence AND advance meaningful police reforms,” Jocys added.
In addition to focusing on the near-unprecedented gun violence that’s taking place in Durham, Jocys has introduced a “six-point reform agenda” that includes a “total ban” on no-knock warrants.
Jocys graduated from Southern High School and worked in East Durham’s Wellons Village as a teen. After graduating from East Carolina University, she began a 32-year law enforcement career that started with the Greenville Police Department followed by 24 years with the FBI.
While working for the FBI, Jocys led counterterrorism investigations around the globe and was the first woman to lead the FBI’s Raleigh office.
Before retiring, Jocys worked for five years with the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, which focuses on criminal street gangs in Durham.
The INDY this month endorsed Birkhead for reelection, but with several caveats owing to misfires during his term. The most recent was last month when the INDY reported that the sheriff’s office has a mutual aid agreement with Alamance County that enables deputies from that county to patrol Bull City streets; Alamance County is one of the most conservative counties in the state and its deputies are led by a sheriff who is known for his anti-immigration trash talk and pro–Confederate monument values.
Sheriff office spokesman David Bowser this week told the INDY that the sheriff will hold a press conference late Wednesday morning with the other strike team sheriffs to discuss the strike team’s accomplishments.
There are also questions of transparency following the mysterious death of J’Mauri Bumpass, the 18-year-old who died in late 2019 during a sheriff’s deputies’ traffic stop. The deputies first said Bumpass died as a result of crashing his car into a power pole but later said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The teen’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that accuses the two deputies who pulled over Bumpass of killing him and conspiring to cover it up. Birkhead was among those named in the complaint for his role in the alleged conspiracy.
Meanwhile, Jocys this week displayed her own brand of transparency and disclosed what’s actually fueling the gun killings in Durham.
While working as a member of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force here in Durham, which included city police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and the state’s Department of Public Safety, Jocys says the group took a “retrospective look” at Bull City shootings in recent years.
The task force’s assessment?
“There’s a gang feud that started in 2017 between the 8 Trey Gangsta Crips in Braggtown and the nontraditional O Block 8 AM gang,” Jocys says. “We’re seeing shootings involving these two entities that started with the shooting death of Kyle Fisher, whose alias is the letter O.”
Jocys says Fisher was an influential gang member in an apartment complex near Horton and Guess Roads. Fisher, 30, of Durham was mortally wounded on August 7, 2017, in the 900 block of Chalk Level Road west of North Duke Street.
Police were not immediately available for comment about the five-year-old shooting.
“The O Block folks believe the 8 Trey Gangsta Crips were responsible for Mr. Fisher’s death,” Jocys explains.
Jocys says that the feud between the two gangs was behind a shooting just outside the county courthouse on April 3, 2019.
“What occurred was a number of rival gang members were all going to the courthouse after hearing that a member of O Block 8 AM was on Instagram the night before bragging about all of the gang members he had shot and that he was going to court the next morning,” Jocys says.
Jocys says the gang feud also led to the tragic death of nine-year-old Z’yon Person, who was killed in 2018 when a burgundy Honda rolled alongside the SUV he was riding in and opened fire at the intersection of Duke and Leon Streets.
“The vehicle [the victims were in] was misidentified,” Jocys explains. “Three members of the 8 Trey Gangsta Crips from Braggtown thought the vehicle was occupied by O Block 8 AM.”
Jocys also offered a sobering and insightful perspective of the gang members who have been charged with serious gun crimes, especially when they realize they are going to be held accountable.
“That’s when you have a really honest conversation with that person. They drop the street persona,” she explains. “I’ve had gang members say they were heartbroken by what they had done that destroyed families and destroyed their own life, and how they wish they had just one single intervention early in their life.”
“The Durham sheriff’s office is in a position to help by partnering with the Durham Police Department that’s underwater with so many shootings,” Jocys says. “They could assist by partnering with the police and going after the people committing the violence and helping out in other ways. There are so many shootings, the Durham Police Department is reactive. The sheriff’s office could help them be proactive.”
Meanwhile, Birkhead on his campaign website says his office “increased efforts to rid our communities of drugs and remove guns from our neighborhoods” when he “developed a regional strike team of highly trained Sheriff’s deputies cooperating across four counties to carry out high-risk operations to remove violent offenders from our streets.”
As the INDY previously reported, the “strike team” came to the public’s attention on April 9 when an unmarked SUV Jeep belonging to the Alamance Sheriff’s Office was the target of gunfire while patrolling a public housing complex in North Durham.
Days later, on April 13 during a sheriff’s candidates forum, Birkhead said Durham County had a “strike team” together with Alamance, Orange, and Guilford Counties. He described the strike team as a regional partnership aimed at picking up gun and drug runners and stopping gang activity in the areas of Interstates 40 and 85, which he called “a delivery pipeline for weapons and drugs.”
“Alamance is overrun with drugs and guns … so we’re working together [with the other counties and federal agencies] because we know what’s coming up and down 85 and I-40,” Birkhead said.
For Durham’s activist community, and the city’s solid-blue brand of inclusive, equity-driven politics, it’s problematic that the sheriff’s office has a mutual aid agreement with Alamance County and Sheriff Terry Johnson’s deputies.
Birkhead didn’t develop the strike team. Johnson did, at the behest of Matthew Martin, the former Trump-appointed US attorney for the Middle District. The Durham Sheriff’s Office signed a memorandum of understanding with Alamance in March of last year.
Before Durham signed the MOU with Alamance, Johnson stood before Alamance County commissioners and told them he started the strike team in Alamance County to go after gangs in Durham and Guilford Counties. He didn’t mention guns and drugs on the interstate freeways.
“I tell you, a lot of our problems are coming out of these places,” Johnson said about Durham and Guilford. “It’s not our citizens …. Our court systems are failing us in other counties.”
While Johnson tells Alamance County commissioners how he really feels about Durham’s brand of criminal justice, Jocys wonders why Birkhead doesn’t assist the law enforcement resources here in the Bull City.
“The sheriff’s office would be more effective partnering with the Durham Police Department and the district attorney’s office,” she says.
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.