As he’s campaigning, Clarence Birkhead, Durham County’s first Black American sheriff, touts his decision to ban no-knock warrants, the kind that killed Breonna Taylor two years ago and Amir Locke in February.

But Birkhead’s challenger, retired FBI agent Maria Jocys, in her effort to deny the pioneering sheriff a second term, says the incumbent should not list the banning of no-knock warrants as one of his first-term accomplishments because he never implemented the policy.

“I’ve spoken to a number of people in the sheriff’s office who say there has never been a no-knock ban,” Jocys told the INDY last week.

And, she notes in an INDY Week candidate questionnaire, Birkhead “cannot point to a policy or even press release which announced an official no-knock ban.”

The INDY this week asked the sheriff and the sheriff’s spokesman, David Bowser, for a copy of a written policy or general orders issued by the incumbent banning no-knock warrants. The sheriff’s office did not submit a policy in writing.

“North Carolina law banned no-knock warrants years ago,” Birkhead said in a text message to the INDY. “And the policy here at the Durham County Sheriff’s Office is that we don’t use no-knock warrants.”

State statutes don’t explicityly ban no-knock warrants, though they require law enforcement officers to announce themselves. They give officers some discretion to use force. An officer “may use force to enter the premises or vehicle” if the officer “reasonably believes that admittance is being denied or unreasonably delayed, or if he is authorized … to enter without giving notice of his authority and purpose.”

Jay Utley, who retired on June 30 with the rank of sergeant from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, says Birkhead never implemented a ban on no-knock warrants; not by policy, email, or via a directive through an electronic system informing officers of a change in policies and procedures.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Utley answered when asked why Birkhead would tout a policy that doesn’t exist.

“Something political would be my guess.”

“This is something that’s important to Durham values,” says Jocys, who adds that the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, along with the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice all prohibit no-knock warrants. She later adds that Birkhead’s missing-in-action ban “speaks to his character and integrity” and “is not an accomplishment.”

Jocys says that rather than enacting reforms that make communities safer and rebuild community trust, Birkhead’s tenure as the county’s top law enforcement officer has been “a big old bag full of empty promises, nothings, and falsehoods.”

“What reforms?” she asks.

Jocys says she wants to position the sheriff’s office “as a true champion of reform” that leads the state “in local reform initiatives that are actually implemented.”

The incumbent garnered 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.

Birkhead—one of seven Black men elected in 2019 to serve as sheriff in the state’s largest counties—lists his first-term accomplishments on his website. Highlights 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.

Birkhead easily beat challenger Paul Martin in March’s Democratic Party primary and anticipated running unopposed in the midterm election.

In May, 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 on the midterm ballot.

She’s a formidable candidate. Jocys’s 32-year career in law enforcement includes 24 years with the FBI, where she was a member of a global counterterrorism task force, and she later became the first woman to lead the agency’s Raleigh office. She was also a member of a federal gang-and-violent-crimes task force in Durham for five years before retiring late last year.

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Jocys seemed to appear out of nowhere to challenge Birkhead, and there’s the perception that she isn’t really a part of the Durham community or that she’s playing to the mind-sets of older, whiter, conservative voters who have an outsize fear of rising crime.

Although she’s not likely to be seen volunteering at the Scrap Exchange, the retired FBI agent is a towering presence in the Bull City’s law enforcement community. Days after her retirement, Durham police chief Patrice Andrews sent her a letter that recognized her “dedication, commitment and perseverance in the pursuit of justice for all the citizens” of Durham.

“You have been a teacher, mentor and exemplary model for all our officers to learn from,” Andrews wrote in the January 6 letter.

The sheriff’s race became contentious when Jocys came out swinging with pointed criticism about Birkhead’s response to the record levels of gun violence across the city and county.

She pointed to a record number of shootings in 2020 and a record number of homicides in 2021.

Jocys accused Birkhead of publicly stating that his office is not responsible for violence that takes place inside the city at a virtual event, the Leesville Road Coalition candidate forum, on March 22.

The INDY reviewed the forum, in which Birkhead asserts 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 later told the INDY. “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.”

Jocys easily surpassed the 9,248 signatures needed before a May 17 deadline to appear on the midterm ballot.

One month later in June, Birkhead filed a complaint with the Durham County BOE that challenged Jocys’s right to be placed on the midterm election ballot after the state BOE announced that the challenger’s campaign was under investigation to determine why the names of thousands of registered voters that appeared on her petition to get on the ballot are invalid.

In a request to keep Jocys’s name off of next month’s ballot, Birkhead also questioned the challenger’s political affiliation.

It took BOE members less than 10 minutes to dismiss Birkhead’s challenge after determining the incumbent failed to present any evidence that showed the more than 9,000 signatures that appeared on Jocys’s petition should not have been certified by local elections officials.

The INDY endorsed Birkhead’s run for a second term in the primary and for the midterms. Last week he shared a list of accomplishments that include two gun buyback events that resulted in more than 400 weapons turned in and that he has petitioned the General Assembly “to act on 10 bills regarding gun safety.”

“One in particular is the stalled ‘red flag law’ that, if passed, would have a significant effect on more commonplace types of gun violence, domestic violence and suicide, which accounts for the majority of U.S. gun deaths,” Birkhead stated in an email to the INDY.

Birkhead adds that his office is working to identify and hold violent offenders accountable and points to a detention center that never closed during the pandemic and a mental health staff that counsels and provides treatment for people in need of services while in custody, along with educational services, life skills, job counseling, and reentry back into the community.

Still, the INDY’s endorsement of Birkhead is accompanied by a growing bundle of caveats owing to misfires during his first term.

The INDY in April 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.

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.

Allyn Sharp, the Durham attorney representing the Bumpass family, told the INDY this week that the case is still pending.

In August, the INDY received an anonymous letter from a self-described county detention center employee who claimed that Birkhead last year issued a new mandatory requirement that orders all deputies to work overtime at least two days a month at the jail in response to staffing shortages at the facility.

The whistleblower also claimed that officers uncertified in basic detention training were “actually manning entire pods within the jail, by themselves.”

In defense of the incumbent, Durham’s increased gun violence and staffing shortages among law enforcement are mirrored nationally since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and lowered morale among law officers’ ranks after the police murder of George Floyd.

Birkhead told the INDY that Durham has to do a better job compensating sheriff’s employees.

“On average, one Durham County Sheriff’s Office employee is lost per month to other Triangle-based law enforcement agencies paying up to 20 percent more,” he says.

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Red flags went up with the Jocys campaign after the INDY reported that she hired Mack Douglas, a right-wing firm that helped her gather the petition signatures she needed to appear on the ballot. The signature gathering process was investigated by state elections officials.

Jocys says when she looked for a professional signature-gathering firm, she did not find any indication that the company works chiefly for Republican and conservative candidates, even though the company’s now-defunct website notes that it is “Republican/Conservative” in a banner underneath its name.

As for the botched signature-gathering process to appear on the ballot, Jocys says that she is the only Durham candidate in recent years to get on an electoral ballot after petitioning for signatures.

“Getting the required number of signatures is almost insurmountable without help,” she says.

Jocys says she participated in candidate forums at the Holton recreation center, NC Central University, and the Parkwood community’s mosque and knocked on doors in some of the city’s most violence-riddled communities, along East Main Street and near Dearborn Drive.

“The gun violence,” she says about her conversations with residents in those neighborhoods. “They want something done. What people are saying, their concern is ‘Does anyone care?’”

Both candidates say reducing gun violence and helping to create safer communities are top priorities, but they also differ on several key issues.

Birkhead, for instance, opposes the creation of an independent civilian review board to review use-of-force complaints, telling the INDY that state law prohibits him from “delegating any constitutional and statutory duties and authorities.”

Jocys, on the other hand, told the INDY that she “absolutely” supports the creation of a civilian review board.

“My Six Point Plan for Reform includes creating a Civilian Review Board that includes members from diverse groups who recommend reforms, training, policies, and procedures to help transform the sheriff’s office into a state leader on police reform,” Jocys states in the INDY’s candidate questionnaire. “The board,” she adds, “will also review citizen complaints, use-of-force, and other incidents to provide guidance on improving service.”

Meanwhile, Birkhead points to a community advisory board (CAB) he created to “solicit input from the community, a first of its kind in North Carolina.”

“In CAB Meetings, I discuss policies, programs and answer community questions about specific incidents, events and crimes to the extent permitted by law,” he explains.

Jocys is not impressed, saying the sheriff promised in 2018 to create a citizen review board “to bring the power of accountability to the people,” but “a true review board never materialized.”

The sheriff’s CAB, Jocys adds, “can only offer advice and cannot hold the sheriff accountable for anything.”

Birkhead, who has lived in Durham for more than 30 years, says his first term gave him a “firsthand perspective on the ongoing challenges facing our local community,” and that being the county’s first Black American sheriff affords him “a unique viewpoint” while allowing him to witness the deteriorating fabric of Black and Brown communities as a result of guns and drugs.

Far from shying away from criticism that he invited Alamance deputies to patrol Durham neighborhoods, Birkhead maintains that he developed a “regional strike team of highly trained sheriff’s deputies cooperating across four counties … to remove violent offenders from our streets.”

Meanwhile, Jocys wonders why the incumbent does not strengthen his partnership with the city’s police department to help reduce gun violence in the city limits.

And she asks: “What program can [Birkhead] cite that he did as an intervention to prevent more people entering into the criminal justice system, or to the grave?”

“Reducing crime means getting into intervention services,” she says. “I investigated international terrorists for 15 years, and prevented plots here in the United States and overseas that were plotted and planned in foreign countries. If we can do that, we can prevent violent crime in Durham.” 

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