Mitigating suicide risks at the county jail, reviewing the school resource officer program, and implementing racial equity and crisis intervention training are among new Durham sheriff Clarence Birkhead’s priorities during his first one hundred days in office.
Sworn in last month, Birkhead is nearly halfway through that period, and he’s already accomplished some of the goals listed in a hundred-day plan he released to the public Friday afternoon.
“My goal for the first few months as sheriff is to spend a lot of time listening, learning, and evaluating,” he told the Durham Crime Cabinet Friday, previewing the plan.
One priority is to end the practice of honoring ICE detainers, which are requests from ICE to keep a person in jail for up to forty-eight hours after they would otherwise be released so that ICE can take them into custody. Shortly after taking office, Birkhead issued a directive telling jail staffers not to comply with those requests unless they come with a judicial warrant. Within a week of the directive, eleven people for whom ICE had sent detainer requests were released after posting bond or completing their sentences, rather than being held for immigration officials.
Under Birkhead’s predecessor, Mike Andrews, the Sheriff’s Office had an unwritten policy to honor all detainer requests. As the INDY reported in September, more than one hundred people held under detainers were taking directly into ICE custody within three years.
In another major departure, Birkhead says he will not allow mugshots of people booked into the jail to be released to the public, saying they are “considered part of the investigative records” and the agency is not required by law to release them.
(That policy change may end up in court. Asked whether Birkhead’s interpretation of the law is correct, Durham attorney Jonathan Jones, the former executive director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, replied, “He’s dead wrong. It’s an administrative record that can have an investigative use, but that doesn’t transform it into a protected record.”)
Following multiple deaths in the Durham County jail, Birkhead also says he will evaluate the facility’s infrastructure, staffing, and procedures. He told the Crime Cabinet that work will begin in March to finish fixing long-identified suicide risks in the jail, including bars on windows, HVAC grates, and bunk beds, which detainees have used to hang themselves.
Nine people died in the jail during Andrews’s tenure, including three from suicide.
Birkhead said that work is likely to take about a year. Three contractors will work pod by pod replacing 482 HVAC and window grates and 159 beds (there are also some towel racks that will be replaced).
That initiative will push back the opening of a female mental health pod so that detainees can be moved there temporarily while their cells are being up-fitted. That pod was supposed to open this year. One for men opened in 2017.
In addition to the structural changes, Birkhead told the Crime Cabinet he is also moving the jail toward a “direct supervision” model, which centers on building relationships between detention staffers and the people held in the jail.
“It’s a different way of handling our detainees,” he said. “We build relationships with them and treat the detention facility like a community because that’s what it is. Some have been there for four years or more. That’s a community. We want those individuals to have input and buy-in to how we operate the facility, how they’re treated, and how they treat us.”
Under direct supervision, jails are designed to reduce barriers to interaction between detainees and staffers, Birkhead said. While the jail was originally built for that model, as part of the other improvements to the jail, detention officer stations will be elevated to improve sight-lines.
“Our detention center when it opened up in ninety-six was a direct supervision facility,” he said. “We have for a number of reasons—staffing being one of them—we have not been able to fully accomplish that type of supervision.”
The jail population is down since Birkhead took office, but he told the INDY he can’t take credit for that. Instead, he attributed the decline to a combination of factors: the District Attorney’s Office (under new DA Satana Deberry) releasing people, judges deciding not to detain people pretrial, and diversion programs keeping more people out of jail.
The average daily population had been falling for years. For fiscal year 2016, the average daily population for the year was 481, down from more than 600 a decade before. On Friday, the total jail population was 429.
In the hundred-day plan, Birkhead says he also plans to implement racial-equity and crisis-intervention training and review the school resource officer program.
“My idea is to take steps to ensure our SROs are given the direction and support required to be true resource officers to our students,” he said. “That means breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, utilizing the in-school suspension option, diversion programs [that are] designed to eliminate criminalizing misbehaving in school.”
Read Birkhead’s full plan here.