A bullet pierced the windshield of an unmarked police car patrolling public housing in Durham on the night of April 9, flying straight through to the back window and shattering it, photos show.

What remained was more than shards of glass. Questions about the investigation and the officers in the vehicle arose following the shooting.

The unmarked police car wasn’t a Durham County Sheriff’s Office vehicle and only one of the deputies worked for the Durham sheriff’s department. The reward money put up for information leading to an arrest in the shooting isn’t all from Durham County coffers, either.

The unmarked Jeep SUV belonged to the Alamance County sheriff’s office and one of the deputies inside worked for the Alamance sheriff’s office, Sheriff Terry Johnson told INDY Week on Monday. Johnson says that he “put up some money for a reward on whoever perpetrated that crime.”

In the wake of the shooting, the Durham sheriff’s office released a statement with an offer of $5,000 to anyone with information leading to an arrest.

So why was an Alamance County vehicle and at least one deputy patrolling within Durham city limits that night, and what authority does a deputy from two counties over have? And does the presence of a deputy from a much more conservative county who is answerable to a sheriff known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric and pro-Confederate monument stances clash with Durham’s progressive values?

Strike Team

The night of the shooting, the two deputies from different counties rolled along Keystone Place near Dearborn Drive, passing by the brick-and-siding apartment buildings and a picnic area, according to police reports. They were investigating in Oxford Manor, a Durham city public housing community, the reports say.

At about 9:30 p.m., the Durham and Alamance County deputies ducked for their lives. At least two men shot multiple rounds at the unmarked SUV, hitting it and nearby housing, according to the Durham sheriff’s office.

Little has been said about why the deputies were patrolling Oxford Manor, but the Durham sheriff’s office told the public that the two law enforcement officers were working on an “active and ongoing investigation.”

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead gave sparing details about the shooting in a talk with INDY Week on Tuesday.

The officers were investigating “an area where we had incidents of gun violence,” according to Birkhead.

At a forum of sheriff candidates on April 13, Birkhead might have given some general insight as to why an Alamance County police car and deputy were out of their jurisdiction.

At the forum, Birkhead said Durham County had a “strike team” 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.

“I’m working with Alamance, Orange, and Guilford counties because we know that the 85 corridor is a delivery pipeline for weapons and we see it all the time,” Birkhead said. “Alamance is overrun with drugs and guns … and we’re working together (with the other counties) because we know what’s coming up and down 85 and I-40.”

For this regional type of partnership to work between police agencies, they typically have to sign onto what’s usually called a “memorandum of understanding” or “mutual aid agreement.” Such understandings or agreements allow officers of disparate agencies to investigate outside their borders and within the jurisdiction of the other partnering agencies. These partnerships aren’t without limitations, though. Usually, one police agency needs to invite the other into its jurisdiction or an agency needs to let another know they’re crossing over a border for policing purposes.

In his conversation with the INDY, Birkhead said that his office signed a memorandum of understanding with Alamance and the other two counties that formed the strike team in March 2021.

The counties wanted to pool their resources to address gang, drug, and gun crime and “to rid our neighborhoods of violence” while also gathering the best evidence for prosecutors to convict people charged with crimes.

The strike team has made more than 84 arrests and filed 278 charges, Birkhead says. The team has seized 38 guns and between the four counties assisted in 41 operations resulting in arrests.

“We’re committed to keeping resources allocated” to the strike team, Birkhead says.

‘Terry Johnson style of policing’ in Durham County?

Kerwin Pittman, a policy director at the nonprofit Emancipate NC which advocates for police and criminal justice reform, says Durham should not embrace a partnership with the Alamance County sheriff’s office.

A partnership with Alamance County is “extremely problematic given the history Terry Johnson has of pretty much blatant racism,” Pittman says.

On its website, Emancipate NC says it is committed to replacing “criminalization and incarceration with alternative approaches that address violence and repair harm” in communities of color.

That approach is at odds, to say the least, with Johnson’s style of policing, his personality, and associations.

Johnson had in the past partnered with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, through a controversial program that allowed Alamance deputies to detain immigrants.

The partnership with the controversial 287(g) program ended when the Department of Justice investigated Johnson’s office for discrimination. The investigation concluded that the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office had “a culture of discrimination against Latinos” who Johnson was alleged to have called “taco eaters.” The investigation and ensuing court case resulted in an agreement that Johnson’s office would implement a bias-free policing policy and track, analyze, and submit traffic-stop data to the Justice Department.

Johnson’s policing garnered comparison in The New Yorker to the garish anti-immigrant policies of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who then-President Donald Trump pardoned of a conviction in 2017.

That year Johnson tussled with an activist over a Confederate or Christian flag (it’s unclear which from police reports) that officers thought the activist was going to burn, the INDY reported.

In 2020, Johnson’s deputies along with officers from the Graham Police Department pepper-sprayed marchers in a voter turnout rally, resulting in a lawsuit.

And earlier that year, Johnson sent deputies to protect a Confederate monument in Graham and cracked down on protesting.

Activists, students, faculty, and staff criticized Elon University’s campus police for participating in that crackdown. The university’s police’s participation was facilitated through an agreement with Alamance sheriff’s office—the same kind of agreement that Johnson now has with Durham’s sheriff’s office. 

Pittman worries how far Johnson’s influence might spread through such partnerships. 

“If you have a continuation in Alamance County doing dual investigations, this might become a habit,” he says. “And I definitely don’t want to see Terry Johnson style of policing in my county [of Wake].” 

The agreement could be seen as more than a partnership to prevent crime, according to Manju Rajendran of Durham Beyond Policing, which is committed to building alternatives to policing in the city and Durham County.

“I would hope that Durham County would not be tacitly condoning that kind of racist leadership by maintaining a memorandum of understanding between the sheriffs’ offices,” she says.

The troubling past of Alamance’s sheriff’s office could make for a disturbing present in Durham County.

“I’m specifically concerned about Durham sheriff’s office having an understanding with Alamance County Sheriff’s Office which has a known, well-documented practice of bigotry and protest suppression, and what that means about Alamance County sheriff’s deputies roaming Durham’s streets, unaccountable to Durham’s residents,” Rajendran says.

When asked what he thought about the critique that the values of deputies of conservative Alamance County Sheriff’s Office will clash with the left-leaning, diverse constituents of Durham County, Birkhead says political views weren’t a factor in the partnership that appears to be ramping up.

“Violent crimes, gun violence, it’s not conservative or progressive,” he says. “Any sheriff who’s willing to partner to keep my communities safe, I’ll stand by them.”

It’s a different tune from a statement Birkhead made at a Leesville Road Coalition candidate forum last month, when he said he’s “not responsible for the violent crime that occurs inside the Durham city.” At the forum, Birkhead added, “This is my county, this is my city, I have citywide jurisdiction, but I do not carry the stats.”

Would Rajendran want an Alamance County deputy investigating in her community?

“There’s not some circumstance where I think they [Alamance County deputies] could offer something helpful,” she says.

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