Name as it appears on the ballot: Clarence Birkhead
Campaign website: www.BirkheadforDurham.com
Phone number: 919-482-4501
Years lived in the county: 25
1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing the Sheriff’s Office? What are your top three priorities in addressing these issues?
The lack of trust between the community and the sheriff’s office is the single most important issue facing the sheriff’s office. The community needs to trust law enforcement again. People who interact with law enforcement should feel safe and have confidence in those they call on in times of need. The sheriff’s office has been involved with a number of significant issues during the past four years that has eroded the community’s trust. If elected, I will take immediate steps to rebuild that trust within all our communities. This will begin with a commitment of increased transparency, engagement and accountability from the sheriff’s office to the community, which will include specific ways I will communicate with and listen to the community:
- Transparency – Respond to concerns in the community in a timely and transparent manner
- Engagement – Commit to engaging in community conversations no matter how challenging the topic
- Accountability – Create a meaningful citizens review board that gives the power of accountability to the people
2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective county sheriff? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.
I have dedicated the past 30 years of my life to serving the citizens of North Carolina as a law-enforcement professional. My experience includes 17 years at Duke University with 7 years as chief of police. I also worked for 5 years as chief of the Hillsborough Police Department and 4 years as deputy sheriff in Randolph County. I hold a master’s degree in organizational management and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Most recently, I served as an adjunct faculty member at NCCU and Durham Tech and on various Durham boards and committees as an advocate for affordable housing, for our homeless population and for criminal justice reform. I have worked with the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People (DCABP) and the People’s Alliance (PA) to improve community-police relations. I have also worked on committees that advise the city council on ways we can increase affordable housing, stabilize and revitalize neighborhoods, increase economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income families and homeless persons, and reduce the number of residents detained in our county jail.
3. If you are challenging an incumbent, what decisions has the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are an incumbent, what in your record and experience do you believe merits to another term?
The sheriff’s office has been involved with a number of significant issues during the past four years that has eroded the community’s trust, including the office’s handling of and communication with the community about ICE detainers, video visitation, deaths in the county jail, and the Confederate statue demonstration. I disagree with:
- The sheriff’s cooperation with ICE. I will make a clear and uncompromising commitment to not cooperate with ICE. As sheriff, I will not honor ICE detainers and we will not participate in ICE roundups.
- The recent decision to implement video visitation. I believe persons incarcerated in our detention facility need to maintain in-person contact with family members, support persons and their legal representatives. This is important to maintaining hope, faith and mental strength to manage being incarcerated.
- The handling of the Confederate statute demonstration and subsequent filing of felony charges.
- The lack of transparency and accountability around multiple deaths in the jail.
- The sheriff’s non-communicative approach with the community which feeds into the distrust and forces the community to draw their own conclusions. As sheriff, I will commit to engaging with community residents no matter how challenging the conversations.
4. On any given day, many residents of the Durham jail are there not because they’ve been convicted of a crime but because they cannot afford their bail. What changes to the cash-bail system, if any, do you support? Why? If you don’t support any changes, please explain why you think the current system is successful.
Our current justice system criminalizes poverty, and this must change. Bail reform and alternatives to detention are an important part of the change we must advance. Additionally, we should be as fully committed to assessing the needs of individuals detained in our jail, as we are to assessing the risks. Eliminating cash bail has my full support, and I am committed to thinking outside the box by trying new alternatives to detention that are consistent with maintaining public safety. People should not be detained in our jails because they are poor or have unmet mental health needs. Although the sheriff does not have any direct control on setting bail, having a sheriff who understands and advocates for alternative initiatives could increase the probability of reducing or eliminating cash bail. I would advocate for and encourage our judges to consider every possible alternative to pre-trial detention and incarceration.
5. One intended purpose of the cash-bail system is to ensure potentially dangerous people aren’t free to commit new crimes while awaiting trial. Do you think the county would be less safe with non-monetary pretrial-release conditions only?
No, I do not think our county would be less safe using non-monetary pretrial release conditions. A cash bail system does not ensure greater safety. It does ensure that poorer Durham residents will be detained in jails, prior to disposition, and longer than wealthier residents who have been charged with similar crimes. Pretrial detention is an important part of ensuring public safety, but let’s not confuse risk and “potentially dangerous people” with a person’s ability to pay. If we really believe someone is dangerous and poses a risk to the community, cash bail is not the answer.
6. What do you believe to be the role of incarceration in our community?
Incarceration serves two purposes: First, it is designed to house those persons awaiting trial and, in some cases, ensure their appearance at such proceedings. Second, where there is a clear and present danger to public safety, incarceration provides a means to protect the public by housing persons deemed to present such a threat.
7. Twelve people in the custody of the Durham jail have died since 2000. In what ways, if any, do you believe conditions at the jail need to improve? What steps would you take to ensure those improvements?
Every person incarcerated in our detention facility is the responsibility of the sheriff. I would take the care and well-being of those persons very seriously and would do all I can to ensure their fair and equitable treatment, to ensure they are safe and that they receive proper medical services. As custodians for every life in the Detention Center, it will be a priority to take necessary steps to identify, manage, and mitigate risks associated incarceration. And, if elected I will work to increase transparency and accountability in matters related to the health and well-being of the incarcerated.
8. A medical examiner’s report found that a man who died in the Durham jail in May was killed by a heroin overdose, even though he had been in custody about seven months. Do you believe DCSO has the resources it needs to maintain security at the jail? For what additional resources would you advocate?
I believe the women and men who work in the Detention Center provide an invaluable service to our community. That said, I plan to evaluate the staffing, training, security and the infrastructure within the jail and will advocate increasing resources where necessary. I will take seriously my responsibilities to ensure the safety of both the staff and the individuals that are detained in the jail. While there are never enough resources to do all you want to do as a leader, my goal will be to use resources in a more efficient and effective manner. As I have stated, the protection and preservation of life inside the Detention Center will be priority one.
9. Multiple courts have ruled that ICE detainer requests do not meet Fourth Amendment requirements for arrest. Under what circumstances should the Sheriff’s Office honor detainer requests? Please explain your answer.
Currently, local law enforcement can decide whether or not to cooperate with ICE. I will make a clear and uncompromising commitment to not cooperate with ICE. As sheriff, I will not honor ICE detainers and we will not participate in ICE roundups. To be clear, the only detainer requests that I will honor are those that come with a judicial warrant or a Notice to Appear.
Under my leadership, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office will not do checkpoints for immigration purposes. We would use checkpoints as they are designed, which is to gain voluntary compliance with motor vehicle laws and promote safety on our streets and highways. For example, we would continue to conduct “Booze It & Lose It” checkpoints and “Click It or Ticket” campaigns.
If the federal government wants to criticize us for not honoring detainers, I’m OK with that. I think the community at large will be appreciative of that approach and respect my decision. Furthermore, an ICE detainer is merely a request; compliance is voluntary. There’s nothing in the federal law that says I must participate.
10. Under North Carolina law, body-camera footage is not public record. Under what circumstances do you believe the public should be allowed to review body camera footage?
First, I commit to ensuring that the deputies under my supervision would be held accountable, not just to me but to the community they serve, when it comes to use of force.
Second, we must strike the balance between using body-camera footage to hold our law enforcement accountable while also honoring the privacy of those residents who appear in the footage and the concerns of residents about increased police surveillance. I do not think you can strike this balance by making all body camera footage available for everyone to see. I believe viewing of such video footage should be decided on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, the footage can be used to bring closure to family members and accountability to law enforcement. Depending on the nature and severity of the case, the decision to release a body camera video should be made after careful consultation with the district attorney and family members along with their representatives.
11. Similarly, police officers’ and sheriff’s deputies’ personnel files, including disciplinary records, are not public documents in North Carolina. Given that law enforcement in some cases literally has the power of life and death, do you believe it is appropriate for members of the public to know whether a law enforcement agent has been disciplined and why?
As an executive, it would be my responsibility to respect the privacy of my employees – just as I am responsible for protecting the privacy of victims. That being said, if elected sheriff, I will create an environment of transparency, engagement and accountability. This would mean that I can meet and engage the public and share some details that pertain to the incident.
12. What policies would you support to reduce recidivism, particularly among youthful offenders?
I am concerned about and committed to reducing recidivism, including recidivism in our county jail. Since 2011, over 1,000 people have re-entered our county jail ten times or more. This is unacceptable. I would work together with service providers, community groups, and residents to break this cycle. Accepting that we are doing everything we can to address this issue is a failure of imagination. Here are three places we can start:
We must expand the strategies that are working. As sheriff, I will support the expansion of the misdemeanor diversion program to all ages, and look for other opportunities to build on this model. This program has been successful in reducing the number of youth with criminal records and the vast majority of youth who have gone through this program have not reoffended. The more we can do to minimize the number of persons with criminal records whose lives are turned upside down, the better.
We must rethink pre-trial detention. A jail can do more than ensure public safety by detaining individuals awaiting trial. We need to do more to assess the needs of individuals in our jail and to connect them to services that can help address those needs, both in detention and upon release.
We must increase economic opportunity for residents with criminal records. If individuals cannot find work, the likelihood of recidivism goes up. We need more employers who are willing to hire our residents with records and more transitional job programs that can get these residents job ready. There are a lot of people working on this in our community, and they would find in me a partner willing to do whatever I can to support their good work.
13. This year’s county budget included funding for five additional deputies to serve as school resource officers, and money for SROs to be outfitted with body cameras. What role do you think SRO’s should play in Durham schools?
School Resource Officers (SRO) are intended to support the mission of education and serve as a resource to students and staff. Non-violent and non-criminal behavior needs to be addressed by school personnel and not the SRO.
School safety is a priority and the SROs will serve on the frontline of responding to any situation that threatens school safety. Additionally, SROs must work with school personnel to ensure safety protocols are in place and that everyone understands their role in the overall plan for keeping our schools, and children, safe.
14. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.
Based on the current climate of opposing viewpoints related to Confederate statues and protests, I would suspect that my stance on protecting the First Amendment right could bring me considerable criticism. Some people want to stop protests from occurring and some officials want to end spontaneous demonstrations by requiring 48-hour notice. I believe this is wrong.