Ten candidates. When there are 10 candidates in a political race, you know something is wrong. It’s only when people are clamoring for change—a shift in policy or leadership—that 10 people throw their hats in the ring.
The Wake County Sheriff’s Office has been in flux for the last several years, ever since Democrat Gerald Baker was elected in 2018. Baker, then an underdog who raised just $15,000 in donations, upset Republican sheriff Donnie Harrison, who had held the office since 2002.
Harrison’s policies during his 16 years as sheriff were a mix of moderate and conservative. He called for bail reform and pretrial release programs but also proposed the creation of an independent police force for Wake County schools and began cooperating with ICE to deport immigrants.
Harrison’s participation in the 287(g) program became a flash point during the 2018 campaign season, as liberals accused him of pushing then President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. Baker, a deputy at the time, pledged to end the county’s cooperation with ICE and improve relationships with heavily policed communities. He took the election with a solid margin of about 10 percent, joining the wave of local Democrats who won races during the midterms.
Since then, however, Baker has faced significant criticism. In 2020, hundreds of people gathered downtown to protest the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the many other Black men and women killed by police. They were met with tear gas and less-lethal bullets fired by Raleigh police officers and Wake County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
“We want to see a sheriff who is committed to upholding folks’ constitutional rights to assemble and to protest without the fear of facing chemical weapons,” says Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, a nonprofit aimed at ending mass incarceration and dismantling structural racism.
Blagrove and other advocates are unhappy with the pace of change since the Black Lives Matter movement resurged in 2020. Although Baker has done a “commendable job” of ending cooperation with ICE, ending overpolicing in Southeast Raleigh and changing the culture inside the sheriff’s office, he’s not the “pillar of progressive policing reform” people hoped for, Blagrove says.
“The elected officials of Wake County are definitely on some kind of time delay. They are not in tune with the needs of their constituency, and I think they are not responding rapidly enough to demands for change,” Blagrove says.
“We know [strong and sweeping changes] are possible. We’ve seen really progressive policies being implemented all over the country, and we have seen positive outcomes from those changes.”
What do people want from the next sheriff?
Emancipate NC supports a variety of law enforcement reforms that are becoming increasingly popular nationwide, according to polls by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Republicans and Democrats alike say communities will be safer when officials reduce the number of people in prison and increase treatment of mental illness and addiction, according to a 2015 survey. Overall, voters say they think officials should focus more on rehabilitation than incarceration.
Blagrove says Wake County’s next sheriff should be someone with a deliberate plan to reduce jail populations, especially given that detention centers are understaffed. He or she should also ensure incarcerated people are being treated humanely—that they have adequate access to health care, education, nutritious food, and phones so they can speak with their family, Blagrove says.
In another survey last year, the ACLU found that 66 percent of voters support “eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services.” Again, those views align with those of Emancipate NC, which is pushing for a reduction or elimination of prosecution of low-level marijuana charges, Blagrove says.
In past years, there’s been little transparency and less accountability from law enforcement, Blagrove adds. Emancipate NC wants to see the next sheriff publicize information about disciplinary actions that are taken against deputies, as well as who is promoted and how. Investigations into misconduct should be outsourced to an independent group, Blagrove says.
“We have a lot of pretend progressives, people who say the right thing, who show up during election time and promise things, but when it comes to actually using the power that was given them to implement those transformative changes, they no longer have the political will to do so,” Blagrove says.
“Hopefully with these upcoming elections, the people will once again use the power of their vote to find people … who will be actual progressives and use the power of their offices to implement real systemic change.”
Who’s likely to win?
Among the candidates for Wake County sheriff, seven are Democrats and three are Republicans. With such a crowded field, name recognition may end up counting for a lot. In that arena, Baker and Harrison have the advantage.
As long as one Republican and one Democratic candidate gets more than 30 percent of the county’s vote to avoid triggering a runoff election in July, next month’s primary will whittle the number of candidates down to just two who will ultimately face off in November’s general election. Despite the upswell of support for liberal police reform, Harrison or another Republican may have a shot at taking back the sheriff’s seat. Democratic turnout will likely be low with President Joe Biden in office during the midterms.
Whoever does win the race will control the flow of nearly $102 million through the sheriff’s office, plus oversee more than 900 employees, some on patrol and some in Wake County’s detention centers. The sheriff also heads up the county’s permitting process for guns, serves warrants and eviction notices, and patrols the Wake County Justice Center and courthouse.
Who are the Democratic candidates?
Gerald M. Baker, 59
Baker’s platform has remained unchanged since his 2018 election. If reelected, he plans to continue his work “restoring the integrity” of the office, he says. Baker points to his reorganization of the agency as a success and says he and his employees have “answered the call” to address the COVID-19 crisis and civil unrest.
Baker’s hiring and firing policies have caused some controversy, however. The sheriff got into hot water this year when it was reported he faced four lawsuits from five different employees. One suit, in which former longtime deputy and chief of operations Richard Johnson alleged wrongful termination, was settled for $99,999 last week. Three other people allege discrimination and retaliation.
Baker says the Johnson lawsuit was “frivolous” and other allegations are purely political. In a report from The News & Observer, Baker said the lawsuits he’s facing are from people who would not accept the new leadership and expected to continue problematic practices that existed under the previous administration.
During a conversation with the INDY, Baker dropped a lot of buzzwords—“transparency,” “diversity,” “accountability”—but some may question whether his efforts to prioritize those principles have resulted in real change. In talking about changes he’s made, Baker cited his creation of a community relations unit, the seizure of 40 million grams of drugs in the past three years, and increased patrol of lakes and waterways.
“Being accountable for your staff, the training, the policy, [setting] expectations, it starts at the top,” Baker says. “I did that immediately, when I walked in. We’re accountable for who we are and what we do.”
Randolph Baity, 46
Baity, like the five other Democratic candidates, is a political outsider with years of law enforcement experience. He currently works as a police officer with the Clayton Police Department in Johnston County, continuing a 22-year career in policing.
Baity says one of his top priorities is community engagement, a major talking point among all candidates in the race. Baity plans to build trust between law enforcement and citizens with a quarterly meeting between the sheriff, police chiefs, and residents.
“[People] don’t want to fear police intimidation, fear excessive force, police brutality,” Baity says. “In order to bridge those gaps we got to have not only communication, but you got to have leadership in the community. The sheriff needs to be available and visible.”
Baity also wants to enact a “duty to intervene” policy, which means if an officer on the scene sees another officer engaging in misconduct, they have a duty to do something. When officers do “egregious things,” they shouldn’t be given the opportunity to resign and move to a different department, Baity says.
“My vision is to bring resources to the community,” he says. “I want to bring in a human trafficking task force. I want to implement a citizens’ academy program, so citizens can be a part of law enforcement, so we can learn from each other.”
Joe Coley, 51
Coley is a sergeant with the State Capitol Police, which guards government buildings. Like other candidates, he’s hit on some of the biggest issues currently facing the sheriff’s office, namely understaffing.
“The first major thing that’s got to be done is we got to get more deputies and more detention officers,” Coley said in an interview with WRAL. “Right now, the jail’s working on emergency staffing. That makes it unsafe for the people who are incarcerated there. Definitely makes it unsafe for the officers.”
Coley says he wants to make the county safe again by hiring more officers and lessening call response times. His plan for community involvement revolves around historically successful programs like senior well-check and citizen’s academy.
Ultimately, Coley is a solid candidate, but he’s mostly running on issues that are widely accepted as necessary to the continued survival of the sheriff’s office. His talking points don’t include some of the progressive reforms activists are pushing for.
Cedric L. Herring, 53
Herring, a retired sergeant of State Highway Patrol, has an audible passion for social justice. He speaks ardently about the need for sweeping change in the sheriff’s office, including ending overpolicing, releasing body camera footage, and reallocating money from guns to de-escalation training.
Herring says change starts with recognizing the current culture of policing, that “Black and brown people are treated a certain way.”
Today’s police culture rewards making arrests, even if it’s for low-level offenses like vagrancy, Herring says. He plans to meet with police chiefs to talk about why officers are taking so many people to jail for low-level crimes. Next, he wants to talk to the magistrate about releasing people on a promise to appear instead of a $500 bond they can’t pay.
“If everybody is on board where we’re trying to go with this, then we can have true police reform,” Herring says. “But it won’t happen until you got a sheriff that is in agreement that there’s a true issue with the way officers have been conducting themselves out here.”
Herring’s first priority, if elected, is to recruit and retain more officers, he says. Like other candidates, he notes the current lack of patrol and detention staff creates a public safety issue. When Herring worked for the sheriff’s office in the early 2000s, there were about 20 or 25 cars on the road to patrol half a million people, he says. Today, there are eight cars on the road, patrolling 1.2 million people.
Herring is determined to implement reform, but is it enough? Although he has plenty of on-the-ground law enforcement experience, he lacks political experience that may enable him to hit the ground running. Herring says he will be a “working sheriff,” getting out into the community and leading by example.
“The sheriff’s office is struggling right now because they have no structure. No one knows what the other person is supposed to be doing, so no one’s doing anything,” Herring says. “Walking in the door, that is one of the first things we have to do.”
Tommy Matthews, 68
Matthews, after spending about 25 years in the investigations department of the sheriff’s office, first retired in 2004 as a major. He then went on to serve under Republican sheriff Harrison as the assistant director of detention services, working to improve medical and mental health care for people who were incarcerated.
Matthews has a good record on improving the conditions in the detention center, including training staff on federal labor standards, sexual harrasment, and the use of personal protective equipment. He’s also talked about increasing transparency and improving the relationship between Wake County schools and school resource officers.
But Matthews’s platform doesn’t revolve around progressive police reform. Rather, he stands on issues widely supported by the majority of people—improving mental health care, improving community engagement, and reducing the officer turnover rate.
Willie Rowe, 62
Rowe, yet another former law enforcement officer aiming to take the top job in the county, has a little more management experience than some other candidates. During his 28 years at the sheriff’s office, he helped develop policy, manage the budget, and supervise staff and daily operations, he says.
Rowe is also deeply embedded in the community he hopes to serve. He is a deacon at First Baptist Church, where he has worked to increase affordable housing, reduce homelessness, and reach out to at-risk youth. If elected, Rowe plans to hold weekly meetings with community members, he says.
“The purpose of those meetings is for me to listen and learn, to hear concerns and gather the input of the community,” Rowe says. “[We need to] establish open and honest communication so the community and law enforcement can work together to prevent crime and create opportunity. This way, people don’t feel like they have to resort to crime as a means of survival or acceptance.”
Rowe has a somewhat old-school approach to policing. When people vote for him, they will get “proven leadership, proven experience, and proven relationships,” he says.
On reform, Rowe says the sheriff’s office needs to ensure it has a qualified, diverse, and inclusive workforce. Rowe also supports a pretrial release program and increased education opportunities for people in jail.
“We can’t arrest our way out,” he says. “It’s really a matter of prevention, deterrence using education, awareness, and engagement.”
Roy Taylor, 59
Taylor, also a former employee of the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, brings some more diverse experience to the table. In addition to spending 40 years in law enforcement—including serving as chief of police for several agencies—Taylor is a military veteran whose jobs included inspecting prisoner of war camps and managing disciplinary barracks.
In that role, Taylor had to ensure that the constitutional rights of imprisoned people were upheld, he says. If elected, one of his priorities is to improve conditions for people in Wake County detention centers. Taylor plans to restart education programs, counseling programs, clergy visits, and substance abuse support groups in the jail, he says.
“With 1,500 people, you’ve got to house them, you have to clothe them, you have to feed them, you have to care for them,” Taylor says. “That means you have to be cognizant of their religious beliefs, their dietary needs, their medical needs, their psychiatric needs, their dental needs.”
Taylor also has a doctorate in criminal justice from Walden University and works as an expert witness. Having testified in cases where police officers shot and killed people, he’s a strong advocate of providing de-escalation training, demilitarizing the police, and teaching officers how to deal with people with mental illnesses.
“One of the things that happened to our country after 9/11 was that police officers were trained to be warriors and not guardians,” Taylor says. “Warriors occupy territory. We go in as soldiers and take over a piece of ground and control it. Well, that’s not the job of law enforcement. Our job is to protect the community residents from harm.”
Who are the Republican candidates?
Donnie Harrison, 76
Despite calls for change, Harrison’s vision for the sheriff’s office hasn’t changed much—not necessarily a bad strategy given that his former policies won him more than a decade in the seat.
If reelected, Harrison seems likely to reinstate the controversial 287(g) program, resuming cooperation with ICE. He stood by previous statements that the program helps keep immigrant communities safe, saying it keeps people who are wanted for crimes off the streets. Harrison says he will support the program “if I think it can make this county safer for the Hispanic community, or for anybody in this community.”
Harrison also plans to continue investment in mental health training and community engagement, he says. He cited his open-door policy as evidence he was available and willing to talk to residents.
Like other candidates, recruitment and retention of officers is a priority for Harrison. Harrison criticized the current administration, saying his experience will help him hit the ground running and reunite the agency.
“So many people don’t understand what law enforcement officers do,” Harrison says. “Even the news media don’t understand how quickly we have to make decisions involving our life and other people’s lives. So we’ve got to educate the public. One thing I’ve said probably millions of times to my deputies [is] ‘Put God first, your family, your job, and treat people like you want to be treated.’”
David Blackwelder, 36
Harrison’s defeat in 2018 has drawn other Republican candidates out of the woodwork, hoping to usher in a new era of leadership. Blackwelder, an attorney who works in antitrust law, presents a more liberal alternative to Harrison.
The former police officer has a checkered background, however. He was arrested in October for driving while intoxicated, a charge that was ultimately dismissed due to lack of witnesses. He’s been a strong critic of Baker’s administration, saying if elected, he will remove the sheriff’s right to hire and fire based on political affiliation.
Blackwelder worked as a police officer for 10 years before becoming disenchanted with the profession, he says. As sheriff, he thinks he can make a bigger difference in changing internal policies and ultimately rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the public.
If elected, Blackwelder says he plans to empower people in their interactions with police by educating them about their constitutional rights. He wants to start using consent forms for police searches to ensure people know what they’re agreeing to. Blackwelder also supports the legalization of marijuana, he says.
Tivon Howard, 46
Howard, an officer with the Zebulon Police Department, has a platform almost identical to that of other candidates. Like some of his opponents, he supports mental health and de-escalation training for officers. He wants to address the opioid epidemic and engage the public with a Wake Citizen Corps program.
“I’m here for the community,” he says. “I’m willing to listen.”
Howard prioritizes transparency and wants to create a civilian board to oversee the promotion process, he says. He also has some ideas for improving officer morale—annual cost-of-living increases, for one—and reducing recidivism through education and community service. Overall, however, there’s nothing eye-catching about his platform. And although he has on-the-ground experience, some may question whether he’s ready to take charge of the sheriff’s office.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that one Republican and one Democrat in the primary races must receive more than 30 percent of the county’s vote to advance to the general election in November. If candidates don’t clear that threshold, they will advance to a runoff election in July.
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