Durham County sheriff announces ‘groundbreaking’ community advisory board

Birkhead wins Durham County sheriff’s race

Challenger Clarence Birkhead took an early lead over incumbent Mike Andrews and never lost it in the race for Durham County sheriff Tuesday night
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Challenger Clarence Birkhead took an early lead over incumbent Mike Andrews and never lost it in the race for Durham County sheriff Tuesday night

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office is forming a community advisory board, the first time Sheriff Clarence Birkhead says the office has engaged the community “at this level.”

“This will be groundbreaking,” he said Friday.

The advisory board will include up to 25 members 21 years old and up chosen by the Sheriff’s Office. They will serve two-years terms and meet with Birkhead and other officials at least quarterly.

Birkhead hopes the board will increase trust in law enforcement. “A number of issues have fractured that relationship over the years,” he said.

Locally, the Sheriff’s Office under former Sheriff Mike Andrews faced criticism for honoring federal immigration agents’ requests to detain people in jail after they would otherwise be released. Andrews was also criticized for not addressing known suicide hazards and other jail conditions.

“This is not me going into the community telling the community what we think they should do,” Birkhead said of the new advisory board. “This is me inviting the community to be part of the process so we can evaluate solutions and get suggestions from the community.”

Applications, available at the Sheriff’s Office on the second-floor at the Durham County courthouse and online, are due by the end of September.

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Friday the launch of a community advisory board.

Progressive promises

Birkhead was elected in November in elections that swept in progressive prosecutors and sheriffs in some of the state’s major cities.

His campaigned on improving transparency, treating people in jail humanely and not honoring federal immigration requests to hold inmates past when they would otherwise be released. He also discussed a citizens advisory board.

An International Association of Chiefs of Police blog described a community advisory board as a volunteer group that meets regularly to provide advice and perspective to the executive staff.

“Law enforcement agencies can ask community advisory boards for recommendations and advice on issues related to the community and policing,” the blog states. “Advisory boards can assist law enforcement agencies with conducting research, reviewing new policies, providing skilled volunteer services, or supporting community outreach efforts.”

The association recommends having 10 to 20 board members from various sectors of the community and meeting in different locations to highlight different areas’ needs.

The city has a Durham Civilian Police Review Board, which is different from what Birkhead is proposing. The board is appointed by the city manager and reviews appeals to complaints against police to determine whether the investigation followed proper procedures.

The board can’t discipline employees, but can make recommendations to the city manager and police chief.

Birkhead said he isn’t following those or other models.

“This is sort of uncharted waters,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know of any other agencies doing it “quite this way.”

The new board will informing the sheriff on community issues, advise the department on how to improve trust with law enforcement officers and keep what is said during closed meetings confidential.

“The final decision will still be the sheriff’s, my decision, but I want as much input from the community as possible,” Birkhead said.

Bilingual staff

Durham community organizer Ivan Almonte said he plans to apply and welcomes a chance to build a relationship and give feedback.

Almonte said he already has suggestions, that include hiring more bilingual Sheriff’s Office staff and providing more literature in Spanish, including information about the booking and visitation process at the jail.

At at a time when some Hispanic people face increased racism and threats of deportation, the board is an opportunity to share concerns and build relationships, he said. “I do believe that being part of this community advisory board, it will help us,” he said.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.