Durham County

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews isn’t getting a raise. Here’s why.

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews discusses the old grates in jail cells which are being replaced with new "suicide proof" vent grates in a wing of the Durham County Detention Center Monday, June 6, 2016. A section of the jail is being renovated to accommodate mentally ill prisoners.
Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews discusses the old grates in jail cells which are being replaced with new "suicide proof" vent grates in a wing of the Durham County Detention Center Monday, June 6, 2016. A section of the jail is being renovated to accommodate mentally ill prisoners. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Sheriff Mike Andrews won’t be getting a raise this year following a jail suicide, a deputy being charged with sex offenses and a plan to bring video visitation to the jail.

On Monday the Durham County Board of Commissioners agreed not give him a raise after an about an hour-long closed session with Andrews. Commissioner Brenda Howerton left the meeting early.

Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs initially said the commissioners agreed on a public statement, which she read at Monday’s meeting, to leave the sheriff’s salary as is. They said they planned to send Andrews a letter regarding their concerns with management of the Sheriff’s Office.

Last year, the commissioners gave Andrews, who has been sheriff since 2011, a 3 percent merit raise, increasing his salary to $150,099.

A public Facebook post Tuesday that tagged Andrews said commissioners voted not to give a him a raise and told people to “pack the commissioners” meeting Monday night “to show support for our officers.”

A comment on the post listed the commissioners’ reasons as former sheriff’s deputy and school resource officer Chris Kelly being charged with sexual misconduct, a 17-year-old girl hanging herself at the jail and the video-visitation plan.

After being told about the Facebook post, Jacobs said she couldn’t speak for the Board of Commissioners, but said she personally has concerns about those issues.

Commissioner Heidi Carter said she did too.

“Those are some very valid concerns that I have, and I think others do as well,” Carter said.

The Sheriff’s Office responded to a Herald-Sun query with a two-sentence statement from Andrews.

“This Friday the Sheriff’s Office will collect and deliver school supplies to children whose families are struggling to provide for them,” the statement said. “I learned a long time ago that it is far better to give than it is to receive.”

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs also said Andrews “has granted interviews, spoken with elected officials, met with community groups and addressed the concerns of political groups and residents both in person and in writing.”

In general, the commissioners have no direct control of the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, beyond approving the flow of county money to the agency. However, commissioners do review Andrew’s performance and grant his raises, along with those of the register of deeds, tax administrator, county manager, clerk and attorney.

Jail suicide

A state Health and Human Services report faulted the Durham jail in the March suicide of 17-year-old Uniece “Niecey” Fennell. The report says detention officers failed to check her regularly and did not report a tip from another inmate that she was a threat to herself, a state investigation has found.

A News & Observer report on deaths in jails across the state points to two other deaths at the Durham County jail – Matthew Lamont McCain in 2016 and Terry Demetrius Lee in 2013 – in which the state found that jail officials didn’t follow protocol.

Jacobs said she recently had a the brief conversation with Col. Anthony Prignano, who was appointed to lead the jail in May. Prignano outlined new practices in the detention center, Jacobs said.

“I am hopeful that with the new leadership that we have in the detention center, we will see some substantial changes in the practices and procedures,” she said.

The jail has also added new policies and protocols to make sure checks are done and requiring that any information suggesting inmates are threats to themselves be brought to the attention of supervisors and mental health staff, Prignano has said.

“It is my expectation that no one will die in our jail,” Carter said.

Alleged misconduct

Jacobs also had concerns about the Kelly case, she said, and how it was handled. She wants more information on whether there were red flags and how they were handled.

Kelly, 40, was fired from the Sheriff's Office after an initial investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor in April. He was arrested June 26.

He had worked at Hillside and Northern high schools, and investigators think Kelly acted as a mentor to a 15-year-old girl before their relationship turned sexual.

“Just trying to understand who knew about that, the fact the deputy was at one school with her when she was a middle school student and then allowed to transfer (to her high school),” Jacobs said. “The fact that this was public situation where other people were able to observe the relationship.”

Video visitation

Andrews has told Jacobs that he doesn’t plan to replace in-person visitation with video visitation, in which inmates would meet with visitors via a monitor in the jail’s lobby. But she isn’t sure he has been as clear with the community.

“The public statements have caveats, such as at this time, which I think creates confusion with the public,” Jacobs said. “I think the public would like to have a very clear unequivocal statement about it.”

Initially, communication from the Sheriff’s Office indicated video visitation was a pilot program that would be monitored over time. In an interview in May, Andrews said that as long as he is sheriff, in-person visitation would be available. On Tuesday Gibbs said video visitation will launch Oct. 15, and the Sheriff’s Office will make an announcement and share user instructions with the public well in advance of the launch.

Carter and Jacobs said their criticism doesn’t take away from their appreciation of law enforcement.

“People go into law enforcement because they care about their community, want to help keep it safe, promote justice and tend to be compassionate people,” Carter said. “I certainly think that is true of our sheriff. He has a really hard job, and commissioners are doing the best we can in supporting him, but also communicating concerns that we have about the management in the office of the sheriff.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

(Editors note: A previous version of this article said Durham County commissioners voted to not give Andrews a raise. Commissioners didn’t take a formal vote, but agreed not to give him a raise.)