Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews explained why his office works with immigration officials during a talk to local business leaders this week.
The Sheriff's Office complies with 48-hour detainers issued by the federal government for people in jail who are in the country illegally.
"If the bells and whistles go off and we get a notice of detainer from the Department of Homeland Security on a person who has been incarcerated, I'm going to recognize it," Andrews told the group Durham Businesses Against Crime on Thursday. "My job is for the safety and security of the community."
Not all immigrants in the justice system who have entered the country illegally are subject to detainers, Andrews said. After people are arrested, they are taken to jail are fingerprinted. Those prints are cataloged and input automatically into the national law enforcement fingerprint database. If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flags the prints and asks Andrews to detain the person, the sheriff said he honors it.
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In an interview, sheriff's Maj. Paul Martin said if ICE does not contact the department after the detainer expires, the person typically is allowed to post bond and leave.
Low-level, non-violent offenders who only have been issued a citation are not fingerprinted, Andrews said. They're not subject to the ICE check unless they don't show up for court and a warrant is issued for their arrest. In those cases, it is the subsequent charge that creates the entry point for ICE, he explained.
Andrews said he fears not honoring the requests from ICE could jeopardize money the county receives from the federal government.
Honoring detainers also eliminates a potential public safety concern for Andrews. He said he would rather have ICE come to the jail to take custody of a person than have their agents conducting raids in the community.
"At that point, I don't have any control over ICE and if they decide to go looking for someone like they do when they have a warrant, they're going to look for that individual before that warrant is served," Andrews said. "I am trying to prevent collateral damage because other individuals may be taken or put in harm's way."
Andrews, who is a Democrat, faces former Hillsborough and Duke police chief Clarence Birkhead in the May 8 primary. In his Durham People's Alliance questionnaire, Birkhead said he would not recognize ICE detainers.
"Local law enforcement should decide whether or not to cooperate with ICE and their detainer program," Birkhead said. "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."
A traffic checkpoint near a mostly Hispanic school last year raised come community members' concerns.
Andrews said checkpoints generally follow citizen complaints. The checkpoint near the school came after speeding complaints. Deputies staked out the road and monitored traffic before deciding to hold the checkpoint after school let out and before rush hour.
"Anything that we do is data driven or citizen-complaint driven," Andrews said. "We're not doing traffic stops looking for undocumented workers. That's not our job. There are too many other things we have to do."
Traffic stops led to more than 400 guns being seized last year from people not legally allowed to possess them, Andrews said.
'A different time'
Also Thursday, Andrews talked about crime trends, the jail's new mental health pod and the need for more personnel.
The Sheriff's Office generally handles crime outside the city limits. The number of violent crimes like murder and rape have declined, he said, but property crimes like burglaries and larcenies have ticked up.
Last year Andrews created a mental health pod for men in the jail. When people with serious psychiatric problems are in jail, they do not need to be housed with the rest of the inmates, Andrews said.
"We've been able to take the most vulnerable, those who have been identified by professionals from the health department, and place them in the men's mental health side," Andrews said.
He wants to create the same set up on the women's side.
The sheriff's office employs more than 400 people, but Andrews said he would like to hire more school resource officers, deputies for the jail and officers to serve court papers.
"I need about 50 more people," he said. "I'm not going to get 50 people. Things have changed over the years with the services we provide."