Will endorsements, jail conditions and immigration, decide Durham County sheriff race?

Nearly four year ago, Durham County voters had a very similar choice to the one they have in this year's sheriff’s race.

Sheriff Mike Andrews was running against Clarence Birkhead and another candidate.

Andrews won that 2014 race, taking 56 percent of the vote to Birkhead’s 39 percent.

Now they face off again, with just them on the ballot. Some of the issues Andrews has faced over the last four years, however, might shift the outcome.

In 2014, Andrews was endorsed by the Durham People's Alliance Political Action Committee and the Friends of Durham — two of the city's three main political actions committees. This year those two PACs joined the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People in endorsing Birkhead.

Since 2013, six people have died at the jail, and Andrews has been the target of protests by inmate advocacy group the Inside-Outside Alliance over issues including a months-long "lockback" that confined jail inmates to their cells for most of the day. Andrews has said the department implemented the restrictions, which have been eased, after an increase in violence and weapons found at the jail.

In response to critics, Andrews has touted changes at the jail, including a new director, expanded GED opportunities, more visitation opportunities and a mental health pod for male inmates.

The Sheriff's Office's policy of complying with 48-hour detainers issued by the federal government for people in jail who are in the country illegally has also drawn criticism. Birkhead, who is making his third run to be sheriff in Durham or Orange — has said he would not honor immigration detainers, which are requests to hold someone for 48 hours after they would otherwise be released, such as after posting bail, so that federal agents can take them into custody.

Birkhead, 57, began his law enforcement career in 1984 in Randolph County as a deputy. He started working as Duke University police officer in 1998. A year later, he became Duke's chief of police, which he remained until 2005.

In 2010, Birkhead resigned as Hillsborough’s chief and ran for Orange County sheriff, but lost. He ran for Durham County sheriff in 2014 on a platform that advocated increased diversity and community involvement with law enforcement, but he lost that election as well.

Birkhead, a driver's license examiner, has worked as a safety and security consultant since 2012. Before then, he served as associate vice president of safety and security at Queens University in Charlotte from 2010 until 2012.

“I have worked the last 35 years preparing myself to be your sheriff,” Birkhead said.

Andrews has questioned Birkhead's record, pointing to public records that outline challenges at the Hillsborough Police Department before and after Birkhead resigned in 2010.

Andrews, who is seeking his second full term, was appointed sheriff in 2011 when Worth Hill retired from the office early.

Andrews, 60, has been with the Durham County’s Sheriff’s Office since 1979, he said. He has served in the Investigations, Training, and Patrol Divisions.

“Through my tenure at the Sheriff’s Office, I have worked in every organization and division at the Sheriff’s Office,” Andrews said. “I have had the opportunity to develop the Sheriff’s Office and watch it grow.”

Early voting for this year’s primary continues through May 5. The primary election is Tuesday, May 8. Only voters who are registered Democrat and unaffiliated can vote in the sheriff's primary — and the winner will not face any opposition in the November election — because there are no Republican candidates running.

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews

Q. What are two challenges facing the Sheriff’s Office and/or community public safety? How would you address them?

Andrews: One of the biggest challenges is the opioid epidemic. One focus is to divert individuals with addictions from incarceration to facilities where they can receive proper treatment.

In doing so, this will decrease recidivism and provide them with a better opportunity to prosper in the community. We will continue to engage with other community stakeholders to increase prevention through education. Durham County Sheriff’s Office was the first law enforcement agency to distribute Narcan throughout the jail and to officers on the streets.

Crimes associated with the sale and distribution of narcotics, including burglary, larceny, robbery and murder, and in some cases domestic violence, child neglect and abuse must also be considered. There has to be an appropriate level of enforcement targeting the drug dealers that are poisoning our community.

The Sheriff’s Office recovered a street value of $7.6 million in controlled substances over the last four years (2014-2017). Without enforcement, attempts to overcome this crisis will have a limited impact. We’re taking a comprehensive approach.

Another challenge is maintaining a safe and inclusive learning environment for our children in the schools. Soon the Sheriff's Office will be the only law enforcement agency providing security in schools. We have requested funding for five additional officers to meet the needs of Durham Public Schools.

In 2017, fewer than 3 percent of investigations within schools that met criminal elements to charge resulted in an arrest. This demonstrates our commitment to divert youth from the criminal justice system to misdemeanor diversion programs when appropriate. Our School Resource Officers will continue to receive training ranging from Juvenile Minority Sensitivity Training to Mass Casualty Incidents. We will continue to seek feedback from our partners in the community and make changes when necessary.

Birkhead: Our most pressing problem is the lack of trust between the community and 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, accessibility and accountability from the Sheriff’s Office to the community, which will include specific ways I will communicate with and listen to the community. This is particularly evident in our Hispanic and African-American communities.

Another challenge we face in Durham is the amount of gun violence and how to curb this tragic trend. To keep guns off our streets, I will support smart gun legislation. To keep guns out of the hands of our youth, I will promote responsible gun ownership and be willing to try out promising best practices that are designed to educate our youth about the dangers of handling weapons. We also will use strategies such as aggressive gun enforcement and gun buy-back programs that include an amnesty component to get stolen weapons off our streets and out of the hands of our youth.

Clarence Birkhead

Q: What would you do to ensure the health and safety of people within the Durham County jail?

Andrews: The health and safety of those held in the Durham County Detention Facility has been a consistent priority. In 2017, the Sheriff's Office opened a male mental health unit for detainees suffering from mental health conditions.

The Sheriff’s Office has also requested funding for the upcoming fiscal year to expand the mental health unit for females. We have partnered with the Criminal Justice Resource Center to implement a new assessment tool for identifying detainees suffering from mental health conditions so they can be classified appropriately.

While these changes have been positive, our work is not done. Over the coming years it is our intent to not only maintain face to face visitation, but to add additional visits through video visitation and taking steps to implement off-site visitation to those that are physically or medically unable to travel to the detention facility.

This will provide additional external interaction for those housed within the detention facility, and provides another layer of accessibility for detainees. Social interaction is a basic necessity for health, and this expansion will work toward improving outcomes for detainees. The off-site visitations will include the use of tablets. Exposure to technology with these programs will provide education and training. This will increase detainees' ability to thrive during reentry, by applying skills that are used in a modern workforce. It is my goal to equally protect and preserve the rights of all people housed within the jail. If there are needs that we can’t fulfill we will seek accommodations elsewhere.

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Birkhead: The people in our jail need to be treated with dignity and respect. Most of these individuals have not been proven guilty and unfortunately cannot afford their bail. I am committed that if elected, I will operate the jail in a safe, efficient, clean and humane manner.

I will ensure that those persons incarcerated with preexisting health conditions receive the appropriate care needed to maintain their health and well being. Part of this will include reviewing our current health provider contracts to determine if any new contracts could improve jail conditions and reduce the cost burden borne by those in the jail. No one in our jail should suffer from serious mental or health issues. We must do everything within our power to protect and preserve their lives.

Q: How would you respond if you’re asked to enforce federal immigration law, such as by honoring detainers and joining the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs?

Andrews: This agency does not, has not, and will not participate in the 287(g) Program. As sheriff, I support comprehensive reform of the immigration system, as this is the only way to fix this problem; however, this is a federal issue and until our elected leadership in Washington can pass systematic and comprehensive immigration reform there will be effects on a local level.

We have to find ways of minimizing the effects on our community. As an example of these local impacts, recent ICE raids were conducted throughout the Triangle. It is my goal to provide the least disruption and impact to the community by only honoring detainers for those persons held for criminal offenses.

It is also important to note that a valid detainer alone does not result in an individual being deported. We have to reform the system, but we have to recognize that our ability to do this on a local level is limited, and that ICE raids within the community will affect law-abiding people who have come here to build a better life.

Birkhead: As sheriff, I want to do everything I can so that our immigrant community feels welcome and safe. I have made a clear and uncompromising commitment to not cooperate with ICE. We will not honor ICE detainers. We will not participate in ICE roundups. We will not do checkpoints for immigration purposes. Currently, there is no federal mandate that requires me to do otherwise.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges
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