Durham County sheriff's race heats up over challenger's record

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews says opponent Clarence Birkhead's promises of transparent leadership contradict his performance on a past job.

“His administrative failings at Hillsborough [Police Department] are a direct example of not being transparent and accountable,” Andrews wrote in a Herald-Sun election questionnaire.

Andrews points to a 2010 town of Hillsborough document that said Birkhead “was aware and produced backdated documents,” in an accreditation review that resulted in the Hillsborough Police Department withdrawing from its accreditation process that year.

"An incontrovertible act of dishonesty,” Andrews wrote.

Birkhead says he did not backdate any document and did nothing wrong.

“I disagreed in 2010, and I disagree today,” he said.

Town documents and Town Manager Eric Peterson’s limited statement on the issue differ greatly from Birkhead's account of what happened.

In an interview, Birkhead initially said when he left in 2010, the Hillsborough department was accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). The agency allowed memorandums outlining missing information to be placed in files, Birkhead said. The memos included the date they were created and placed in the file.

CALEA said that practice was “acceptable,” Birkhead said. “That is why we were re-accredited. They said moving forward just make sure you put those documents in place.”

As Birkhead was preparing to leave in 2010 to run for Orange County sheriff — a decision he said he made before concerns were raised — “we went through the audit and we were accredited again,” Birkhead said.

When a reporter relayed that account to Peterson, the town manager said he was “baffled.”

“The facts are we were not re-accredited, and [Birkhead] left the Hillsborough Police Department in shambles,” Peterson said. “For him to say that is outrageous.”

After The Herald-Sun provided town documents to Birkhead, he said the town was on track to be re-accredited when he left.

“There is no doubt, we would have been reaccredited at the time,” if he had stayed, he said. “But I didn’t. I left to run for Orange County sheriff.”

Peterson said, “That’s not even remotely accurate.”

Clarence Birkhead

The timeline

The Hillsborough Police Department was accredited by CALEA for the first time in 2004. Accreditation shows that a law enforcement agency is meeting or exceeding recognized standards.

Birkhead said he led the department through the re-accreditation process when he became chief in 2005, after the previous chief resigned. He then took the department through the three-year re-accreditation process in 2007, “re-writing the entire policy manual,” he said.

Town documents indicate the Hillsborough Police Department was re-accredited in 2007 with conditions.

“Problems identified in 2007 on-site inspection are serious enough for CALEA to require re-inspection one year later to ensure HPD addresses the matter,” states a town of Hillsborough document. “Problems encountered were result of poorly written policies and failure to document compliance with CALEA standards and HPD policies.”

A police department employee team “worked for months to address the issues,” it states. In 2008 the accreditation issues were “deemed satisfied” after a re-inspection.

The town timeline, however, states that in October 2009 police department employees brought “complaints, concerns, grievances” to Peterson, “including problems with CALEA process.”

That same month Peterson requested help from a third-party investigator and a law firm, the document states.

In November 2009 a department representative reported to the town manager that the “mock assessment went fine and that department had some items to address,” the timeline states, but then immediately adds. “Note: HPD actually failed mock so severely that assessors do not complete assessment.”

In February 2010 a department representative informed Peterson that “backdating of documents is OK with CALEA, and other agencies do it,” the timeline states. Peterson called a CALEA program manager, who said “backdating is not acceptable.”

On April 1, 2010, Peterson called CALEA’s deputy director Craig Hartley to report findings of backdating, the timeline states.

“Hartley states this is serious concern” and “indicates likely need for CALEA investigation” and the department’s accreditation could be affected, it states.

On Thursday, Hartley, who is now executive director of CALEA, said the agency's contract with clients only lets him release information to that organization.

April 2, 2010, was Birkhead’s last day as chief. Peterson said the resignation was unexpected, and that Birkhead gave notice two weeks before his last day.

Eric Peterson
Eric Peterson

Withdrawing from process

On April 30, 2010, CALEA’s deputy chief informed Hillsborough’s acting police chief that it would not be granted a second extension of an on-site inspection, which was scheduled for August.

“Hartley also states that the validity of all departmental documentation has been brought into question after the review of the backdated documents and based on the poor condition of HPD files,” the timeline document states. “Thus, there is a possibility the commission could revoke HPD’s accreditation. Hartley suggested HPD’s best option may be to voluntarily surrender certification and withdraw from program.”

On June 1, 2010, the town withdrew from the CALEA accreditation process.

“While it’s unpleasant to do so, now that a major failure has occurred, there is an obligation to publicly report the circumstances regarding the decision,” states a June 10, 2010, memo from Peterson to the mayor and the town board.

A summary of the investigation states that daily “operation procedures” policy violations were found.

“Failures to investigate and document reported policy violations, complaints, personnel matters and other allegations,” the summary states.

The investigation found that most of the more than 400 CALEA files “are not in compliance with CALEA standards,” the summary stated. “One experienced former CALEA assessor reviewed the files after the failed mock assessment in October 2009 and stated the files were in the worst shape” of any agency he has seen in that stage of the accreditation process, the summary stated.

The investigation also found a small number of employees using work internet and email improperly and conducting personal business on town time.

''Not backdating documents'

The Hillsborough Police Department had about 30 employees at that time, including an accreditation manager and an assistant accreditation manager, Birkhead said.

Birkhead denies any backdating, and says he helped rewrite some policies to correct issues he identified when he was chief.

If documentation was missing they produced a memorandum that outlined the action taken on a previous date and then included the date the memorandum was created and put in the file.

“That is not backdating documents,” he said. “And that is not falsifying documents.”

Birkhead said he is trying “to be as transparent as possible and be clear.”

As sheriff, he wants to focus on Durham County's current problems.

“And addressing the fact that we have had six unexplained deaths [in the Durham County jail] since 2013. Those are real issues to me. That we have deputies who are behaving inappropriately with middle-schoolers and high-schoolers,” Birkhead said. “That’s important to me. And how we are going to solve, to me, these dreadful conditions in the jail. To let people know that we are not going to full blown video visitation because I think it is wrong.”

“I am really hoping the residents and citizens of Durham elect me their sheriff so we can tackle the issues that are affecting our community," he said. "Lives are being destroyed right here in Durham.”

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews

The statement outlines some of the challenges Andrews has faced as sheriff.

Since 2013, there have been six deaths at the jail, including a 17-year-old who killed herself. In February, a former deputy who worked as a school resource officer pleaded guilty to charges related to his relationship with a student at the middle school and high school he was working at.

Inmate advocates have said they are worried about Andrews’ implementing video visitation at the jail. The advocates have said it is a step toward ending in-person jail visits. Andrews has said in-person visits will continue, and the video visitation increases visitation opportunities.

'Decriminalizing street-level' drug deals

Birkhead ran for Orange County sheriff, but lost. He and another person unsuccessfully ran against Andrews for Durham County sheriff in 2014.

Birkhead, a driver 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.

Andrews, who is seeking his second elected term, also criticized a statement made by Birkhead Saturday night at a Durham for All forum.

As sheriff he would set priorities, Birkhead said. “Decriminalizing poverty is a priority. Decriminalizing street-level drug dealing is a priority,” he said at the forum. “We want go after quality of life issues.”

Birkhead said in a recent interview that he misspoke.

“I am referring to misdemeanor possession of marijuana [that] will not be priority,” he said. “That you can quote me on. I cannot decriminalize anything.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges