Program Report: Sheriff Clarence Birkhead

Recently elected Sheriff Clarence Birkhead spoke on Monday about his vision for his department’s role in creating “One Community, One Durham.”  He is Durham’s first African American sheriff and only the thirteenth sheriff in Durham’s nearly 150 year history. 

He was introduced by club member Ernie Mills, Jr of the Durham Rescue Mission that itself works closely with the sheriff’s office. Ernie is also a part-time Deputy Sheriff.

Birkhead assumed the Durham County position with a wealth of experience.  Launching his career in law enforcement in Randolph County, he became Duke University’s police chief in 1998, a position he held for seven years.  Subsequently, he served as police chief in Hillsborough. 

In his campaign literature, Sheriff Birkhead stated that his number one goal is “A Durham County where all people are safe and live free from harm or fear.”  To that end, he has set in motion his plan for his “First Hundred Days.”  These are the steps that can be implemented locally. 

Birkhead’s philosophy of law enforcement traces back to Sir Robert Peel, a prominent British politician who, as Home Secretary in the 1820s, created the modern police force (whose officers were called “peelers” or “bobbies.”) Of Peel’s nine principles of policing, Birkhead recalled two that he regards as absolutely essential to public support and respect.  One, “the ability of police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval.”  Two, “the police are the public and the public are the police.”  The observance of these principles ensures that “everyone, including detainees, is treated with respect.”

Some issues can be dealt with locally.  Leadership from the top molds institutional culture.   Already, steps are being initiated to enhance the safety of detainees and inmates.  A commitment to work closely with the Durham Police Department is another.  To reassure the immigrant community, he has ended the cooperative agreement with ICE, a stand he first took in Hillsborough in 2006.  To those who complain that he is not “upholding the law,” he points out that in the 4th US Judicial Circuit, ICE can “request”—not require—a local jurisdiction to hold a detainee in custody.  Durham lags in compensation, an important component in attracting qualified people “who want a profession not just a job.”

Obviously, some issues confronting law enforcement are larger, societal issues.  Not surprisingly, sixty percent of detainees and inmates suffer from addiction or mental health issues.  A successful criminal justice system will incorporate treatment as well as punishment.  Locally, a mental health pod for males is operating.  A similar facility for females is on the drawing board and should be operating in 2020.

Although, some inmates have earned GED certificates prior to release we “spend too much money on incarceration and not enough on education or development of skills.”  He pointed to the bail system as another problem in search of reform.  Too many detainees, held for even relatively minor offences, can’t make bail and remain incarcerated awaiting disposition of their case.  All too often this means loss of employment, residence, even custody of a child.

Club members seated at my table expressed satisfaction at how clearly Sheriff Birkhead communicated his philosophy and goals.

Submitted by Allen Cronenberg

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