His desk is only three feet wide, Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said, but it might as well be 3,000 miles.
“The difference between sitting over there and sitting over here is immense,” he said. “The responsibility, the feeling of helplessness from time to time, the pride, the history of the office of the sheriff, learning so much about how awesome the power of the sheriff can be and how critical it is to protect that and the integrity of it.”
Blackwood joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1980, two years before former Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass took office, and retired as major of operations in 2012. But he didn’t fully understand the job until he replaced Pendergrass in 2014.
“I’m just so proud that I’ve got the opportunity to whisper in those guys’ helmets every day,” he said. “Whisper in their ear something to make them feel a little special about what they do, because they need to know how important it is.”
He’s also proud of their growing partnerships with law enforcement and community groups, he said, and the efforts to gain the support of all Orange County citizens.
Blackwood and Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes recently sat down for a conversation with the Chapel Hill News:
Q: What does the Sheriff’s Office look like in five years?
Blackwood: Our Sheriff’s Office vision for the future is more of a branding of our identity – who we are, what we are and what we’re about. … This is the time for us to refine what we do, it is also … time for us to be more fiscally smart with our money, with the county’s money, to make certain that our operations are streamlined and efficient.
We are going to a new (mobile field reporting) system. It will also enable us to reassign some of our administrative employees here to other tasks. We probably will see in the near future taking the services to the community in a way that’s not been done before.
(Blackwood likes to compare law enforcement to football and counts UNC coaches among his role models. It’s important to tell your employees how much you appreciate what they do, he said, and to be strategic about your resources.)
Blackwood: It doesn’t matter whether they’re at the front desk, it doesn’t matter whether they’re in the courts, doesn’t matter whether they’re in the jail, in detention or a transport team, or whether they’re in my office here. It’s about making first downs, and the way you do that, you don’t look at the goal line that’s a hundred yards away, there’s too much unknown territory in that hundred yards. You look at 10 yards at a time, and you don’t drop the damn ball. You keep that ball in your hands, and you protect that ball, and you make that first down. If you do that every time you’ve got the ball in your hand, the points will come as a byproduct.
(The Sheriff’s Office is also exploring creative crimefighting techniques, he said, including the creation of “Area 14,” an extra patrol north of Hillsborough, and sharing information on social media. They’ve also been busy making arrests, from closing a six-month drug investigation that netted 62 people on 228 felony charges to recent charges against three men in an Efland-Cheeks murder investigation. More arrests are pending, Sykes said.)
Blackwood: One of our goals is you cut back on and address in a comprehensive manner our property crimes, our breaking and entering. We took the approach of using saturated patrols, going out and proactively making arrests on warrants we already had.
(They also had deputies who volunteered to come in on their days off and do targeted break-ins enforcement, Sykes said.)
Blackwood: Then we pushed that on social media. We told people what we were going to do. That did two things. It told the citizens that we serve that we’re on top of it, that we recognize it’s an issue and we’re trying to address it. Secondly, we don’t know how many other B&Es that we prevented because of people in the county talking about us being out there, changing up what we were doing.
Q: What have been the challenges?
Blackwood: It was important (after the election) that we tell the public what we’re doing, no smoke and mirrors. Let them see it, let them know this is what we’re doing, so that there’s no feeling of, well, I don’t see them ever do anything, I don’t know what they’re up to.
The challenges are to break from the distrust that’s gone on, and you hear about it every day in the paper about law enforcement. We’re in a unique place in North Carolina and Orange County, because we’ve got good training, we’ve got forward thinking-people who care, and that makes it kind of an easy obstacle to overcome. But it is a challenge to overcome the naysayer who believes that all police are corrupt and they’re always lying.
(The Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition raised the issue of racial profiling in Blackwood’s first six months. He has declined to comment on the coalition’s suggestions, including reviews of stop, search and arrest data and body cameras for deputies. Supervisors evaluate the numbers every quarter, Sykes said, identifying any disparities to address. There’s always room to improve, Blackwood said, but racial profiling is not an issue for Orange County.)
Blackwood: Facts matter. If somebody’s civil rights are violated, it usually ends up (in court), and we haven’t had that. So I don’t know if there’s any violation of any civil rights.
(Blackwood doesn’t favor body cameras but said they’re looking at options and how other agencies fare. Privacy rights and the cost, especially for storage, are also concerns, he said.)
Blackwood: The other issue you’ve got to remember is this: You’ve got an officer, who walks into a dark room with a camera on, and that officer sees an individual draw an object from his pocket and he takes deadly force action because he views that to be a gun. That officer acted in an instance that was tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving, and he does not have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to determine what happened. … When I show that video to a jury, and it’s crystal clear because the camera enhances the view, you cannot unring that bell.
Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes has become Sheriff Blackwood’s right-hand man, appearing with him at events, talking with the media and spearheading changes in training and equipment.
The top priorities, Sykes said, were upgrading the protective vests to meet modern standards and replacing older firearms in need of major repairs. Everything was done within the existing budget, he said.
“We evaluated what we had on hand, we got quotes from several distributors around, and we settled on a vest that we believe is the top of the line,” Sykes said. “With the buying power of the number of vests we had to purchase, we were able to get them at a reduced rate.”
Training has been another focus, Sykes said, including crisis intervention, Nalaxone for narcotics overdoses and Verbal Judo, to improve interactions with the public. The first 100 days was a whirlwind of activity, he said, exceeding the previous three years’ worth of training.
They made it possible, Sykes said, by shifting personnel around to give each deputy time off.