In his quest for a fifth term in office, Republican Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison touts his focus on beefing up patrols, reducing emergency response times and managing a jail that houses 1,300 inmates.
But his Democratic challenger, Gerald M. Baker, questions the sheriff’s management skills and integrity. In a recent interview with The News & Observer, Baker criticized Harrison for not firing a deputy who was charged with assault after unleashing his K-9 on an unarmed man in April.
Baker, 56, says he has an insider’s perspective on the sheriff’s office, which has nearly 400 sworn deputies — he retired from the office in May as a sergeant after 28 years.
A product of Southeast Raleigh, Baker says the sheriff’s office should hire more women and give people of color more opportunities for advancement.
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Harrison, 72, of Garner said this will likely be his last term in office if voters re-elect him Nov. 6. He has served as sheriff since 2002.
Leading up to the election, Harrison and Baker agree on some issues: Both say too many people are in jail because of unnecessarily high bonds. Both are in favor of deputies having body-worn cameras.
But the sheriff and his challenger disagree on many issues, including a controversial immigration program.
Since 2007, the Wake County Sheriff’s Office has participated in the 287(g) program, which allows state and local law enforcement agencies to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain people living in the country illegally. Then federal agents can begin the deportation process.
The sheriff’s office says 10,883 people were processed through the 287(g) program in Wake between 2013 and 2017. Of them, 1,483 were deported, according to the office.
Harrison said participating in the program is a “preventative measure.” It helps deputies identify suspects who give aliases, which happens sometimes, he said.
“But there was no way for us to tell if they were wanted,” Harrison said of those suspects. “If I let a child molester out on the street and then he goes and molests a kid, then someone is going to question, ‘Why did the sheriff let him out on the street?’”
Baker, meanwhile, says he does not support the program, adding that minor offenses can lead to deportation.
“You see families torn apart,” said Baker, who lives in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood north of downtown Raleigh. “I talk with my neighbors and look up and the dad’s gone. … For the most part, they don’t bother anybody here. These guys contribute to our economy, nationally and locally. They’re just here looking for a better life. I understand that.”
Five other North Carolina sheriff’s offices participate in the 287(g) program: Mecklenburg, Nash, Henderson, Gaston and Cabarrus.
Kyron Hinton case
Harrison would not talk about the case involving Kyron Hinton, a Raleigh man who was beaten by law enforcement officers in Wake County on April 3.
A sheriff’s deputy, Cameron Broadwell, was charged with assault after video footage showed him unleashing his K-9 on Hinton, who was standing in the middle of the street. Broadwell was placed on administrative duty after the incident.
Two N.C. State Highway Patrol troopers were also charged with assault and were fired.
Baker says he knows Broadwell personally and considers him a good law enforcement officer. But he should have been fired, Baker said.
“You’ve got to let the citizens and the public see that we’re going to maintain the integrity of that office,” Baker said. “It’s very important to me.”
Everybody, including deputies, should be held accountable “under one standard,” Baker said.
Harrison says many people who suffer from mental illness or drug addiction should be treated, not incarcerated.
“If a person has some mental health issues, I don’t need them in jail,” he said, adding that between 60 percent and 70 percent of the inmates at the Wake County jail suffer from mental-health issues or drug addiction.
“We have the biggest mental-health hospital in the state at that jail,” he said, lamenting the closure of the Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital.
Baker said he thinks inmates with mental-health and drug issues should be separated from the rest of the jail population. More counselors are needed, he said.
“They’re still human beings,” Baker said.
Harrison says the Wake County school system should consider having its own police force instead of relying on the sheriff’s office and police departments to provide school resource officers.
With an enrollment of more than 160,000 students, Harrison said, the school system is bigger than the town of Cary.
“We’re not looking to make arrests,” Harrison said of school resource officers, “we’re looking to prevent something from happening.”
Baker said he has long approved of the role of the sheriff’s office in helping to keep schools safe. If the school system wants its own police department, though, that would be fine with him.
“But I think it should be their decision, Baker said, “not something they’re forced to do.”