Garner Cleveland Record

Wake sheriff’s candidate Willie Rowe promises ‘new presence, new direction’

Wake County Sheriff candidate Retired Sheriff's department Major Willie Rowe meets with News & Observer writers in Raleigh, N.C. on Tuesday, October 14, 2014.
Wake County Sheriff candidate Retired Sheriff's department Major Willie Rowe meets with News & Observer writers in Raleigh, N.C. on Tuesday, October 14, 2014.

Willie Rowe served as a commander under Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison for more than a decade and ended his career as a major.

But Rowe, a 54-year-old native of Southeast Raleigh, said he was not a part of Harrison’s inner circle and says he retired last year in hopes of replacing him. His campaign motto: “New Presence; New Direction.”

“I am a 28-year veteran of the sheriff’s office,” Rowe said during a meeting with the editorial board of The News & Observer. “In my 28 years, I have seen first-hand the impact crime has on families, communities and the future. I want to partner together with the community to improve public safety, close the revolving door to jail and shut down the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Rowe’s early press releases indicated a concern with local law enforcement’s “harsh handling of communities struggling with poverty.” He has decried the rise in domestic violence in Wake County, described texting as “the new drunk driving” and called the zero tolerance policy in many of the nation’s public schools as “a channel to failure.”

“Our children and communities are not opponents, and we can’t keep trying to beat them by knocking them down hard,” said Rowe, a former semi-pro basketball player in Europe who often uses sports metaphors to drive home a point. “Let’s look at it from the offensive side of the ball. Protect our kids like we do the quarterback and get the ball down field. That’s new school football.”

Rowe, a Democrat, noted there have been questions regarding the effectiveness of school resource officers, after studies show expulsions and long-term suspensions increase with their presence. Still, he thinks a uniformed presence “with the right training” can be a positive influence in the hallways of Wake County’s public schools.

Rowe criticized Harrison’s law enforcement philosophy as “reactive” and said he intends to focus on community policing and partnering with residents to prevent crime. Rowe said the main difference between his approach and the incumbent’s is “vision.”

“You can’t arrest your way out of crime. You can’t just put more cars on the streets,” Rowe said. “The deputies have to get out of the cars and interact with the community.”

Even though the overall crime rate in Wake County has declined 42 percent since Harrison was elected in 2002, Rowe says he doesn’t think the county is as safe as it was when Harrison unseated John Baker that year..

“Drug addictions have increased. Identity theft has increased. Gang activity increased, break-ins and domestic violence have increased,” Rowe said. “Population has increased, and the economy has something to do with it, but that’s why it’s so important to stay on the front end of it and work with other community groups to maximize our resources.”

Rowe was hired by Baker in 1985 after leaving the U.S. Army, where he spent seven years as a military policeman. He wants to revive several of Baker’s programs at the detention center, including a chaplain’s program, an increase in the number of mental health professionals and training that will enable staff to recognize the signs of mental illness.

“We have to address mental health,” he said. “You have to train officers to identify the issues that point to instability. Mental health professionals and law enforcement have to come together to put a little more teeth in the bite.”

He also intends to provide schooling for inmates while they are behind bars. The John H. Baker Charter School opened in 1997 and was the only charter school based in a county jail before it closed in 2006 after the State Board of Education revoked its charter.

“I want to bring education back to the jail,” Rowe said.

Rowe said in-house programs at the detention center play an important role in closing the center’s revolving door.

“You see the same people constantly getting arrested, making bail, getting out of jail, returning to the streets and committing more crime,” he said.

How to develop trust

Rowe said the lack of community policing and a sheriff who is “visible” rather than one who is “active” leads to public distrust of law enforcement.

“I believe there is tension in every community dealing with law enforcement when [residents] think you’re restricting their freedom,” he said. “I think we can do a better job of establishing a presence in communities as a partner, not there to intimidate or harass.”

Rowe pointed to the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by a white police officer as an example of a law enforcement agency that had “no relationship with the community.” He said that police there did “precisely the opposite of what law enforcement should do.”

Rowe said the officer who fired the fatal gunshot should have been removed from the scene and that the police chief should have immediately gone to the slain teen’s family and apologized for their loss, regardless of the outcome of the ensuing investigation.

“The head of the agency should have identified with them and kept them abreast of every step of the investigation,” Rowe said. “They should have been reassured that the police would speak with them first before speaking to the media. The family should have been made to feel like they were part of the process. That’s how you develop mutual trust. That’s how trust is preserved.”

Rowe said there were decisions made by Harrison and senior staff that he did not agree with, such as a decrease in the number of deputies on duty after 3 a.m. The justification was that the number of calls decreased after 3 a.m.

“The call volume was less, but that did not necessarily reflect the crime that was occurring,” he said.

Rowe said the sheriff’s 287g program – where deputies have been trained by federal immigration authorities to identify people who may be in this country illegally – also needs to be addressed.

“It’s a reactionary program that kicks in after the arrest has been made,” he said. “The 287g program allows the sheriff to hold someone for an extended period of time until the federal government decides what to do with them.”