Donnie Harrison has a lot going for him. He was the first certified law enforcement officer to be elected sheriff in Wake County and has served four mostly successful four-year terms. We endorse him for a fifth term — but with some caveats.
Harrison served 26 years on the state Highway Patrol and brings a trooper’s sensibility to the sheriff’s job. He’s proud he’s reduced response times in the territory outside of Wake’s cities and towns. At 72, he still works shifts on the road, responds to calls and sometimes joins his investigators.
Harrison, a Republican, is pragmatic. He’s in favor of gun violence restraining orders, in which law enforcement can present evidence to a judge and ask the judge to temporarily remove a gun from a troubled person. He’s in favor of body cameras for his deputies.
He says the bail system is putting too many people in jail to await trial who don’t need to be; he’s open to an evidenced-based system, such as the one in Mecklenburg County that has reduced the jail population by 10 percent with no apparent increased risk to the community. He’s opposed to arming teachers in schools. It’s a tribute to his professionalism that Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, named Harrison co-chairman of a group studying school safety.
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Our reservations about Harrison stem in part from his handling of the Kyron Hinton case, in which a Raleigh man was beaten by law enforcement officers in Wake County in April. A sheriff’s deputy was charged with assault after video showed him unleashing his K-9 dog on Hinton, who did not appear to be resisting officers. The deputy was placed on administrative duty. (Two Highway Patrol troopers were also charged with assault and were fired.) Harrison should have taken firmer action and explained to the public what his department would do to prevent another incident with his K-9 unit.
We’d also like for Harrison to review his department’s participation in the 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to work with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain people living in the country illegally. ICE can begin the deportation process. Harrison said the program helps him identify suspects who give aliases. Only five other sheriffs in North Carolina participate in this program. We question whether this is an effective use of the department’s manpower.
We’d rather Harrison focus his management energy on ensuring that the jail, which is his responsibility, is safe and well run. A Wake jail inmate hanged himself in early 2017 and the state found that the inmate was not properly supervised, which Harrison disputed. “The jail is a headache,” Harrison told The News & Observer recently. Indeed, but it will take Harrison’s unrelenting focus to make sure supervision is up to standards.
Harrison’s opponent, Democrat Gerald Baker (no relation to the late former sheriff with the same last name), criticizes Harrison’s handling of the Hinton case and says he would not participate in the 287(g) program.
Baker, 56, worked 28 years in the Wake sheriff’s office and estimates he’s supervised three-fourths of it at one time or another. He has some good ideas; he’d create a citizens panel to review cases such as the Hinton incident and advise him on a course of action. We wish he were mounting a more ambitious and better funded campaign.
Harrison has spent more than 50 years in law enforcement. We endorse him for a fifth term, but hope he will be flexible and open-minded enough to provide more transparency and be willing to explore new ideas to make his department better.