Endorsement: Harrison merits another term as Wake sheriff

Sheriff Donnie Harrison
Sheriff Donnie Harrison cseward@newsobserver.com

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison describes himself as “old school,” and his resume supports it. He is steeped in the traditions and experiences of law enforcement. He has served as Wake County’s sheriff since 2002. Prior to that, he served 26 years with the North Carolina Highway Patrol. Such deep experience is essential to the job. A sheriff must understand the challenges his deputies face, the terrain – social, cultural and geographical – they cover and their obligations not only to protect but to serve the public.

In all these aspects, Harrison, 68, has more than fulfilled what’s needed. We support his re-election.

Harrison has overseen the opening of a new county jail and the security of a new county courthouse. He has improved jail processes to more safely house a rising number of inmates with mental illness, and he established a special response team to handle major emergencies. He has also served the community through summer camps for youth and a program to check on elderly people living alone.

To say Harrison is an experienced and effective leader is not to say his tenure has been without lapses. There have been problems with the Wake County jail. A guard was charged in 2013 after twice slamming an inmate to the concrete floor with a force that led to the inmate’s death. There have been other cases of mistreatment of inmates and cases of favoritism. Six detention officers lost their jobs as the result of an investigation into inappropriate relationships with inmates, including a murder suspect.

“The detention center staff has policies and procedures to go by. When they don’t, we take action,” Harrison says.

Though the sheriff took action in the jail cases, he hasn’t taken steps to change a culture that could allow such acts of violence and breeches of responsibility to occur.

Harrison has done a good job of coping with the expanding demands on the sheriff’s department as Wake County’s population has grown significantly during his years in office. The county grew from 627,000 residents in 2000 to one million in 2014, but the crime rate has declined here as it has statewide. A self-described conservative Republican, Harrison has managed to work within the limits of tight budgets under the current Republican-controlled board of county commissioners. But he is now rightly pushing for a raise in pay for his department’s deputies and support personnel. Low pay not only hurts morale, it also increases turnover and inhibits recruitment of high-quality officers.

Harrison’s Democratic opponent, Willie Rowe, is also a law-enforcement veteran who would bring a wealth of experience to the job. Rowe, 54, retired in 2013 as a major overseeing the Wake County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Operations Division. While Harrison and Rowe both have strong backgrounds, Rowe brings an extra quality of looking ahead to prevent crime. He says, “I’m proactive where the sheriff is reactive.”

Rowe, a deacon in Raleigh’s First Baptist Church, thinks law enforcement should be involved throughout the community, especially with its youth, so officers can defuse tensions and make the public “a partner in public safety.”

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

Rowe’s approach to law enforcement as more than just law enforcement has appeal, especially in an era when rigid policing disconnected from the community can create the tension that exploded in Ferguson, Missouri. But Rowe’s campaign performance has undercut his message by being almost invisible to the public. If he is going to engage the community as sheriff, he will need to show more capacity for engaging the public as a candidate.

Wake County is fortunate to have two quality choices for sheriff. Harrison has earned a fourth term. But Rowe may be ready to put his ideas into place when the office is again up for election in 2018.