The Opinion Shop

Sheriff election: Donnie Harrison on the jail, mental health and school resource officers

Sheriff Donnie Harrison
Sheriff Donnie Harrison

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison is up for re-election in November and met with the editorial board this week. Here are my NOT-verbatim notes of the meeting. Find out more about his campaign here.

On the fatal beating of an inmate and other jail issues:

Can we improve? Absolutely. The jail is every sheriff’s liability. You have a village in that jail. You have all kinds of people. They know what they can get away with and what they can’t, and they’re going to test those detention officers. But I expect them to go back and protect those guys in the jail, and when they don’t, I take action.

On how much mental illness affects the jail:

Since 2006, we’ve talked about, especially with Dorothea Dix closing, my suggestion was let’s get a liaison, and we hired a person to come in, that’s his or her job, if you come into our jail and you have a history of mental illness, they follow through with it with Wake mental health. (If we’re not sure they’re ready to get out) we go to the magistrate and say this is what we’ve got and get an involuntary commitment to take that person into the mental health system. If a psychiatrist says that person is free to go into society, that takes the burden off of me.

I say we’re probably the biggest mental health hospital in the county, and we are. How can we change it? All we can do is keep complaining and do what we can to bring it into the light. To get some help, We try every day.

On positive things the public may not be aware of:

There’s so many things. We reorganized. We looked at what we had and said we can do more with what we’ve got than we’ve been doing. We put more people in neighborhoods where they belong. We didn’t have a special response team, what you’d call a SWAT team. When we had people barricaded in a house that warranted someone with specialized training, we had to go to towns who had specialized people. We came up with a SWAT team. We had complaints about speeding. We went to the Governors Highway Safety and got people to form a team with the Highway Patrol to stop speeding.

Our school resource officers, they’re an ally being able to help with students and have good rapport. They came to me and said let’s start a camp for rising eighth-graders, we see them going through things at that age. We’d like to see them come to our camp and see what’s going on. We had close to 300 people this summer.

We’re checking on the elderly. The county is 400 square miles, a lot of elderly people even within city limits don’t have anyone to check on them. We started the citizens well-check-program. I’ve run bloodhounds as a hobby since 1988. I don’t do it now. Don’t have time. We worked with autistic children and Alzheimer’s patients. I tried to get Project Lifesaver back even before I became sheriff. When I got here, that was one of the things I was trying to do. I happened to be speaking to the Pilot Club, and they contacted me after the speech and said we’d love to help out. The bracelets cost about $350. Sometimes loved ones will buy bracelets. The Pilot Club goes out and keeps batteries checked. (There are) between 30 and 40 (people using bracelets). We’ve found quite a number of people. We’ve used the dogs to track people who’ve wandered away too.

We’ve put more people in the field, SWAT team, K-9 team.

On the sheriff department’s biggest need:

To get my guys, and when I say guys you know I mean the ladies, too, salaries up. We’re the lowest paid agency in Wake County. I started off with the county manager, then the bottom fell out. Could i use more people? Yes, but to me it’s more important to get them a better salary than they have now. If you look at my budget, it has gone from here to here, but I want to make it very clear, I probably asked for 20 people less than what I really wanted. We’ve built two jails, we had to staff those jails. Every time they build a courtroom, we have to put a deputy in the courtroom. Every time they build a middle school, we have to put a deputy in the middle school.

One guy said, we haven’t heard anything, scandals, any arguing with county commissioners, and I said, that’s good. I usually go across the street with my business together because of the staff I have.

Our jail is state of the art, but it takes a lot of people to run it. I didn’t get personnel when we opened it, but I’m still working on it.

On whether the jails are too crowded:

Our jails right now ... do we have some on the floor? Yes. We set up a classification floor, 35,000 plus come through our jail each year. Once they’re dressed out, they go through classification. A group talks to these inmates and says they can go to regular population or they can go here. They pick up on health needs. Are they diabetic? We we may have empty cells where we can’t put males. We may have space in the juvenile facility but we can’t put adults there.

On whether local law enforcement has too many assault weapons:

We don’t have any that we have gotten from the federal government. We have some ammo cases, cleaning kits. You have to be prepared, you have to stay a step ahead. Just like the SWAT team, you hope you never have to use it. Sometimes I complain about too many firetrucks going to a house, but when it’s my house, I want as many firetrucks as possible. We have to be prepared. We don’t know what we have when we go to a scene. When you have well-trained people you know that’s what they do and you can rely on them, I feel a lot better knowing they’re there. It keeps out a lot of things that could explode in your face if you didn’t have them.

On the diversity of his staff:

50-50, might be 51-49 minorities. We stay right around that mark. Women? I can’t tell you. Probably say about 20 percent females. Could we use more? Absolutely. Could we use more Spanish-speaking people? Absolutely.

On the biggest challenge during his tenure:

Trying to keep up with the number of people coming in here. Technology has really jumped over the years. Anytime you’re dealing with technology, you’re dealing with privacy, the fine line with people’s rights. The bottom line is we’re trying to keep people safe. People tend to forget that. Keeping the right personnel, keeping the right people, with the pay like it is ...

(He said a major issue with attracting employees and keeping them is that his employees don’t get health insurance when they retire.)

On whether too many people end up in jail and whether there should be more intervention programs:

You have your wish list and if you had plenty of money, but you have to look at reality. You have to do everything you can to keep that person from coming to your jail. The CIT officers in mental health. That helps. Can you build a YMCA on every corner? No, but there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to people. The communication factor is really important to what you’re talking about. It doesn’t solve all the problems in the world. A lot of this starts at home How do you reach those people at home? It’s hard. I’m from the old school. Teachers and principals, their hands are tied now. At home, there’s not that discipline we got there. Now there’s no respect anywhere for anybody. There’s no respect for law enforcement. How do you change that? They know they can do things and it’s a slap on the wrist, and they’re back out there again. All we can do is talk to civic groups, get more people involved. You live in a community, we can send cars through there 10 times a day, but is it going to stop the break-ins? No. They have to be the eyes and ears. We have to have the people on our side.

It does start at home. Once a person gets old enough and gets out, parents can’t control what they do. I grew up very poor. I’ve seen the time in what we used to call the five and dime, I’d go in there and I’d want to steal something, but I knew better. And now I don’t think that’s instilled in kids. Am I saying you’ve got to scare your kids to death? No. But so many families they want to be a partner with their kids. They don’t instill that discipline there. When they get out of the house, they feel like they can do the same thing in society. We’ve got a lot of people who don’t even value their own lives. How you deal with that mentality? That’s what I don’t understand. I thought my dad was too hard on me, but I thanked him a many a day when I got old enough to look back. I could have been one of those 1,300 in my jail.

On whether guns should be allowed at the N.C. State Fair:

I’ve had guns. I’ve with my dad to put food on our table. I’ve been around guns my whole life. But the State Fair is not the place for guns. We’re trained. Any time when you’ve got that many people out there and people are having a good time and a gun falls out ... One person gets hurt, and everyone’s gonna say why did you allow guns in there? I think the legislature needs to look at that very strongly. Just my opinion.

On the situation in Fuquay-Varina when officers subdued a black foster child in his home with white parents:

I don’t know enough to talk about it. Police get blamed for a lot of things because, I don’t know, you put yourself, I put myself, you go into that situation, and you don’t know what you’ve got, you get a call, only based on what I’ve read in your paper, we get a call that there’s a possible burglar in the house, you go in and confront the person, you’ve got to have cooperation. I don’t know whether the kid cooperate or not. That will be determined.

There’s some attitudes out there that think the police are bad. We don’t have to tell you this. We don’t have to tell you that. And that goes downhill. A lady asked me last week, if you asked me out of my car, should i get out? I said, yes, ma’am, you should. You’ve got to comply. I don’t know enough about the case to say, but they didn’t know who that kid was. You’ve got to find out. If I’d walked out of that house and left that kid there, and you got home and half your stuff’s gone. ... if we didn’t have police officers, what would this world be like?

On whether there’s a gang problem in Wake County:

(He knocks on wood). We don’t see that much in the county. Do we have gang members in the county? Absolutely. One thing we did in the jail on the classification floor, we ask that question. Today we’ll have 80 to 100 people who say I am a gang member in our jail. When you hear me say it’s gang related, you can believe it’s gang related. A lot of them want police to mention their name, that gives them recruiting power. I don’t do that.

On whether most of the crime is drug-related:

Drugs? Yep. Heroin is not that much in Wake County, but we’re seeing it a little bit more. It’s marijuana. It’s pills. Pills are just like alcohol. People don’t understand how many people get hooked on prescription pills. They get hooked on drugs unintentionally. Drugs are an ongoing problem.They’re stealing to fill a habit.

On how some agencies are starting to ignore a small amount of marijuana:

I understand the philosophy of not filling up the jail because of small amount of marijuana. But if it’s against the law, it’s against the law. If you have to have a driver’s license, you have to have a driver’s license. The small amounts, we give a lot of citations for small amounts of marijuana. I don’t have a problem with it The problem I have is if they don’t come to court.

Legalize marijuana?

No, I just think it’s a gateway drug, but that’s based on Donnie. I just don’t see it. A person will get on that high, then they’re looking for another high. I can’t understand it. I’ve talked to a lot of people using drugs. Why? And that’s why there are so many overdoses. They never can get that first high.

On what happened to the list of approved bail bondsman at the jail and the placement of a billboard across from the jail advertising a bail bondsman.

Rick Lowry is my friend, yes. As much a squabble as I was taking, people stealing this, complaining, I called and asked whether I i had to have it, the answer was no, and I stopped it immediately. They can use the phone. That list is not in there and it won’t be as long as I’m sheriff. It’s just a headache trying to keep up with who’s dropping off, who’s doing this. They’ve got every access that I have to get a bondsman. If you son was in jail, you’d find a way to get a bondsman. You don’t know what a headache that was in trying to keep that list up and finding a person to keep that list up. It was a pain. You don’t know how many bondsmen there are in this county.

On his position that School Resource Officers should be privatized:

When I co-chaired that committee, I found out the inconsistencies throughout each school. We’ve got a school system that’s as large as Cary. You’ve got 10 bosses, myself, nine or 10 police chiefs with school resource officers in their schools. We’re all well-trained, but they still work for us. For the uniformity and compliance to what we need for security in our schools, if you had a chief of police over the public school system, you’d have a lot more consistency. If you have a top dog up there, you need to drill so much, some schools don’t drill as much as I think they should. It’s up to the principal of that school, but somebody needs to make sure we’re going to keep a check on all those drills. If something happens at that school, those kids need to be drilled enough to know if teacher trips and falls, they should know where to go even without the teacher. I don’t think that would happen now.

They need to have their own chief. Wake Tech used to contract with us and Raleigh. They’ve taken that on. Do I want to lose people? No, but do I want to keep people safe? Which is better? Lose 20 officers and make sure my grandson is safe at school.

I’m not really in favor of school resource officers to start with. If school principals and teachers had the authority they used to have when I came through schools, we wouldn’t need school resource officers. If you’re a student and commit a violation worthy of a citation or an arrest warrant on the mall, what’s the difference between that and school? They know what the law is. They know when they violate the law. When we went to school and there was a fight at school, the principal just took care of it. Now they call in 20 cars. School resource officers have to do their job. They can’t turn their back on crime. That’s their job. If the school is not going to discipline, something’s got to be done.