The Opinion Shop

Sheriff election: Willie Rowe on why he’s running, on being proactive and on building a presence

Wake County sheriff candidate Willie Rowe, a retired sheriff’s department major
Wake County sheriff candidate Willie Rowe, a retired sheriff’s department major

Maj. Willie Rowe, 54, a retiree of the Wake County Sheriff’s Department, is challenging Sheriff Donnie Harrison. Rowe met with the editorial board this week. Here are my NOT verbatim notes of the meeting. Find out more about Rowe’s campaign here.

On why he’s running:

I’m a 28-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department. I’ve seen the impact crime has had on our families and our future. I want to put my experience to use to reduce crime and improve public safety, to provide equal and fair justice and to put down the school to prison pipeline. It’s time for deputies to get out of their cars and be a part of the community, to get involved in making Wake county the safest place to work, play and live. I have a vision and a plan of action to achieve this.

On the main difference between him and Harrison:

It comes down to vision. My vision is shaped by hands on experience being able to assess and understand the impact crime is having on families, communities and the future. We can’t arrest our way out. I’m proactive where the current sheriff is reactive. That’d be the biggest difference you’d see. I’d spearhead a department that with early intervention and community interaction programs. It’s about a committed presence, not about putting more cars out, a committed presence of deputies interacting with you.

On addressing the revolving door at jail:

You have people constantly being arrested, going into jail, make bond, do time, return to the streets, commit more crime. We need to find ways to work with community organizations. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel with the jail. Bring in the chaplain program, again, where we have chaplain counseling. Bring education programs back where they’re actually contributing to society instead of damaging society.

On the conduct at the jail with a guard recently convicted of killing an inmate and others fired for fraternizing:

Everything starts with proper recruiting, hiring, training, developing, continuously training, having checks and balances. Situations where you talk about violence in the jail, you have to look at infrastructure. Does it provide an opportunity for inmates to assault inmates or to assault officers? You have to address the ratio of officers to inmates. This is where training comes in place and proper staffing.

On whether crime has gotten worse in Wake County over Harrison’s 12-year tenure:

I believe so. Statistics always say reported crime. When you interact with people, you find out what is really going on. A lot of crime goes unreported. People lack confidence in law enforcement or are intimidated by the elements where they reside. When I worked undercover in narcotics, I was able to go in, make buys, make arrests, but also in that process I saw people who wanted out. One person told me, I called the police and it takes them extended time to get there, and I’m forced to comply with what the drug dealer says because he’s there 24/7. He’s threatening me and my family. That’s why we have to get into the communities and really listen to the people there to show we understand and do have a plan to remove criminal elements.

On whether marijuana arrests clog up the jail and whether it should be legalized:

It’s not as simple as it sounds. We can’t even regulate alcohol and keep it from being a threat and a danger. What happens when they use marijuana? It does do damage to you, and the criminal element knows how to take advantage of existing laws. They take marijuana and lace it with other drugs. That will be the challenge. You think this person is just smoking marijuana, but they have it laced with LSD, making it more dangerous for all of us.

On how those in the African-American community view Harrison:

I believe there’s tension in every community when dealing with law enforcement, when they believe you’re going to restrict their freedom. That’s why you have to tear down those barriers and build understanding, mutual trust, of why law enforcement has to establish a presence, I think we can do a better job of establishing a presence, to show we’re there to protect, not there to harass.

On his thoughts about the Ferguson shooting:

Ferguson was a perfect example of a reactive-only approach to crime. It shows when a department isn’t proactive in the sense of early intervention and doesn’t have a relationship with the community, these things spin out of control. What you have to do with the immediate response to it, first of all, get medical there, secure that scene, remove that officer from that scene. This is going to impact him and his family. As an agency head, you have to go to the family of the victim and stress to them we’re sorry for your loss, i’ll make sure a thorough investigation will be done. This is how you maintain that mutual trust, mutual confidence, and make sure justice is served.

On why, if there isn’t anything bad at the department, he’s running:

To me, it boils down to the fact that over half the department is supporting me. Deputies started asking me to run for sheriff because they were dissatisfied with the way the department was going, with career development, fairness in that aspect, not moving in the right direction. The department had gravitated into being a reactive department instead of a proactive department in communities in a lot of ways. Look at Wake County. We have one crime prevention officer, they started the two-week camps. True crime prevention is practiced 52 weeks out of the year.

On whether he supports keeping school resource officers within the department:

Most definitely. Schools are part of the community. Our oath is to serve and protect the entire community. I respect the school system to make that decision, but I want to impress upon them I want our students safe, I want our staff safe. I want students in an environment where they can achieve their goals, because when what’s denied, that’s when they end up in the Wake County jail.

On one area he disagrees with Harrison:

One of the things was to decrease staff after 3 a.m. on patrol. I think that wasn’t the best decision. I think the sheriff saw that as call volume was low after 3 a.m., so we needed less officers. Experience shows me that that doesn’t reflect when crimes were occurring. 3 to 6 a.m. is a window a lot of crimes are occurring.

On whether he thinks staffing is adequate:

It’s not about cars riding through the neighborhood. It’s about deputies being out of the cars and interacting with people. That’s how you build mutual trust and confidence. Take the school resource officers and the fact that they’re walking through the hallways, interacting with students, building camaraderie, where students feel comfortable coming forward if they see something suspicious. If that deputy were just out in the parking lot, that would never happen.

What I want to do is tear down the walls of division, that us against them mentality. I want officers to see the youths they deal with and have the youths be able to see themselves as officers.

He told a story of how when he was working undercover, there was a miscommunication between the sheriff’s office and the Raleigh Police Department. When he was leaving the area, the Raleigh police stopped him and approached with guns drawn. ... One said put your hands up, one said put your hands on the steering wheel, another said get out of the car. If I’d done any of those things, I’d have gotten shot.

On whether his campaign has been too lukewarm:

I guess the voters will have to decide that. My approach is to address issues and present myself directly to the people, base my ideas on my experience as an officer, talking to people in the community, what would make them safer, more engaged and involved and improve their relationship with law enforcement. Those are things I’m passionate about. Everything hinges on public safety. When you’re safe, you live life to the fullest. I want to see Wake County as the safest place to live, work and play.

On how much American policy and legislation is fueled by a fear of black men (asked by a black man):

It exists. Everything boils down to the fact of interaction. This is how you defeat these things.

He then told the story of how he was in Germany for four weeks of training and roomed with three white soldiers. They all had a common goal: to pass the course. They couldn’t return to their duty station as failures. So they studied hard during the day, then he would play basketball, and they would watch and cheer him on. Then they would go to the room, and the other soldiers would drink beer, and Rowe would drink Pepsi and eat pecans. They had one tape to listen to: the greatest hits of Conway Twitty. “On the train going back to Italy, I was humming Conway Twitty songs.”

We got to know each other. We had a common goal. We learned to support each other. I want to be the sheriff who brings our community together. As a deacon at church, I’ve served on committees to end hunger, on committees that help the poor. I want to bring some kind of committees together to end crime. And we can do it. It impacts us all.

Training is so important to understand actions. I always approached situations when I was a uniformed deputy, I always remember three things when you approach people: distance, angle and a solid object. If you can have one or two of those three things when you approach a person, it gives time during an interaction to determine whether someone is truly a threat. People communicate differently, and through training we can prevent the use of force that takes place.

On the difference between racial profiling and criminal profiling:

When you talk about criminal profiling, you’re looking at characteristics, actions people do that lead to the potential of committing crime. It has nothing to do with race, sex. If you’re doing some drug interdiction at the airport, the bus station, there are certain things everyday people do. They get off, looking for a family member, pick up luggage. That person involved in criminal activity, they see the badge around my neck, they’re actively watching me, they make a beeline for the restroom, they avoid the luggage.

On what he would do about the mental health aspect of policing:

We have to address that. That’s very disturbing. What happens is you train officers to identify certain issues that may point to instability there. We have to the medical profession, law enforcement, the judicial system all have to come together. We really have to put what I call a little more teeth in the bite. When we have one of the horrific crimes, whether it’s domestic-violence related of some kind of gun violence, people start coming out of the woodwork and say, I knew he had problems. Our current system doesn’t allow you to house people long enough to get an evaluation to determine what he needs so it can be addressed, safety for them and safety for everyone else. We need to put more teeth in it. If a family member, or a concerned citizen, when they see something, they need to be able to come forth and say something. We need to go ahead and pick this person up, take to them to a facility and get them evaluated, whether this is something previous or new, make sure they get the medication they need, treatment, support. It’s going to save lives.

If they’re committing crime because of a mental situation, it should never reach that point. Remember the situation out on the eastern part of the county, a man had taken hostages. We sat there six hours until he released them. He talked about how his medication made him feel like a zombie, said I just really want to kill myself. Do you know what it’s like not to have any friends? When nobody likes you? that’s the life I’ve lived because of my condition. This person needs help. You have to get him the right kind of therapy, medication, taught coping skills. Mental health is very important that we address it in a total package.

When I speak of more personnel, those individuals don’t have to be detention officers or deputies. I’m looking at partnership with human services, to open up my doors to bring professionals in to work together to assess a person when they arrive at the facility. We need to train deputies so when they’re out on the street and confront people they can assess that as well. We have to find a balance to be able to pay our deputies more. A lot of deputies work a lot of off-duty work to supplement and provide for your family. Focusing on quality life should be primary focus. We can increase staffing whether we redeploy some of existing staff or have a partnership with human services and maximize our resources. We have to address the need.

On the department’s role with illegal immigrants.

My whole take on this, I want Wake County safe. If you’re a citizen or documented or undocumented, if you commit crimes in Wake County it needs to be addressed in the same manner. The entire federal process needs to truly address this. If people are here and contributing to the economy, law abiding, we have to find a pathway to allow them to live and experience the American dream, as long as they’re law abiding.

Working narcotics, if we stopped the person, if you called and gave them a name and said is this person legal, and they said no, he’s not on the list. Are you saying he’s illegal? We don’t know. You can’t put a car on the street that state doesn’t know, but we have people walking around here we don’t know.

287G is a reactionary program instead of proactive. It only kicks in after the arrest has been made. It’s not going to help me on the street to identify if someone’s a threat to me. 287G allows sheriffs to hold one for an extended period of time until the federal government decides what it wants to do. That’s the best use of the jail when people need to be off the street and dealt with.

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

I think (Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler) made the right decision. I support legal and responsible gun possession. I emphasize legal and responsible. When it comes to concealed carry, people get a false sense of security that they can really protect themselves. If you don’t really train, each of you could have a gun, and no one knows it, if a person comes in there, he doesn’t know, but he has a jump on you. You end up as a victim with your gun on you. A lot of people think concealed carry is making me safe. It’s a false sense of security.