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The sheriff's Blue Devil ties: Durham County Sheriff used to be DUPD police chief

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead’s career in law enforcement has taken him many places. He has served as a deputy and police officer, worked as a security consultant and taught courses at multiple schools. 

Still, one thing stands out as a turning point in his long career: his time at Duke, where he was chief of the Duke University Police Department from 1998 to 2005.

“Coming to Duke was the best thing that ever happened to me career-wise, and personally as well,” Birkhead said. 

He has good reason to think so. Birkhead said Duke gave him opportunities for advancement that, as an African American, he might not have had in the rural North Carolina town where he grew up. It was where he met his wife. And it was the place where he developed the philosophies that guide his work to this day.

A 'fast-paced' trajectory at Duke

The road to the sheriff’s office was not always straightforward—Birkhead played football in the North Carolina Semi-Pro League for two years in his early 20s, until the league folded. His decision to go into law enforcement came at the urging of a friend who was a police officer in his hometown of Asheboro, N.C. 

Birkhead felt a “natural draw” to the career, he said. He had been a Boy Scout and active in his church, and public safety allowed him to serve his community in a deeper way. He completed Basic Law Enforcement Training and became a deputy in the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office in 1984.

Birkhead came to Durham from Randolph County in 1988, becoming an officer in what was then the Duke Public Safety Department. He was quickly promoted, eventually becoming assistant chief of operations. 

Ten years after he was hired, he became chief of Duke University Police Department. 

“I had a fast-paced rise through the ranks, but I say along the way I had the opportunity to prepare myself, and I had some great people around me and some good opportunity,” he said. 

In particular, Birkhead said that Duke was “night and day” compared to Randolph County when it came to race. Minorities were well represented in Duke’s Public Safety Department, whereas Birkhead had been the only African American deputy in Randolph County. 

“Had I stayed in Randolph, we’d be telling a different story now,” Birkhead said.

He credited Paul Dumas, the director of the Duke Public Safety Department who hired him, with being particularly committed to inclusivity.

As chief of police, Birkhead stayed busy. Through an advisory committee of campus law enforcement officers, he provided input on the Campus Police Act, which gave university police departments in North Carolina the same authority as municipal forces. He also oversaw the merger of Duke’s police force and in-house security force, which allowed the two to work more closely together.

“Bringing those two forces together to work parallel basically doubled our forces and our eyes and ears,” Birkhead said. “It made everything more seamless.”

Birkhead found personal as well as professional experience at Duke—he met his wife here when she was a journalist writing for Duke Magazine. 

However, not everything was perfect. Birkhead admitted that the relationship between police and students was strained at points. 

“You always want to do more. You want to leave a place better than it was when you arrived,” he said. 

Still, he did what he could to connect the police force with students, working with Sue Wasiolek, now dean of students and associate vice president for student affairs, to address student life issues. 

“His approach was very community oriented, as he wanted the officers and the staff to get out into the Duke community and get to know everyone, particularly students,” Wasiolek wrote of Birkhead in an email to The Chronicle.

Birkhead tried to find a balance in enforcement, he said, allowing college students to be college students while holding them accountable for unacceptable behavior. There were times when that accountability was necessary.

“My 17 years there, I saw the creativeness of Duke students,” he said. “There were days when the phrase ‘work hard, play hard’ really applied at Duke.”

Clarence Birkhead came to Duke in 1988 and rose through the ranks to police chief before leaving the school in 2005. Now, he's Durham County's sheriff. Video and editing by Bre Bradham

The road to the sheriff’s office

Birkhead left Duke in 2005 and served as Chief of Police in Hillsborough for five years. In 2010, he ran for sheriff in Orange County—and lost

He spent the next few years working as a safety and security consultant and teaching at North Carolina Central University and Durham Technical Community College, but he never gave up on the goal of being a sheriff.

“I knew it was something that I had aspired for, or that I thought would one day sort of complete my law enforcement journey,”  he said, referring to the job of sheriff as “the capstone of [his] career.”

Birkhead achieved his goal last year, defeating incumbent Mike Andrews in the election for Durham County Sheriff. IndyWeek reported in January that his priorities for his first 100 days included preventing suicides in the county jail, implementing racial-equality and crisis-intervention training and reviewing Durham’s school resource officer program. 

Shortly after taking office, Birkhead made headlines when he announced that he would stop honoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers’ requests to hold individuals after their scheduled release dates so that ICE can determine whether to take them into federal custody. Birkhead told The Chronicle that it was a simple decision. 

“An ICE detainer… is not an arrest warrant, it’s not based on probable cause, it’s merely a request from a federal agency for me to hold someone beyond their potential release date,” Birkhead said. “That constitutes a new arrest. I’m not gonna do that. It violates their rights, Fourth Amendment rights, due process rights.”

According to the ACLU, recent federal court decisions have held that ICE detainers constitute new arrests and therefore must be supported by probable cause to be constitutional.

Through it all, Birkhead looks to lessons that he learned at Duke. His philosophy for policing students shapes the way he handles enforcement, he said, and his experience navigating the “internal politics” of a university prepared him for the “external politics” of municipal law enforcement. 

“That philosophy that I developed at Duke has transcended my work here at the Sheriff’s Office,” he said.