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Durham County Sheriff candidates discuss law enforcement experience, policy goals

This year's NC Comicon: Bull City takes place Nov. 10-12 at the Durham Convention Center downtown.
This year's NC Comicon: Bull City takes place Nov. 10-12 at the Durham Convention Center downtown.

Two candidates will be on the ballot for Durham County Sheriff in the upcoming midterm election: Clarence Birkhead and Maria Jocys. 

Birkhead is the nominee for the Democratic party, and Jocys is running as unaffiliated. 

Birkhead, the incumbent, made history with his 2018 win as the first Black sheriff elected in Durham County. Birkhead has worked in law enforcement for 38 years, including 17 years with the Duke University Police Department. He served for 10 years as the chief of DUPD.

Jocys started her law enforcement career with eight years in the Greenville Police Department, before going on to work for the FBI for 24 years.  

In 2007, Jocys became the first woman in charge of an FBI post in North Carolina. Jocys, who is now retired, led a Durham-based FBI gang task force, working closely with Durham Police Department’s gang, homicide and intelligence units.

She said she wants to use the experience to create early-intervention programs to prevent gang violence. 

“I didn't have a voice as an FBI agent,” Jocys said. “[As an elected official] I can make differences in terms of influencing elected officials, the system and services … to be able to try and help those that are suffering here.”

In an email to The Chronicle, Birkhead mentioned tackling violent crime as a high priority in office and highlighted his work to establish the “Strike Team” and the Sheriff’s Targeted Enforcement Program. 

The “Strike Team” works with Alamance, Guilford and Orange County sheriffs to identify offenders who commit violent crimes across county lines. The Sheriff's Targeted Enforcement Program focuses on finding individuals suspected of drug possession, gun violence or gang activity. 

Jocys believes a key piece to addressing gun violence in Durham is reaching the county’s youth. She said that when she started working in Durham with the FBI in 2016, there were no juveniles that were engaging in repetitive violent crimes. Now, she is seeing gunmen as young as 15 years old being charged with violent armed home invasions and carjackings. 

“It doesn't have to be this way,” Jocys said. “You have to take action … And it starts with addressing those that are responsible for a lot of the violence and the gang leaders who are influencing these younger people to come into the gangs.”

Jocys and Birkhead both said they want to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the Durham community. 

Birkhead wrote that his experience as a person of color has allowed him to engage and empathize with citizens. He attributes both his personal and professional histories in the sector of diversity, equity and inclusion to why he was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper to the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice and Governor’s Crime Commission

He also established the Community Advisory Board to receive community input in an attempt to increase trust in law enforcement.

“It is important to me that the Sheriff’s Office treats everyone — including the less fortunate — with fairness, dignity, and respect,” Birkhead wrote. “Under my watch, DCSO has instituted ‘fair and impartial policing’ and racial equity training … Positive changes have taken place, yet there’s more to do.”

Jocys hopes to implement more training in racial profiling for officers. According to Jocys, an important factor in the training is humanizing both members of the community and cops to each other through interpersonal conversations and outreach. 

“If we go to the homes, we sit in the living rooms and we start to show these communities that are suffering that we do care, that it's not just a bunch of words,” Jocys said. “To share with them this concerted effort, we can make a difference. And I'm committed to that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Jocys currently leads an FBI task force. It has been corrected to reflect that she no longer leads it and is retired. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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