By Cash Michaels
Five of North Carolina’s seven newly-elected Black sheriffs say, despite their collective commitment to serve all citizens in their respective counties with respect and fairness, being African-Americans, elected to be the top law enforcement authority in their areas presents a special set of challenges with which other sheriffs don’t have to deal.
That is especially true of Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance, North Carolina’s first African-American female sheriff in history, and only one of three throughout the entire country.
“Being a female sheriff has its issues in and of itself,” Sheriff Dance, who shared the NCBA Town Hall last Friday with Sheriff Cleveland Atkinson (Edgecombe County), Sheriff Danny Rogers (Guilford County); Sheriff Gerald Baker (Wake County), and Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, told the audience.
“I have to sometimes go above and beyond to prove myself…I always have and will continue to do so.”
Because law enforcement is a male dominated field, Sheriff Dance said she has to “lead with a leadership of confidence that I know what I’m doing. I have to have the “buy in” from the men in my department, and I’ll tell you, from day one, I haven’t had an issue with that.”
Dance said her staff understands that she earned her way up through the ranks over the years and that “…nothing was given to me. I earned it.”
Edgecombe County Sheriff “Cleve” Atkinson, a veteran of the NC Highway Patrol, sees his main challenge as getting his department on the same page as the community they serve. That means “getting rid of bad apples” on his force. Thus, according to Atkinson, “training is big, big, big. Teaching our officers on how to talk to the community. It’s a skill like no other.”
“Sometimes you have to make a tough call,” Sheriff Atkinson added, “…and pull a 15-year person, a 20-year person, who has skated by for a long time. So a lot of times, as sheriff, you’ve got to pull the trigger because we’re charged with improving the lives of the citizens [we serve].”
Sheriff Danny Rogers, of Guilford County, said the challenging aspect of taking over has been making sure that he pays his law enforcement personnel well in terms of the salary and benefits “that they need.” Rogers says he’s dependent on local and state governments for that.
Like his colleagues at the table, Sheriff Rogers firmly believes “that we have to instill hope” in those who are sentenced to his detention center. I meet and greet every person that comes in there. It is not my place to judge anyone, but it is my place, as the sheriff, to make sure that they are served and protected.”
As sheriff of the host county, Wake, Gerald Baker made clear that one of his major challenges has been changing the culture from the previous administration (Baker had served under former Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison for several years before retiring and then running against the longtime Republican incumbent last year, shocking political pundits by unseating his former boss).
“We all know that we had been under a certain type of leadership for 16 years/4 terms, and that style of management ran deep in that office. Each and every day we’re moving about, trying to change that culture and establish one standard of integrity and accountability in that office, serving all residents of Wake County fairly, no matter who you are,” Sheriff Baker added.
Perhaps the most controversial of the five Black sheriffs present was Garry McFadden, of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina’s largest county. Sheriff McFadden has been a veteran Charlotte homicide detective and even a reality TV star. Since taking office, Sheriff McFadden has made clear, like Sheriff Baker, that his officers will not detain illegal immigrants for I.C. E. agents (even though the Republican-led NC General Assembly is passing a law mandating that sheriffs in all 100 counties work with I.C. E.).
“My challenge is racism; my challenge is hate; my challenge is having a community that looks like me to support me,” the Mecklenburg sheriff said.
McFadden has also made it clear in Charlotte that there will be no double standard in enforcing traffic violations. Deputies will be ever present in “well to do” areas of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, as they are in the central city.
Furthermore, don’t call those detained in his detention center “inmates.” They are “residents,” McFadden says, “who are innocent until proven guilty.” He has also eliminated solitary confinement based on studies that have shown such treatment is mentally harmful.
Sheriff McFadden, who proudly says that he and North Carolina’s other Black sheriffs “love each other and talk with each other every day because the challenges we face you couldn’t imagine,” and refers to Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance as “our queen.” He is proud to be unconventional because he sees his role in law enforcement as truly being of service to all citizens and wants the citizens he serves to understand more about what good law enforcement is all about.
“When we leave here,” Sheriff McFadden assures, reiterating that every Black sheriff in North Carolina needs community support, “all of us have to fight.”
The Black sheriffs of Durham, Forsyth, Buncombe and Cumberland counties were not present at the town hall.
Seven of North Carolina’s largest counties have Black sheriffs.