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How the Durham County Sheriff — like other law enforcement — is trying to fill more than 100 open positions

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead
James Morrison
Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead

Across the country, police departments are still struggling to fill open positions.

A recent investigation by the Marshall Project found the number of people in local law enforcement jobs kept declining in the second and third year of the pandemic while the overall job market was rebounding.

In Durham County, North Carolina, the sheriff’s office has 125 open positions. About 100 of them are at the county jail.

The starting salary for a detention officer there is about $44,500 with a $6,000 sign-on bonus and incentives for advanced education or being bilingual.

WUNC's Will Michaels spoke with Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead about why those positions are difficult to fill and how he intends to fill them.

CLARENCE BIRKHEAD: "It's (the) workforce shrinking, where folks don't want to pursue a career in corrections like they did 20 years ago. Pay is certainly a deterrent, so we have to do better paying our folks. And I think we have to rebrand what corrections is all about.

"In my detention center in Durham, we do far more than just incarcerate someone who's committed a crime. We run a medication-assisted treatment program to help those with dealing with addiction problems. We have over 28 programs to treat the person that once they are released, they can be more contributing members of the community, whether it's finishing their high school diploma or getting their GED so that they will be more productive and less likely to come back in my facility."

WILL MICHAELS: "I ask this question not to sound alarmist, but genuinely, does having this many vacant positions threaten public safety in any way? How have you been doing what you need to do with so many fewer people than you need to do it?"

BIRKHEAD: "No, it's a great question. I would say there's always a threat to public safety, and it's not really predicated on the vacancy rate. The men and women of the Durham County Sheriff's Office come to work, day in and day out, and do a fantastic job of delivering service. It takes a toll on our staff. So, what we as leaders have to be mindful of is not to burn out our staff that are working mandatory shifts of overtime, that are working 14, 15, 18 days straight, particularly in the detention center. But not a single day has gone by where we compromised service delivery."

MICHAELS: "How are you taking care of those officers who are working all that overtime?"

BIRKHEAD: "One thing I instituted almost a year ago is that deputies are required to pull some shifts in the detention center. And that allows for some of the full-time detention officers to step back and take a break. It's all hands-on-deck, so not only deputies, but leadership — captains and lieutenants — also have to pull a shift in the detention center, again, just to make sure that we are adequately staffed and also provide some relief."

MICHAELS: "There are some law enforcement leaders and city leaders who point to the rift, in some cases, between the public and the police. I would venture to say that law enforcement in general has taken a hit with its trustworthiness since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. What do you think has changed since then? Do you think that that has something to do with it?"

BIRKHEAD: "Law enforcement has taken a hit. In the space that we're in right now post-George Floyd, I think we have made progress. I was appointed by Governor (Roy) Cooper to serve on the Racial Equity Task Force. We've done some great work in that space. Again, trying our best to elevate the professionalism of law enforcement hold those accountable who break the rules, for lack of a better term, (or) use excessive force. (We're) really pushing body worn cameras to create more transparency and build more public trust, but it doesn't stop here. We have to recruit qualified, service-minded individuals to be in our ranks."

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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