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‘We Can Make Him Disappear’: The Power of County Sheriffs

These days, former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph calls himself an “Old School Conservative,” but not so long ago he identified as a Democrat. This is back in early 2006, when Pendergraph was like most sheriffs — an enormously powerful guy who managed to get around unnoticed. He was 35 years into his law enforcement career and 12 years […]

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael and deputies pose in front of an armored vehicle.MCSO / Facebook

These days, former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph calls himself an “Old School Conservative,” but not so long ago he identified as a Democrat. This is back in early 2006, when Pendergraph was like most sheriffs — an enormously powerful guy who managed to get around unnoticed. He was 35 years into his law enforcement career and 12 years into his tenure as sheriff of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina when he made the decision to enter his agency into an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Mecklenburg was the first law enforcement official east of Phoenix to enlist in 287(g), a DHS program which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to delegate federal immigration enforcement to local and state authorities. Essentially, 287(g) deputizes local law enforcement, giving police and correctional officers the power of ICE agents. As so-called 287(g) officers, they“have access to federal immigration databases, may interrogate and arrest noncitizens believed to have violated federal immigration laws, and may lodge ‘detainers’ against alleged non-citizens held in state or local custody.”

This may sound boring or bureaucratic, but the end result is neither — programs like 287(g) make it infinitely easier for undocumented immigrants to be deported. One need only be charged, not convicted, to get referred to ICE and possibly taken away from loved ones. Proponents of 287(g) would have you believe that the only immigrants affected by the program are dangerous criminals. But studies show that, in the past, around 80 percent of people were picked up on misdemeanors.

As a Democratic official, Pendergrass appeared an unlikely participant in the 287(g) program, which had historically been championed by anti-immigration, tough-on-crime conservatives. But Pendergraph was maniacal about his dislike of immigrants, intent on ridding America of them. “We’ve got millions of illegal immigrants that have no business being here … These people are coming to our country without documents, and they won’t even assimilate,” he said in 2006. “Every person we remove from the county is one person you and your family won’t meet on the highway,” he stated that same year. Eventually, Pendergraph dropped the pretense of safety altogether, simply setting up checkpoints in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations and arresting people for violating civil immigration law.

Pendergraph became such an evangelist for 287(g) that, in 2007, the Department of Homeland Security hired him. During his time there, he boasted about how easy it was for local police to ensure deportation of an undocumented resident. “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.”

Pendergraph hasn’t been sheriff for over a decade, but his successors have been determined to keep their partnership with ICE alive. This includes current Sheriff Irwin Carmichael, who identifies as a Democrat, and yet has refused to end 287(g), a program President Trump supports wholeheartedly.

In Charlotte, the repercussions of this program have been massive. Last year, the sheriff’s department said it had “processed nearly 29,000 foreign-born people in the Mecklenburg jail since the program began. Of those, 15,018 were either deported or “placed in removal proceedings.”

Charlotte’s 287(g) program is just one example of the enormous power sheriffs have over the lives of local residents. The scope of their dominion varies slightly by county, but is almost always wide-reaching. Like other police officers, sheriffs can arrest you, serve you a warrant, write you a traffic ticket. But, depending on the county, they also perform countless other duties, including overseeing discretionary funds, patrolling highways, investigating crimes, and evicting tenants. And, as Charlotte illustrates, it is sheriffs who often decide who gets to call America home.

Perhaps most notably, in most places, sheriffs are also responsible for managing the local jails. This is particularly important because jails have functionally replaced mental health facilities in America and have become “the largest provider of mental health services in the county,” as Alan Greenblatt stated in Governing magazine. Ultimately, the sheriff has a major impact on the lives of those involved in the criminal justice system.

The extent of a sheriff’s power can border on dangerous. In some California counties, the sheriff even moonlights as the county coroner, an example of how sheriffs’ power obliterates any hope of accountability by the public. This is particularly concerning in situations including victims of police misconduct, where “having law enforcement oversee, say, the autopsies of police abuse victims invites abuse and creates an inherent conflict of interest.”

Across most of America, the only thing that could really limit the power of the sheriff is the voter. But that’s not really how it plays out on the ground. “In theory, sheriffs should be highly accountable, since they have to answer directly to voters,” writes Greenblatt in Governing. “But in practice, while a police chief may be lucky to serve three years, it’s not unusual for a sheriff to be around for 20.” As Professor Casey LaFrance told the New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv, “Once you become the sheriff, you’re likely to remain the sheriff until you retire or die.”

This is the main difference between sheriffs and police chiefs. Ultimately, police chiefs are accountable to the body that empowered them, and are subject to shifting political whims. Sheriffs, on the other hand, have no boss outside of the ballot box. They derive their power directly from the state constitution, making it hard to limit the extent of their powers, and they can be removed only by vote or the governor.

That power and independence is concentrated in a startling homogeneous population. According to one study, 95 percent of elected sheriffs are male and 99 percent are white. Nationwide, there are just three Black female sheriffs. Given the narrow demographic, it is perhaps unsurprising, then, that sheriffs tend to be more conservative than the general population, particularly on immigration.

Carmichael fits this mold. In Mecklenberg County, there has long been a tradition of anointed sheriffs who pass the position down to their chosen successor. Pendergraph was succeeded by his chief deputy, Chipp Bailey, also a white man and a Charlotte native who had spent his entire career in law enforcement. Bailey stayed just six years before retiring. Both Bailey and Pendergraph endorsed Carmichael.

Like his predecessors, Carmichael is extremely supportive of 287(g), and relies on limp excuses and nonsensical hypotheticals to justify it. He doesn’t even deny — or seem to care — that most of the people he refers to immigration authorities have committed a low-level crime.

“We’ve got to know who they are, what about if they commit murder in another country?” he said. (Carmichael did not provide any examples of this fear being founded.)

The 287(g) program isn’t the only terrible policy Carmichael has defended. In his first term as Mecklenburg’s sheriff, his record has been essentially barbaric.

In the past, this may not have mattered. But things are shifting now. Sheriff’s races are garnering slightly more attention in a couple places, and dramatically more in a fraction of those. Mecklenburg is part of that fraction.

Carmichael is fighting to win a tough primary on Tuesday, May 8. His opponents, Garry McFadden and Antoine Ensley, are also former law enforcement officers. But on many of the most important key issues, they differ dramatically from Carmichael.

Carmichael has repeatedly defended his decision to put juveniles in solitary confinement. He’s permitted the jail to force children to live in small, windowless jail cells completely alone for 23 hours a day. These kids aren’t permitted visits, library books, or phone access. Many of them haven’t even been convicted of crimes.

In 2016, both President Obama and North Carolina’s state prison system banned solitary confinement for juveniles. But Carmichael wouldn’t budge. That year, more than 110 juveniles in Mecklenburg County’s Jail North were subject to stays in solitary.

“It’s torture,” said retired Mecklenburg County jail official Karen Simon. “It’s abuse. And it’s done at the hands of the government.” Both Ensley and McFadden seem to agree — they have stated clearlythat they are against putting juveniles in solitary.

Carmichael also stopped allowing people to visit their loved ones in jail, instead requiring them to rely on video calls for communication. He called it a safety issue and claimed it was more convenient for inmates.

But critics say that video visits do not compare to the value of in-person visitation. It’s also a significant financial burden. If an inmate wants to make more than two video calls a week, it costs $12.50 — money that goes straight into the hands of GTL, the private corporation that owns the video visitation system.

Ensley and McFadden both say that, if elected, they would allow in-person visits again.

According to the ACLU of North Carolina, Carmichael also refuses to hold law enforcement accountable for wrongdoing, and won’t support“external, independent investigations of misconduct or criminal behavior in the sheriff’s office, such as if a person is killed by law enforcement.” Once again, Ensley and McFadden have both rejected Carimichael’s position and agreed to support such external investigations.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, Charlotte NC

Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, Charlotte NC added a cover video.

A promotional video on the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page shows deputies training with high-powered weapons and armored vehicles.

If either challenger is elected tomorrow, it’ll be a major shift — not only in Charlotte, but nationwide. As people become more aware of the power of local elected officials in the criminal justice system, it is increasingly possible that the people in charge may be more aligned with local residents.

Charlotte isn’t the only place with potential. Durham is, overall, even more progressive than Charlotte. But many of the decisions made by Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews have not reflected local political standards. Like Carmichael, he has also refused to stop detaining people for the immigration authorities. The conditions of the local jailhave also been routinely criticized: during Andrews’s tenure, six people have died in the jail he oversees.

Andrews also made the controversial decision last year to prosecute the protesters who toppled a local confederate statue. (No one was injured during the statue’s removal.) Despite the fact that Andrews’s department knew that the protest was planned, they did nothing to stop the protesters. Afterwards, though, Andrews decided to bring serious charges against twelve defendants, “including felony charges for participating in and inciting a riot.” According to The Atlantic, sheriff’s deputies even searched some of their homes.

These are decisions that Andrews has had to answer for in the primary. His opponent, Clarence Birkhead, ran for the position last election and lost to Andrews. But this time, Birkhead has been endorsed by many of the same groups that endorsed Andrews last time. Birkhead has been clear that he wants to reduce incarceration and law enforcement interaction. “Decriminalizing poverty is a priority. Decriminalizing street-level drug dealing is a priority,” he stated at a candidate forum last month.

It’s not just North Carolina. In other counties across the country, regressive sheriffs are being challenged by forward-thinking candidates.

Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones is one of the sheriffs facing opposition. His jurisdiction is decidedly more liberal than he is — almost 59 percent of Sacramento County voted for Hillary Clinton, while less than 34 percent supported Trump. Jones is noticeably out of step with his constituency, and he seems to know it. He’s been smart enough to stay relatively quiet about the intensity of his personal convictions, and until now it seems to have worked — he has largely managed to escape scrutiny and is currently running for a third term.

He often plays the centrist on issues, including immigration. During his failed bid for United States Congress in 2016, he presented a decidedly tempered perspective, declaring that undocumented immigrants “by and large” are “productive members of our community.” “They deserve more than what we are giving them despite the fact that they are here illegally,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “I would advocate for a pathway to legal status for each and every one of them.”

But since Trump’s election, Jones has become increasingly vocal about his real views on immigration. In March, he flew to D.C. to visit the White House, for a roundtable discussion with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump, and local law enforcement officials. “There are spectacular failures every single day around California, and I’m sure beyond, of folks that ICE wants as part of their priority, criminals, that are going to go out and at a known recidivism rate and victimize other folks that we’re unable to capture, apprehend and keep detained for deportation,” Jones told Trump.

It’s not just immigration. During his tenure, Jones has been criticized for his department’s regular use of excessive force. The county has paid out millions of dollars because of bad behavior in his department, including $6.5 million last year to relatives of a schizophrenic man who was shot by a deputy in his home in front of his parents, and over $500,000 in a case where “an inmate in the downtown jail vomited blood for hours and died while deputies apparently stood around and did nothing.”

Jones has also been accused of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. In 2016, a former employee accused him of “making unwanted sexual advances.” The accusations were made public in the wake of a $3.5 million settlement granted to four of Jones’s female deputies “for harassment and retaliation” by their superiors.

And, if that weren’t enough, Jones has routinely ignored the concerns of the Black community, and has degraded groups that call for increased accountability for law enforcement. Last year, the local Black Lives Matter chapter wrote the sheriff a letter, expressing their concern regarding a “pattern of violence when engaging Black community members.” The letter provided detailed examples of excessive force and noted Jones’s refusal to provide additional information or explanation for those incidents. It also listed demands, including body camera footage and the disciplinary history of the officers who committed the acts.

Jones’s response was obstinate. “In my opinion, there are far more responsible voices for the African American community here in Sacramento than you; in fact, there is nothing local law enforcement can ever do that will earn your approval,” he wrote to Tanya Faison, the BLM chapter’s leader. “I suspect you will continue to try and subvert [my job] with continued mendacious versions of reality.”

In March, Sacramento city police shot and killed Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed Black man who was trying to visit his grandmother. They supposedly believed he had a weapon. It turned out to be a cell phone. Ten days later, during a protest in downtown Sacramento, one of Jones’s deputies instructed a woman to move. When she didn’t, he struck her with his car, and then drove away without confirming that she was okay.

Jones refused to apologize for the event, and did not express any sympathy for the injured woman. “There’s a high likelihood that he did not even know that he collided with that protestor,” Jones said,despite evidence to the contrary. He also implied the protests weren’t even real. “In many protests that have developed to this scope, there are professional protesters and professional instigators that infiltrate the protests for their own purposes,” he stated.

Despite his repeated failures, Jones has a confidence bordering on hubris. When he announced his intention to run for a third term, Jones seemed to think the election was a mere formality. “Listening to him expound on his succession plan for that office,” wrote the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board, “we wonder whether the lawman-turned-politician remembers that he was elected, not crowned.”

Jones, a burly man in his early 50s, has long fancied himself untouchable, an arrogance that isn’t entirely misplaced. The Sacramento Bee said the race was “shaping up to be little more than a preamble to a coronation.”

But recently, Jones has started to look much more vulnerable. In March, former Chief Deputy Milo Fitch announced that he would challenge Jones in November. “I felt an obligation to run for office because the current leadership of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department cannot deliver what our community needs,” he said.

Fitch proudly describes himself as a criminal justice reformer, and has stated that he would not collaborate with ICE if elected. He also wantsto approach public safety in a way that doesn’t simply focus on punishment, by “assisting inmates with education, job training, and life skills.” He’s spoken out against money bail, and has repeatedly emphasized the importance of eradicating bias and discrimination from the sheriff’s department.

Fitch is gaining significant support, and has garnered some critical endorsements, including from the mayor. He could present a serious problem for Jones, who, until recently, seemed to believe he’d cruise straight to re-election. That he is facing real competition is yet another sign that accountability for sheriffs may be increasing.

Traditionally tough-on-crime sheriffs have been a major contributor to mass incarceration, and policies like the ones Carmichael, Andrews, and Jones have implemented are disturbingly commonplace nationwide. Traditionally, they’ve managed to keep their jobs while pursuing policies that many of their constituents would likely find troublesome.

But now, as people begin to understand the extent of their power, things may be changing. In Charlotte, Carmichael is facing serious community opposition for his continuation of the 287(g) program, among other things. “The current sheriff has said that he believes the program is helping the community, keeping it safe, and he’s not willing to end it,” said Oliver Merino, a local organizer about Charlotte’s participation in 287(g). “We feel like the best way to get rid of the program is to get a new sheriff.”