Jul 28, 2022 - News

Picking Napoleon's successor in Wayne County sheriff race

Illustration of a political lawn sign shaped like a police car
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Wayne County voters are electing a new sheriff next week to finish the term of Benny Napoleon, who died in December 2020 from COVID-19 complications.

Why it matters: The office is responsible for operating the county jail system, which has been plagued by poor conditions, overcrowding and low staffing levels — all exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • Napoleon's death left an unexpected vacancy. As sheriff for more than a decade, he built a reputation as a beloved community figure and keen politician.

State of play: With no Republican in the field, this is a winner-take-all primary for an unusually short cycle. Napoleon's term doesn't officially end until December 2024, so the victor won't earn the normal four years of county sheriff.

  • Raphael Washington was appointed interim sheriff in January 2021 and is running to keep the job.
  • Two other sheriff's office retirees, Walter Epps and Joan Merriewether, are also running.

What we're watching: Washington has the advantage, but the race appears up for grabs, Deadline Detroit reports.

  • All three candidates lack strong name recognition and none have been elected before.

The intrigue: Proper jail management is a key issue. The county is building a new $533 million criminal justice complex north of downtown.

  • Last week, the family of a deputy strangled to death by an inmate sued the sheriff's office, claiming mismanagement of the jails.

What they're saying: Merriewether, 62, worked in the Division One county jail before retiring last year. Jail staff is burned out and 16-hour shifts are common, she tells Axios.

  • Washington, 61, was the deputy chief of jail and courts before his interim appointment. He tells Axios jail conditions "have never been great" but he's working with county leadership to implement programs that help inmates.
  • Epps, 53, tells Axios he's recruiting from local veterans groups to ease deputies' long hours. The goal is to have 150 new deputies qualified to start when he takes office.

What's next: This is our fourth of several election guides ahead of the Aug. 2 primary.

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