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Wayne Co. Sheriff Napoleon dies after contracting COVID-19

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon died Thursday night at Henry Ford Hospital about three weeks after going on a ventilator with COVID-19.

Napoleon's daughter, Tiffani Jackson, said at 10 p.m. that her father had died "just moments ago." He was 65.

"A lot of people loved and cared about him," she said. "It extends far beyond our family."

Jackson said she spoke with her father three weeks ago as he went on the ventilator. He was hospitalized on Nov. 20 for the coronavirus.

"We talked about him going on the ventilator. We made that decision together," she said. "He knew that his body needed to rest and conserve energy. That was the last conversation we had."

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon

The Sheriff's Office announced his death early Friday.

"Having conducted the heartbreaking task of lowering the flag at headquarters, it is with exteme sadness that we announce the passing of Sheriff Benny N. Napoleon," said spokeswoman Paula Bridges.

"Sheriff Napoleon was nationally recognized as an expert in law enforcement after more than 45 years of dedicated service. While he was tough on crime, he was beloved throughout the region for is compassion, faith and deep sense of community."

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy was among many officials paying their respects late Thursday night.

“I cannot even begin to imagine a world without Benny in it," she said. "He was a beloved, iconic, and respected law enforcement official. He was progressive and he was old school. He was tough and he had a heart of gold. But most of all, he was a genuine, caring, and loyal friend and colleague. I will miss him forever.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called Napoleon "one of our city's greatest public servants and native sons."

"I cannot think of a leader in this town who has been more loved and admired than Benny," Duggan said. "He was born in the city, served our community courageously his entire adult life, and loved Detroit as much as anyone I’ve ever known.

"Please keep his daughter Tiffani, his family and friends, and the entire Wayne County sheriffs office in your prayers as they struggle with their painful loss."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she was "heartbroken at the news of my dear friend Benny's passing."

"Sheriff Napoleon’s love for the people he served was returned many times over," she said in a statement. "His quick laugh, eager partnership, and candid counsel is what I will miss most. Sharon, Tiffani and his whole family are in my prayers."

In Oakland County, County Executive David Coulter tweeted: "The vaccine came too late for justice warrior and public servant  @BennyNapoleon. Deepest condolences. #RestinPower." 

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, whom Napoleon replaced as the county sheriff in 2009, called Napoleon "a true pillar in our community."

"Benny and I were more than colleagues," Evans said. "We were close friends. Benny shared a love for Wayne County — especially for the city of Detroit — and that love showed in his passion for making our lives better and our community safer and fairer."

Evans also offered condolences Thursday night to "my brothers and sisters" in the Sheriff's Office and Detroit Police Department.

"Benny had such a strong bond with the men and women who put on the uniform every day," he said. "I know he was strengthened by your thoughts and prayers in these last weeks."

Wayne County Commission chair Alisha Bell added: “The people of Wayne County have suffered a terrible loss ... Sheriff Napoleon was a trusted member of law enforcement throughout the county and his experience in lawfully handling cases never questioned."

In March, Napoleon's brother, Hilton, who is Highland Park's chief of police, contracted the virus and was hospitalized for 71 days. The Sheriff's Office was hard hit by the pandemic. A jail commander died in May and two deputies and two doctors who worked at the jail died after contracting the virus.

Napoleon's daughter on Dec. 13 said in a Facebook post that he was improving after fighting COVID-19 for nearly a month and that his family was "taking his recovery day by day."

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and other commanders salute the casket of Wayne County Sheriff's Sgt. Lee Smith.

Napoleon had long served in law enforcement. He was a police officer for more than 40 years, targeting the Young Boys Inc. drug gang and spearheading the investigation into the 1994 assault on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, before becoming top cop for two of Michigan's largest law enforcement agencies.

He was born in Detroit in 1955, the fifth of Betty and Harry Napoleon's seven children. The kid known as "Skinny Benny" told The Detroit News in 2002 that he spent his childhood playing basketball, chasing girls and trying to avoid disappointing his father, a minister at Tennessee National Baptist Church in Detroit.

Napoleon said as a student at Cass Technical High School, he didn't take his education seriously, especially after his older sister went to Harvard University and left him with her 1973 white Cadillac Eldorado and the keys to her house.

"So I had my sister's house and this real flashy car," Napoleon told The News. "So instead of doing my homework."

After graduating in 1973, Napoleon took classes at DeVry Technical Institute in Chicago, Henry Ford Community College and Wayne State University.

"I could have gone to school and just been a student, but the problem was, I had no idea what career I wanted to go into," Napoleon said.

Napoleon returned to the salesman job he'd held throughout high school at Sibley's Shoes in downtown Detroit, a few blocks from Police Headquarters at 1300 Beaubien. He said he spotted a recruiting van parked outside the shoe store one day and filled out an application.

In June 1975, Napoleon entered the Police Academy. His first assignment after graduation was the 2nd Precinct on the west side, and then he spent several years in the Tactical Services Section.

FILE - Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon joined other law enforcement officials to discuss the findings of a new study that suggests investing in early childhood education could save taxpayers millions by steering kids away from crime.

Napoleon played on a Detroit Police Department basketball league, where he hit it off with one of the coaches, Ike McKinnon, a lieutenant who would later become police chief. McKinnon advised Napoleon to pursue his education, and the younger officer took the advice, earning a criminal justice degree from the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1982.

The following year, Napoleon was promoted to a sergeant in the Gang Squad, where he spent years investigating the infamous Young Boys Inc. drug gang. 

As Napoleon's career advanced, so did his education. He attended law school at night, earning his law degree from the Detroit College of Law in 1986 and then opened a private practice.

Napoleon gained national recognition in 1994 when as a lieutenant he coordinated the investigation into the assault of Kerrigan at Cobo Center. He regularly appeared on national news programs to give updates on the case.

"The woman who led police to those responsible for the Kerrigan attack saw Napoleon on one of those broadcasts and called him with the information that broke the case," The News reported in 1994.

Napoleon's mentor, McKinnon, became police chief in 1993 and named Napoleon his assistant chief. In 1998, following McKinnon's retirement, Mayor Dennis Archer appointed Napoleon Detroit's police chief. 

Napoleon took over a troubled Police Department. Human Rights Watch had issued a report criticizing the department for its large number of police brutality cases. The problems would lead Archer in 2000 to request a Department of Justice investigation into the department.

"I welcome the investigation," Napoleon said when the probe was announced. "If they find something that we didn't find, I will deal with it. We have absolutely nothing to hide."

In 2003, the DOJ released the results of its probe. Federal authorities said they found excessive force by officers, mistreatment of witnesses and unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon

By then, Napoleon had moved on, retiring from DPD in July 2001 after 26 years and becoming executive vice president of Chicago-based real estate investment company Capri Capital. In 2004, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano named Napoleon assistant county executive.

Napoleon served as the county's second-in-command until 2009 when Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans resigned to take over as Detroit police chief. A panel composed of Chief Probate Judge Milton Mack, Clerk Cathy Garrett and Worthy appointed Napoleon as sheriff in July 2009.

For years, The News and other media reported Napoleon's name as a possibility for various political offices, and in 2013, he finally threw his hat in the ring, announcing he was running for Detroit mayor to replace former NBA star Dave Bing. The bid resulted in a face-off between the Wayne County commission and Napoleon over $18,000 in campaign-related expenses that a county auditor said he needed to pay back.

Napoleon lost to Mayor Mike Duggan.

Napoleon also volunteered as a basketball coach for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Michigan and the Detroit Police Athletic League, and he also was a student mentor for the Detroit Public Schools.