New Wayne County sheriff: Appointment is 'bittersweet'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Raphael Washington says he has mixed feelings about being named to succeed his longtime friend and colleague as one of the top law enforcement officials in Michigan. 

Washington was appointed Wayne County sheriff Friday to replace Benny Napoleon, who died from COVID-19 on Dec. 17, a month-and-a-half after he was re-elected with 97.8% of the vote.

State law required a three-member panel of Wayne County chief probate Judge Freddie Burton, Clerk Cathy Garrett and Prosecutor Kym Worthy to appoint a new sheriff within 15 days of the start of what would have been Napoleon's new term on Jan. 1.

Raphael Washington was appointed Wayne County sheriff on Friday.

The panel voted 2-1 Friday to pick Washington, after two days of interviewing 14 candidates for the job that pays a salary of $128,768 to oversee an office with 1,063 deputies, jail staff and civilian personnel. Garrett and Worthy voted for Washington, while Burton did not, although he declined to say who he'd supported. 

Washington — known as "Ray" to his colleagues — and Napoleon served together for more than 20 years at the Detroit Police Department. When Napoleon was appointed sheriff in 2009, Washington retired from DPD and became director of police operations at the sheriff's office. 

"It's definitely a bittersweet moment," Washington said during a phone interview Monday. "It's almost like it's not real that I'm sitting in this position because of (Napoleon's) demise.

"I am enjoying the fact that I'm the one to push his legacy forward, but I'm still in mourning, because he was a good friend of mine," Washington said. "I can't talk about it for long because I start to become emotional."

As he gets settled into his new position, Washington said dealing with COVID is his most pressing issue — "for obvious reasons," he said.

"As long as this virus is out there, it's important for me to make the the men and women of the sheriff's office, staff and the (jail) population as safe as we can," he said. "We've started some vaccine operations we're putting in place; some staff have taken the shot already."

There's no timetable for getting staff and inmates vaccinated, Washington said. "We're just doing it as fast as we can," he said.

Washington said another priority is addressing the morale of his deputies, who often are forced to work double shifts because of a manpower shortage and court-ordered minimum staffing levels. 

"Not forcing them to work 16 hours a day would help, because that kills morale," he said. "We need to jump on the staffing issue and do some heavy recruiting. We have 200 positions we want to fill, and if we do that, morale shoots up to where it should be."

Reginald Crawford, president of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriffs Association union, said morale needs to be addressed.

"That is an issue," he said. "We just need to hire more people. Starting pay is about $16 an hour, and we know (Washington) has nothing to do with that ... we're in negotiations now for a new contract."

Crawford said he's known Washington for years, going back to their time together on the Detroit Police Department, and during Washington's years as a sheriff's official.

"We've had a good working relationship with him in the past, and I look forward to continuing that," Crawford said. "Of course, we're a union, and there'll be some opposition, but I think we'll be able to work together to address all those issues."

Washington began his law enforcement career in 1983 as a Wayne County sheriff's deputy patrolling the jails before moving to the Detroit Police Department in 1985, starting as a patrol officer in the former 14th Precinct on Detroit's west side.

He served as an undercover narcotics officer and as a member of the Gang Squad and the Violent Crimes Task Force before becoming a supervisor in the Traffic Enforcement Unit. He served in that capacity until he moved back to the sheriff's office when Napoleon was appointed sheriff in 2009.

The sheriff's office has been under a consent decree for 16 years, stemming from a 1971 lawsuit from a jail inmate who complained about deplorable conditions. The county agreed in 2005 to address the issues raised in the suit and entered into the consent decree with Wayne County Circuit Court.

Washington said that issue will "take care of itself" when the county's new criminal justice campus is built at Interstate 75 and Warren on Detroit's east side. He said the new facility is set to open in October 2022.

Washington said he wants to continue working with other law enforcement and court officials to explore bail reform and efforts to divert nonviolent offenders to alternatives to jail that were discussed in a Vera Institute of Justice report, which was released in June.

Washington said he hopes to continue Napoleon's community outreach efforts.

"I don't think I'll do anything differently than he did," he said. "Whether he was with the Detroit Police Department or the sheriff's office, he was always about the community, and I'll continue that. I love talking to people, and finding out what they need from us. I'm looking forward to it."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN