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One year on the job, Bobby Kimbrough is happy to serve, and he hopes you’re happy with his service

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Bobby Kimbrough

Sherriff Bobby Kimbrough pauses as he talks about the influence his dad has had on his life during an interview on his first year in office.

A gravelly voice is on the other end of the phone, and the person it belongs to doesn’t voluntarily identify who they are, only offering a gruff “Hello.”

It's 7:30 a.m. and Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough sounds tired. He didn’t get home until well after midnight on Aug. 28, having spent several hours investigating an attempted drug robbery that ended with the death of a 20-year-old man who is from a town 200 miles away.

Kimbrough tells the reporter on the other end of the phone what he knows about the dead man — that he was shot and killed the night before and that this investigation is ongoing. No, it hasn’t been ruled a homicide, he says. It’s early in the investigation.

Kimbrough is about to head back into the sheriff’s office. He’s only been home for about four hours. After a career as a special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, Kimbrough is learning there is more to being sheriff than investigating deaths and catching the bad guys.

“This office is so much bigger than me,” Kimbrough said during an October interview in his office.

“I take this job very seriously. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

After one year as sheriff, Bobby Kimbrough Jr. has seen the highs and lows of public office, at times simultaneously basking in the adoration of Democratic activists and dealing with the blowback of Republicans across the state — not that he minds the blowback.

“The people have the right to question who they put in office,” he says.

In 2018, Kimbrough defeated 16-year incumbent and Republican Sheriff Bill Schatzman, becoming the first black sheriff in Forsyth County’s 170 year history. On Dec. 1, exactly 365 days ago from Sunday, he was sworn-in as sheriff.

But that’s not why Kimbrough ran for office. He ran because he wanted to be sheriff and to help his community, he said, not because he wanted to be the “black sheriff,” or the “Democratic sheriff.”

“I’m the sheriff without the adjectives,” he says. “I want to be the sheriff of the people. Period.”

As sheriff, Kimbrough is working to reconnect with community groups that might have fallen out of the loop, or never been in it, working to build trust between law enforcement and citizens. That’s the sheriff’s job, Kimbrough says.

“A sheriff is a bridge builder.”

21st century law enforcement

Long, tall and dressed neatly in a suit with gold cuff links in the shape of the letter “K”, Kimbrough looks every bit the part of a modern day lawman. It’s clear he is in command, as most everyone around him takes their cues from him.

When the sheriff speaks, people listen.

When Kimbrough wants something, he tends to ask one person to get it: his administrative assistant Alicia Coleman. Multiple times during an interview, he pauses and calls “Ms. Coleman,” loud enough for her to hear it through his closed office door. “Ms. Coleman” is Kimbrough’s gatekeeper. You want to be on his calendar, or talk to the sheriff?

“Ms. Coleman!”

Rocky Joyner is a short, stocky man who, up until two years ago, was a registered Republican. Joyner spent a career with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and the Kernersville Police Department before retiring in 2018. Now, his office is across from Kimbrough’s, with Coleman in the middle. Joyner serves as Kimbrough’s chief deputy, meaning he’s uniquely positioned to challenge the sheriff on his decisions. But why would a lifelong Republican decide to answer to a Democrat as his boss?

“His exact words were. ‘I want somebody that doesn’t look like me, don’t think like me, and that will challenge me,’” Joyner said. “Iron sharpens iron.”

Raised a conservative, Joyner considers himself more a moderate in today’s political climate, because there’s some “far extreme ideology on both sides.” When he retired, Joyner considered a possible run for sheriff, so he switched parties to become a Democrat. If he hadn’t considered running, Joyner would probably be unaffiliated.

“But no one’s ever won anything as an unaffiliated as far as I know,” he said.

Kimbrough likes to use Joyner’s former status as a Republican as evidence he can and will work with everyone, and that law enforcement isn’t about politicking as much as it is about serving communities. Joyner, to his credit, said working for Kimbrough isn’t about politics, it’s about a “progressive” approach to law enforcement — something he thinks the sheriff’s office lost under Schatzman.

“It got to a point where I felt the agency was kind of stagnant,” Joyner said. “It seemed like everybody was just here trying to do a job. It was just like a common theme.”

He had never heard of Bobby Kimbrough, Joyner said, until after the primary. Kimbrough, through word of mouth, had heard about him and wanted to meet him, so he invited Joyner to a political strategy meeting. Joyner went and he watched, not saying a word for nearly an hour. At the end, Kimbrough singled him out and asked him for his thoughts, so Joyner shared them. He disagreed with the strategy at hand, telling Kimbrough he thought it was a bad idea to attack Schatzman with negative campaigning. Kimbrough listened.

“I wanted to see how he reacted to it,” Joyner said. “I could sort of see we were on the same page about our beliefs and wanting to bring change to the agency.”

The change, as Kimbrough likes to phrase it, is transitioning to “21st century law enforcement.” In order to do 21st century policing, the sheriff’s office requires 21st century technology. So far this year, the sheriff’s office seized at least $1.5 million in civil asset forfeiture monies, according to office spokesperson Christina Howell. It became apparent that Kimbrough’s administration is putting that money to use.

“Ms. Coleman, tell them to get the room up and running,” the sheriff called his office. After swearing a reporter to secrecy until Dec. 1, saying he wanted to first show the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners before going public with it, the sheriff unveiled exactly what “21st century law enforcement” is.

The “situation room” is a wall of computer monitors with a conference table in the middle that’s across the hall from the sheriff’s corner office. The monitors can key into any publicly owned surveillance camera — NCDOT cameras, surveillance cameras in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools or city owned cameras downtown — in real time. All of it can be monitored there, and the sheriff’s office’s computer aided dispatch system, or CAD, is also linked in. Surveillance cameras are nice, but it’s what the sheriff’s office can do with the footage that’s cutting edge.

For example, if the sheriff’s office is looking for a red pickup truck on U.S. 52, it can tap into the video feed from U.S. 52, then use a computer program to isolate every single red pickup truck that passed by the camera in a given time period. Each truck is put onto the screen with a timestamp on it, showing authorities when it passed. The software also works with humans, and can recognize faces, Kimbrough said.

While the sheriff’s office access to camera feeds is currently restricted to government owned surveillance cameras, Kimbrough said his office is working on negotiating deals with the video doorbell manufacturer Ring, and with various apartment complexes in the city and in Forsyth County to gain access to their camera feeds as well. Eventually most of the city could be under video surveillance that utilizes facial recognition technology.

Joyner said the technology isn’t an invasion of privacy, because you have no reasonable right to privacy in a public place. He also said people shouldn’t be concerned about it if they haven’t committed a crime.

Practically speaking, Kimbrough said he envisions using the technology to do things like identify registered sex offenders from going into the Carolina Classic Fair by using video at the entrances and checking it against the sex offender registry. Both Kimbrough and Joyner separately expressed their excitement in getting the system up and running.

“So, are you impressed or what?” Kimbrough asked at the end of the demonstration.

Being a father

Kimbrough, 58, grew up in a home on 25th Street and his father, Bobby Kimbrough Sr., worked at R.J. Reynolds for 40 years, eventually becoming a supervisor in Plant 12. Being from here, Kimbrough feels pressure to succeed as sheriff.

“Even after I’m no longer the sheriff, this’ll be home to me,” Kimbrough said. “Failure is not an option to me. I have to show my face to these people, I’m a hometown boy.”

Growing up an only child, Kimbrough is exceptionally fond of his parents. Now in their older age, he is worried about them, he says. His mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and his dad had a stroke earlier this year. Kimbrough Sr. isn’t as sharp as he was before the stroke, Kimbrough Jr. says, but he still cares for his wife. He is the reason the younger Kimbrough is the man he is today.

“He was an excellent father,” Kimbrough said, his voice choking up and tears streaming down his face. He reaches for a tissue on the side table next to him.

“I hope I can be the man my father is … next question.”

A widower with seven sons, two of whom are high-schoolers, Kimbrough is asked if he’s a good father, as good a father as his was to him.

“I don’t spend the time I should with (my sons), ” Kimbrough said. “But I make sure I include them with everything I can when I’m not working.”

He gets home late, often too late for dinner. His two youngest, Jalen and Isaiah, are 15 and 14 respectively, have one of his credit cards and probably eat too much takeout food for their own good.

“The Domino’s Pizza knows us by name, and that my kids are going to tip them well,” he laughs. “Dominos is at our house three times a week. We eat Kimonos (Japanese Restaurant) and Dominos.”

His oldest son, Bobby Franklin Kimbrough III, is a bailiff with the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office. He wanted to work for his father, but Kimbrough told his oldest he couldn’t show favoritism by hiring his own children, so he helped arrange the job in Guilford County. There is one relative working for Kimbrough, Capt. Henry Gray, who the sheriff describes as a “distant cousin.”

Saturdays — assuming there isn’t a parade or event Kimbrough has to appear at as “sheriff” — are for the family. In the fall, that means football. One of his sons plays for Winston-Salem State University, and one plays at UNC Charlotte. When the schedule allows, the family goes to games.

“We love each other. We’re happy,” Kimbrough says.

He doesn’t wonder if his sons are proud of their father for being elected sheriff.

“I know they’re proud of me,” he says.

In 2005, Kimbrough wasn’t the single father of seven he is now. He had a wife, Clementine, who was a nurse and loving mother. She fatally overdosed on opioids, methadone toxicity specifically. A DEA special agent’s wife died of a drug overdose, in his own home no less. Clementine’s death, Kimbrough said, sent him into a tailspin, causing him to question everything.

“You realize the same demons you’re out in the streets fighting are here in your house,” Kimbrough said. “I struggled with that because even after the death you’re questioning God, questioning your fiber. Why me? Why my wife? Why my family?”

So, to cope, he lied. The family would tell people she had a stroke. Death, Kimbrough says, is supposed to be honorable. The stigma around addiction, especially addiction in his own household, lacked that. What would people say to his sons if they knew the truth, Kimbrough remembers thinking.

“People are cruel, kids are cruel and I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh your mother is an addict.’”

The opioid crisis has touched seemingly everyone. Now he talks about Clementine’s death because he wants to share their story. He hopes other people will take note, and confront whatever demons are in their own lives, he says.

“We live our lives so fast — moving, moving, moving, that we forget to see what’s moving around us.”

Defying ICE

Founded in 1985 by former UNC-Chapel Hill Distinguished University Professor Otis Graham Jr, the Center for Immigration Studies, or CIS, describes itself as a non-partisan, non-profit research organization. It tracks what it determines to be “sanctuary” cities and counties in the United States — cities and counties that have laws, policies or practices that obstruct immigration enforcement and shield criminals from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the group’s website. Forsyth County is among those designated as a “sanctuary county,” one of six in the state, according to CIS.

However, the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016 designated CIS as a hate group for its repeated circulation of “white nationalist and anitsemitic writers,” according to the SPLC website.

Regardless, some Republican politicians, such as U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, have regularly criticized North Carolina sheriffs who refuse to honor ICE detainers.

“Many sanctuary jurisdictions, including a handful of counties in my state of North Carolina, have adopted sanctuary policies where they no longer communicate lawful detainer requests and release notifications to ICE,” Tillis is quoted as saying on his website. “Many of these jurisdictions have released violent and dangerous criminal illegal immigrants back into our communities after being arrested by local law enforcement for serious crimes. These reckless sanctuary policies are putting our brave law enforcement officers at risk and the general public in harm’s way.”

Kimbrough does not honor ICE detainers that ask him to hold people suspected of being in the country illegally for 48 hours after they are supposed to be released from custody. It’s a policy that’s drawn sharp criticism from Republicans, but Kimbrough is not alone in refusing the detainer requests. Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers’ administration does not honor the requests, either. Both sheriff’s offices say, on the advice of legal counsel, that honoring those requests would be in violation of people’s Fourth Amendment rights, and that holding those individuals for 48 hours without a warrant for their arrest could lead to lawsuits against the sheriff’s office. Kimbrough said his office does notify ICE of all arrests, and to suggest he doesn’t notify ICE would be incorrect.

ICE detainers are not warrants for arrest, Kimbrough said. However, if his office received a federal warrant for someone’s arrest, his jail would hold them until ICE collected them, plain and simple, he said. As a former federal agent, he said getting a judge or magistrate to sign an arrest warrant isn’t difficult.

“It takes about three hours to process someone (for release from custody),” Kimrbough said. “If you seriously want them, you can get a signature (on an arrest warrant) in less than three hours.”

Also playing into the situation is the optics of being sued should his office detain someone unlawfully.

“The taxpayers provide me with a lawyer, and if the lawyers they provide me with say this is the situation, then I’d be a plum fool to do otherwise,” Kimbrough said.

Building bridges

Being a role model is important, and being a role model for young children even more so. As sheriff, Kimbrough wants to do both. So every Thursday he goes to North Hills Elementary School and meets with his group of about 15 fifth-grade boys who he hopes to teach something about character. The teachers and school administration selected kids they thought would benefit most from time with the sheriff.

North Hills Elementary Principal Tiffany Krafft said Kimbrough first approached her at the end of summer, because he wanted to “adopt” the school for the year.

“Whenever I first met him, he came pretty heavy and headstrong with what he wanted to do,” Krafft said. “He seemed pretty committed from the get go.”

Krafft remembered hearing him telling Coleman to mark his calendar for every Thursday from then until the end of the year. The sheriff of Forsyth County has a lot of responsibilities, yet he always shows up.

“I think it speaks volumes to our students and our school community to see him walking through the halls every week,” Krafft said. “He’s a part of our school culture.”

Kimbrough focuses on three main topics, or character traits, with his group: Accountability, integrity and leadership. Krafft said she’s seen his weekly meetings pay dividends with the students. One of the boys, Krafft said, struggles to turn in his homework with regularity, and one Thursday the school had an assembly during Kimbrough’s scheduled visit. Last week, he had assigned them some homework of his own, Krafft said. That student found Kimbrough at the assembly and handed him his homework even though they wouldn’t meet that day.

Accountability.

“I think he’s impressing upon them that when you do good, good things happen,” Krafft said.

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lsanderlin@wsjournal.com

336-727-7339

On Twitter @LeeOSanderlin

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