Raphael Washington becomes new Wayne County sheriff

Region mourns death of Sheriff Benny Napoleon

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published January 23, 2021






DETROIT — Wayne County and many across Michigan are mourning the death of Sheriff Benny Napoleon, while also welcoming his successor, Raphael Washington, who was previously serving under Napoleon as the deputy chief of jail and courts.

At least 14 applicants were considered to follow Napoleon as sheriff, and on Jan. 15, Washington was selected. A 37-year law enforcement veteran, Washington has served with both the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and the Detroit Police Department.

“I am excited to be named to this position,” said Washington. “It comes with mixed emotions. A dear friend of mine, my boss and my leader, has died. I’m excited, though, and I’m ready to go, and I think I have a lot to bring to the position and serving the public in this way.”

He said his first goal is to continue the fight against COVID-19, which brought about the death of his predecessor.

“Right away I will be looking into how we keep ourselves safe due to the pandemic, and our staff and employees are performing best practices and using our personal protective equipment and keeping ourselves and the public safe,” Washington said. “We lost our sheriff and another officer and some doctors who work with our department to the pandemic, so it’s certainly a priority. We also want to fill the holes in our staffing. We have about 200 positions that can be filled, and we are working our staff in some cases 16 hours a day, so we need to get our staff numbers up and our morale up.”

His hope as sheriff is to be a presence in the community and to make the department more accessible to the public.

“I want the public to know I am here to engage with them,” Washington said. “I want them to know who I am. I will be traveling around the county to get to know the communities and I want them to know their sheriff will be accessible to them and (will) talk about how the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office can be there for them.”

Many in the county were eager to see who would step into Napoleon’s shoes and take on the role of sheriff. A three-person panel consisting of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Clerk Cathy Garrett and Chief Probate Judge Freddie Burton made the selection for Napoleon’s successor.

“By law, the undersheriff assumes the role of the sheriff,” Wayne County Director of Communications Pageant Atterberry wrote in an email Dec. 22. “Dan Pfannes is the undersheriff. He will hold this position until a three person panel appoints the new sheriff. The appointment has to occur within 14 days of the date the elected sheriff was supposed to assume office — January 1. Once appointed, the new sheriff will have to run in the next regularly scheduled election in 2022. If the person wins that election, they will remain in office through December 2024.”

The selection came after an outpouring of grief for Napoleon from many Michigan leaders including Washington.

Born in Detroit in 1955, Napoleon was one of seven children born to his parents, Betty and Harry Napoleon. Benny Napoleon graduated from Cass Technical High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Detroit Mercy and a Juris Doctor from the Detroit College of Law. Napoleon entered the Detroit Police Department in 1975. He served as police chief from 1998 to 2004 when he was made assistant Wayne County executive. In 2009, he became Wayne County sheriff.

He was admitted to a local hospital on Nov. 21 and tested positive for COVID-19. Napoleon’s family announced that he had died on Dec. 17 as a result of the disease.

Following news of his death, condolences came in from officials across the state of Michigan, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II.

“I am heartbroken at the news of my dear friend Benny’s passing,” Whitmer said in a press release. “Sheriff Napoleon’s love for the people he served was returned many times over. His quick laugh, eager partnership, and candid counsel is what I will miss most. He was a truly special person. Sharon, Tiffani and his whole family are in my prayers.”

“Sheriff Benny Napoleon’s passing is a tremendous loss for the city of Detroit, Wayne County, and the entire state of Michigan,” Gilchrist said in the same press release. “Benny was a pillar in the community — a model public servant who led by example through conscientious words and selfless service. All throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Sheriff Napoleon stood tall on the front lines alongside members of his department to ensure that our community had what it needed to get through this crisis together. He was a progressive ally and champion for changing the justice system to better serve society. And he offered himself as a mentor at every opportunity, so that young leaders, like myself, can be, believe in, and become our greatest selves. Benny’s loss hits hard in the soul of so many people in southeast Michigan who had a chance to connect with him over his decades of service, and his legacy leaves our lives better because of his presence. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. Rest in power.”

Public figures lauded his devotion to the law and his tenacity.

“I cannot even begin to imagine a world without Benny in it,” Worthy said in a press release. “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.”