You’d be hard pressed to find a person in Charlotte who doesn’t know about Jim Pendergraph. This is only one measure of his success during his four-term tenure as the Sheriff of Mecklenburg County.
He has led the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) since 1994, and has been the face the city looks to for confidence and order when things go haywire. Whether leading during 9/11, or attending to a discipline problem at a local school, Pendergraph has been a source of professionalism, order and stability for the county. He has also become a political lightning rod addressing illegal immigration and crime, and has attracted the attention of higher ups who are impressed with his knowledge and leadership.
In fact, for Charlotte, Pendergraph’s leadership may have been too much of a good thing. In December 2007, Jim Pendergraph will be leaving the Queen city for Washington, D.C., to become the “Executive Director of State and Local Coordination for the Department of Homeland Security.”
Jim Pendergraph fits the ideal of a good lawman. He has that certain something that makes his back seem straighter than the next guy, and clarity in his gaze. But don’t mistake his confidence for swagger. Pendergraph is no cowboy. Rather, he’s a courteous country boy with a strong work ethic and an even stronger sense of duty.
Pendergraph credits photos of his father serving as a military police officer in World War II for igniting his desire to be a public servant. He says several state troopers he knew in high school further inspired him. “I think I always knew I was going to be a cop; the officers I knew in high school were my heroes. When I was discharged from the army, I went straight to the Mecklenburg County Police Department,” he says.
Twenty one years after Pendergraph joined the force, the Mecklenburg County police department consolidated with the Charlotte police department. Prior to the consolidation, Pendergraph had risen in rank to Major and had just completed opening a new arrest processing center and had assisted in important revisions to the court information systems. Partially because of this, Pendergraph came to the attention of peers, and civilian leaders began elbowing him to run for Sheriff.
“The office of the Sheriff is a major part of the success or failure of the local criminal justice system. If the Sheriff and his support staff don’t do their job, then nothing works,” explains Pendergraph. “In 1994 there was no cooperation, and little interaction, between agencies. The department was untrained and a week didn’t go by when The Charlotte Observer wasn’t taking it to task for less-than-professional behavior.”
He adds, “When I came into office, people were changing out of their uniform before they left their shift, so people wouldn’t know where they worked. It was very sad.”
Pendergraph did not take the idea of running for Sheriff too seriously, until it became clear that it wasn’t a matter of whether he wanted to take the job or not. It was a matter of duty.
“I wasn’t interested in running for office. I was a cop, for Pete’s sake. But my friends encouraged me to run, and assured me they would help me raise the money to do it,” says Pendergraph.
It took a lot of campaign contributions to unseat incumbent Sheriff C.W. Kidd—about $200,000 in 1994—and Pendergraph doesn’t pull any punches when he talks about raising funds: “To this day, that’s my least favorite task. I was raised not to ask for money, and then ended up in a political position where I had to ask for contributions.”
While the Sheriff’s first campaign was relatively expensive, there were plenty of people willing to support him. Charlotte was at a crucial stage of growth, and, according to Pendergraph, “There were a lot of influential people concerned that Charlotte couldn’t continue to grow and be successful unless some major changes were made.”
Pendergraph not only won the 1994 election, but three more since then.
A Man of his Word
The changes Pendergraph implemented were as bold as he promised in his campaign speeches. He sought to empower his staff, to provide education and advanced training, and to become an innovator in his post.
In addition to keeping citizens safe and secure, and coordinating with the powers that be to keep the city law enforcement moving, the office of Sheriff of Mecklenburg County is responsible for over 1,400 employees and a $100 million budget. When he walked across the street with the contents of his locker to move into the office of the Sheriff, he discovered there was a lot of work to be done.
“There was a line of people outside my office waiting for me to tell them what to do. Accomplished officers with bars and stripes, paid to be supervisors, were coming to get their orders every morning. They were used to getting directions from a guy who ran things from his hip pocket. Well, that just isn’t the way I operate. I believe in letting people do their jobs.”
Sheriff Pendergraph has exponentially increased the education and professionalism of the MCSO. He established professional qualification standards for command staff and today more than 40 command leaders have attended the FBI academy, the SPI academy, and or the North Carolina Justice Academy. He also formed the Office of Professional Compliance within the Sheriff’s Office to raise accountability and integrity.
Explains Pendergraph, “Educated employees stay around longer. Plus, I knew when I started here that there would come a time when I would also have to leave. It has been my mission to make sure that when that day arrived, my staff wouldn’t miss a beat. I have tried to create an organization that can run without me, whose people won’t hesitate to call out a leader who is leading them in the wrong direction,” says Pendergraph.
In addition to revolutionizing the staff, Pendergraph has also embraced cutting edge technology that will make the MCSO a sterling example of 21st century law enforcement. Pendergraph teases that his staff balks when he comes back from conferences with new ideas. But he makes a point of showing he isn’t afraid of innovation. “The sheriff should be a visionary,” he says.
“Things and systems that used to work, don’t always keep working. We have to be willing to lead by example,” comments Pendergraph, who has pioneered use of an iris-scanning identification system and employed wide-ranging training for sophisticated ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) fingerprinting system that paved the way for Sheriff Pendergraph’s current fame—or notoriety, depending on who you ask.
The first thing that brought Pendergraph’s attention to crime in the illegal immigrant population was the staggering increases in the budget for translators. Then he started seeing the same faces resurfacing in the system. “I suspected many of the people were in the country illegally. I started to see them repeating serious crimes, being released on bond, and walking out the door. But there was no way to identify them,” he explains.
Then Pendergraph met Sheriff Mike Corona of Orange County California, who informed him of a program called the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 287g. This federal law “provides the legal authority for state and local enforcement to investigate, detain, and arrest aliens on civil and criminal grounds.” Pendergraph found the glimmer of a solution that would become a political firestorm.
Section 287g permitted Pendergraph to send 12 officers into extensive federal training for certification as immigration officials, allowing them to utilize the ICE fingerprinting system. The ICE system is technologically sophisticated with a highly integrated database that merges federal and local information systems, making it possible to track, identify and when necessary, expel criminals in the country illegally. Representative Sue Myrick strongly backed Pendergraph’s pursuit of local implementation of 287g, and the resultant visibility has put him on the front lines of the immigration debate.
He clarifies, “I am not interested in running around with a net catching people who are in the county illegally. And I am not responsible for what people call ‘throwing people out of the U.S.’ What I am interested in doing is catching, identifying and processing repeat offenders of serious crimes. I turn in criminals who happen to be illegal immigrants to the federal authorities.” And in his plainspoken drawl he adds, “There are plenty of U.S. citizens I’d like to toss out if it were up to me, but it’s not.”
Pendergraph has also been instrumental in getting a Federal Immigration Court awarded to Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and has pioneered an initiative to partner with private developers to build the court and accompanying detention facility for offenders and lease it to the federal government. This proposal would eliminate the need for a bond or new public debt.
Pendergraph has been criticized for focusing on illegals, both from the immigrant community and people who think that immigration should be the concern of the federal government. But Pendergraph is no shrinking violet when it comes to the controversy.
“People need to see that these are criminals who have already been deported after committing crimes and have returned, or have already been convicted of serious crimes in other states. I cannot believe that the citizens of Mecklenburg County would prefer that we keep these 3,000 additional criminals in the city.”
Sheriff Pendergraph cites a reduction in gang activity as a positive result of the 287g implementation: “Gang members do not want to come here and be booked on some petty crime that is going to get them expelled from the country, so they behave or go somewhere else.”
Pendergraph is also quick to suggest that this is not just a local matter, but a matter of national security. He mentions a tunnel wide enough for a car discovered just last week under the U.S.-Mexican border. The assumption is that the guys building these aren’t motivated by the idea of better wages or freedom, but cash and drugs. It follows that if there’s enough cash and drugs to motivate going to these lengths, there are likely few alliances that fall below one’s moral compass.
The Promised Land
Pendergraph must be on the right track. Just last month, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Julie Myers tapped Jim Pendergraph for ICE’s Executive Director of state and local coordination, a newly created senior executive position.
In this new position, Pendergraph will serve as a member of the Federal Government’s Senior Executive Service and will seek to establish and maintain a partnership as well as formal and informal channels of communication and information exchange between ICE, state and local governments and their respective law enforcement entities.
“Leaving the job and community I love to accept this position was a difficult decision,” said Pendergraph, “but I believe the stability of our country is at stake. I took an oath in both the military and as a law enforcement officer to protect this country and I believe my position with ICE will allow me to do this on a national level.”
Pendergraph gets it. He’s not afraid to speak truth to political correctness. And he knows what it takes in terms of people, systems and implementation to make things happen.
Pendergraph says he will miss being the Sheriff, will miss Charlotte, and that he’s sorry he will miss seeing some of his projects coming to fruition. However, he strongly backs his long-term Chief Deputy Chipp Bailey for the job.
Bailey has worked for and with Pendergraph for a long time, and Pendergraph even credits him for running things now. So in many ways they will be still share the same mission…just on different beats.
As Mr. Pendergraph goes to Washington, if he continues to do on a national level what he has started here in Charlotte, the nation will be very fortunate.