Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, a man who dedicated decades to public service and became a household name to metro Detroiters, died Thursday evening following a month-long fight with COVID-19.
Napoleon was with family when he died at Henry Ford Hospital, his daughter Tiffani Jackson said. He was 65.
In a text message while still at the hospital, she thanked the community for its prayers and asked that they continue.
As Wayne County residents think of her father, she also asked them to turn their memories toward his dedication.
“Remember his generosity, integrity and faithfulness as a public servant for over 45 years,” she said. “Remember how kind he was to everyone he came in contact with and how much he loved his family.”
Memories of his service poured in from officials after news of his death broke.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in a post on Twitter, remembered her “dear friend.”
“Sheriff Napoleon’s love for the people he served was returned many times over,” she said. “His quick laugh, eager partnership, and candid counsel is what I will miss most. Sharon, Tiffani and his whole family are in my prayers.”
I am 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. His quick laugh, eager partnership, and candid counsel is what I will miss most. Sharon, Tiffani and his whole family are in my prayers.
— Governor Gretchen Whitmer (@GovWhitmer) December 18, 2020
Napoleon was “one of our city’s greatest public servants,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement.
He was shocked at the news, he said.
“I cannot think of a leader in this town who has been more loved and admired than Benny,” he 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.”
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel could count on Napoleon for support and input, she said in a statement.
They worked together “feverishly” to get personal protective equipment for his deputies in the spring, she said.
“Benny had so much life yet to live; our community has once again lost someone larger than life to this vicious pandemic,” she said. “My heart goes out to Benny’s family. It was an honor and a privilege to call him my sheriff.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, in a statement, said it was difficult to imagine a world without Napoleon.
“He was a beloved, iconic, and respected law enforcement official,” she said. “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.”
Napoleon was, indeed, an “iconic figure” and a great friend who served courageously, Wayne County Commission Chair Alisha Bell said in a statement.
“The people of Wayne County have suffered a terrible loss with tonight’s passing of Sheriff Benny Napoleon,” she said, later adding: “Chief Napoleon you will be missed, but never forgotten.”
Napoleon announced he was positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 19. He had taken a test on Nov. 13 and tested negative, but then took another test on Nov. 17.
“At this time I have a slight headache and light chills,” Napoleon said when he made the announcement.
The next day, Jackson said his symptoms had progressed and that he was admitted to the hospital. Doctors placed Napoleon on a ventilator on Nov. 27, Jackson said.
As recently as Dec. 13, the family had posted to the sheriff’s Facebook page saying he was improving.
The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office had already suffered serious losses to the pandemic, which killed one commander and two deputies and infected others.
Police agencies across metro Detroit and the country have struggled in keeping the novel coronavirus that kills some and leaves others with no symptoms from infecting officers and department heads alike. It’s impossible for first responders to stay away from human contact and interacting with one another, which is why federal plans call for first responders to receive doses during phase 1 of vaccine distribution.
Benny Napoleon’s brother, Highland Park Police Chief Hilton Napoleon, spent 71 days in the hospital with COVID-19 before beating the disease in May. Detroit Police Chief James Craig had COVID-19 in May, and Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham contracted the virus in November.
More: Michigan health officials say state getting shorted on COVID-19 vaccine
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Napoleon was appointed Wayne County Sheriff after the position became vacant in 2009. He was elected to remain in the position in 2012 and was re-elected every four years since, most recently in 2020. He spent most of his career at the Detroit Police Department, starting in 1975 and worked his way up to police chief, assuming the position in 1998. He retired from DPD in 2001 and became Wayne County assistant executive in 2004.
Napoleon ran for mayor in 2013, losing to the current mayor, Mike Duggan, by about 10 percentage points.
Napoleon, the son of a minister, was a Detroit Public Schools student, graduating from Cass Technical High School, later earning his bachelor’s degree from Mercy College of Detroit and his doctorate from Michigan State University.
Napoleon, during his tenure as sheriff, expanded the county’s electronic monitoring program to more than 500 tether participants a day, which, according to the sheriff’s office, generated about $22 million in savings. He also reduced daily inmate populations by using alternate incarceration options.
When then-Mayor Dennis Archer named Napoleon police chief in 1998, Napoleon fought tears during a speech and stressed his local ties, according to a Free Press report from the time.
He promised to focus on community relations and reducing police response times.
“The people I know and love live in this city and to fix the everyday problems of Detroiters you need an everyday police chief,” Napoleon said during his appointment speech.
Napoleon’s career as a politician was not without controversy. He landed in hot water in 2014 for spending over $18,000 in county funds on campaign-related expenses.
And just after Napoleon won the 2020 primary for sheriff, the Detroit Metro Times published a scathing report on his use of campaign funds.
Napoleon in the past six years spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account on upscale restaurants, flights, hotel stays, golf outings, taxis, home decor, sporting and concert tickets, and even a massage parlor in Sacramento, California and a strip club in Chicago,” according to the Metro Times article based on a review of hundreds of pages of campaign finance records.
Throughout 2020, his attention had been on the coronavirus, even before his own family saw the illness.
Speaking himself of the virus in March, following the death of jail Cmdr. Donafay Collins, he expressed pride in his staff continuing to put themselves on the line amid the virus.
“It was like someone put an anvil around my neck and just dropped it,” Napoleon said of Collins’ death. “And I’ve been feeling very heavy since all of this transpired because I know that this is not the last of it.”
In an Oct. 15 interview with the Free Press, Napoleon said he couldn’t understand how people could object to wearing masks in public.
He called it “indefensible,” and also challenged politicizing of the issue, saying if the government can stop smoking in restaurants and force people to wear seat belts, it can make people wear masks.
There’s nothing in the Constitution to stop that, he said, and it is to protect others.
Napoleon had already seen the danger of the illness up close in his brother’s case.
“We thought we lost him,” Napoleon said. “He was in the hospital for 72 days. He was on a ventilator for 36 days. He came out, he couldn’t walk. He was in pretty bad shape but amazingly, he’s a tough guy. He’s walking five miles a day now.”
His brother also wasn’t the only family member to suffer.
“That’s why I don’t under understand people who aren’t taking it seriously because it affects different people differently,” he said. “I have a niece who had it and she didn’t even know she had it until she took the antibody test. She was totally unaffected by it.
“But we went from one extreme to the other. I have an uncle and five cousins who died from it. I lost a commander and a corporal. So, when I tell you it hit home very hard, it hit home very hard.”
At a prayer vigil at the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Woodward Avenue in Detroit during his illness, Wayne County Undersheriff Daniel Pfannes told Local 4 (WDIV-TV) that Napoleon “was a man that took every precaution possible and it (the virus) still found him. We need to be very careful.”
The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office directed media questions to the family on Thursday night.
Napoleon is survived by his daughter, Tiffani Jackson, his 84-year-old mother and his four siblings.
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