Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon died Thursday night after spending three weeks in an intensive care unit
at Henry Ford Hospital with a COVID-19 infection.
He was 65.
Beloved, charismatic, and devoted to law enforcement and his community, Napoleon was a popular figure in metro Detroit. A lifetime Democrat, civil rights advocate, and native Detroiter, Napoleon handily won a third full term as sheriff in November.
After graduating from Cass Tech High School, where he was a star basketball player, Napoleon received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Detroit Mercy and a juris doctor from the Detroit College of Law.
He joined the Detroit Police Department in 1975 and served as police chief from 1998 to 2001.
Soon after his death, community leaders with heavy hearts spoke out about Napoleon.
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, who attended Cass Tech with Napoleon, said the sheriff’s death marks “a dark time in our city.”
“Benny made our city better and we will miss him,” Jones said in a statement. “His smile sparked and led us through rough times. His calm demeanor reassures us that, no matter the problem, we would make it through. Benny inspired all those around him and leaves scores of colleagues that he taught, guided and mentored.”
Mayor Mike Duggan, who defeated Napoleon in the 2013 mayoral election, said he was “shocked and saddened at the loss of one of our city’s greatest public servants and native sons.”
“I cannot think of a leader in this town who has been more loved and admired than Benny,” Duggan 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.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said, “I cannot even begin to imagine a world without Benny in it. 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.”
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said metro Detroit “lost a pillar in our community.”
“Benny and I were more than colleagues. We were close friends,” Evans said. “Benny shared a love for Wayne County — especially for the city of Detroit — and that love showed in his passion for making our lives better and our community safer and fairer.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she was “heartbroken.”
"Sheriff Napoleon’s love for the people he served was returned many times over,” Whitmer said. "His quick laugh, eager partnership, and candid counsel is what I will miss most. He was a truly special person.”
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said Napoleon was “a model public servant who led by example 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,” Gilchrist said. “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.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said she was “deeply saddened,” adding that Detroit “lost yet another giant” to the coronavirus.
“While we mourn his passing, I am grateful for his grace, kindness and steadfast commitment to serving and protecting the citizens of Wayne County and Detroit,” Benson said. “As his family, like far too many across the state and nation, grieve the passing of a dear loved one this season, we are again reminded of the importance of staying home, staying safe, and wearing a mask."
Timothy Waters, special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit Field Office, said Napoleon was “a great leader in the law enforcement community and a true partner to the FBI.”
“He performed that service with courage, passion, and a real dedication to making Wayne County safe for all of its residents,” Waters said. “The loss of Sheriff Napoleon will be deeply felt by those of us who had the privilege of working alongside him. May he rest in peace.”
Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said Napoleon “was a man of great faith who believed that to whom much is given, much is expected.”
“At a time when we need it more than ever, we have lost a voice that could calm the storm,” Barnes said. “He was a man that always did the right thing in the face of adversity, the one we could count on to keep us safe, the public servant that always answered his phone, and a friend that would take your concerns and make them his own. He was always respectful, and I am heartbroken that we will no longer be graced with his amazing smile that could light up a room and bring confidence to uncertainty.”
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she, too, was “heartbroken.”
“I have long admired his work at the department and was honored to have an opportunity to partner with him as a colleague,” Nessel said. “Benny was beloved by so many in the Wayne County community and around the state. We enjoyed a close relationship since the time I took office, including working feverishly together last spring to bring much-needed PPE to his department to protect his deputies, who he cared so deeply for. I could always count on Benny for his support, his input and his cooperation. He was a wonderful man, and his passing is a loss not only for his family but also for his many friends and co-workers. Benny had so much life yet to live; our community has once again lost someone larger than life to this vicious pandemic.”
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow said, “I’m very sad to hear that Sheriff Benny Napoleon has died of COVID-19. He was an incredible man who loved Detroit and everyone he served in Wayne County. I'm thinking tonight of his family and his many friends and sending my love.”
At times, Napoleon was controversial. He was featured in a Metro Times cover story
in August for his use of campaign funds. In the past six years, Napoleon 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.
The coronavirus swept through the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office earlier this year, claiming the lives of Cmdr. Donafay Collins and two deputies. Nearly 100 county inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus.
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