Benny Napoleon was a well-known and well-loved Wayne County sheriff who died from COVID-19 complications after years of service in and around Detroit.
He died at age 65 Thursday, December 17, 2020, after battling the coronavirus for about one month, his family told the Detroit Free Press and other news outlets.
Napoleon was a Detroit native who served as a Detroit police officer for more than two decades before becoming Wayne County Sheriff in 2009, according to his online profile.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Napoleon Had One Daughter Who Asked Everyone to Remember His ‘Generosity, Integrity & Faithfulness’
Napoleon had one daughter, Tiffani Jackson, who told news outlets by text message her father had died at Henry Ford Hospital. In the text, sent to the Detroit Free Press and other publications, she thanked the community for their prayers and asked that the prayers continue. She also asked the community to remember her father and his dedication as a public servant.
“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.”
In addition to his daughter, Napoleon is survived by his mother, who is 84, and four siblings, including a brother, Highland Park Police Chief Hilton Napoleon, who was hospitalized for more than two months with the coronavirus, the Detroit Free Press reported.
2. Napoleon Was a Detroit Police Officer for 26 Years & Served As Sheriff for More Than a Decade
Napoleon entered public service in 1975 as a trainee with the Detroit Police Department and entered the city’s police academy the same year, according to his Wayne County Sheriff profile. He walked a beat in the second (Vernor) precinct and rose through the ranks. He was promoted to sergeant in 1983, lieutenant in 1985, inspector in 1987, commander in 1993, deputy chief in 1994 and assistant chief in 1995. He was appointed Chief of Police by the Honorable Mayor Dennis W. Archer in 1998.
With the police department, he served in patrol, investigative, undercover and administrative capacities, He retired in 2001 after 26 years of service, the profile said. In 2004, he was named Assistant Wayne County Executive. Napoleon was appointed to fill a vacancy as Wayne County Sheriff in June 2009, and then won the election in a “landslide” victory. He was re-elected to four-year terms in subsequent years, and earned 74% of the vote for his current term. Napoleon was also an attorney with a private practice, his profile says.
His profile says:
Napoleon is a life member of the NAACP, an attorney with a private legal practice and 33rd Degree Mason, Prince Hall Affiliate. An academic at heart, the Sheriff thoroughly enjoyed serving as an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Phoenix (Detroit Campus) for several years. His community service includes spending time as a baseball coach for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Michigan; a basketball coach for the Detroit Police Athletic League; a student mentor for the Detroit Public Schools; and chairing the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Napoleon has been honored with a wide array of professional and community service awards, which are too numerous to list. He is the proud parent of one daughter who is completing her Master of Arts program at the University of Michigan.
3. Napoleon Announced He Had COVID-19 in November & Said He Had Minor Symptoms
The symptoms of the coronavirus started out slowly for Napoleon and escalated rapidly, according to the Detroit Free Press. He took a test for the coronavirus November 13, 2020, which came back negative, and then took another test November 17, which came back positive. He announced he had COVID-19 November 19.
“At this time I have a slight headache and light chills,” he said in the announcement.
Jackson told the publication his symptoms had progressed by the next day, and he was admitted to the hospital. On November 27, he was placed on a ventilator. His family believed he was improving, and posted a positive update online December 13.
4. Two Deputies & One Commander With the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department Died From the Coronavirus Before Napoleon’s Death
Napoleon was the fourth person within the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office to die from COVID-19 complications, the Detroit Free Press reported. Before Napoleon’s death, the department lost a commander and two deputies. Others within the department were also infected and survived.
Napoleon’s brother, a police officer, also contracted a serious case of the coronavirus, the news outlet reported.
In an October interview with the newspaper, Napoleon said it was “indefensible” for people to refuse to wear masks. He said the issue should not be politicized, and further said the government has the authority to require that people wear masks.
5. Napoleon Was Remembered By Other Community Leaders Who Described Him as a Close Friend
The news of Napoleon’s death spread quickly on social media, spurring an outpouring of condolences from other public officials who remembered him as a friend.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel wrote on Facebook:
I am heartbroken to learn of the passing of my friend and colleague Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. I have long admired his work at the department and was honored to have an opportunity to partner with him as a colleague. 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. My heart goes out to Benny’s family. It was an honor and a privilege to call him my sheriff.
Ralph Lloyd Godbee Jr., who was Chief of Police at Detroit Public Schools Community District, wrote about his admiration for Napoleon. He shared a photo of himself with Napoleon on Facebook.
This day was everything. Benny Napoleon was someone I idolized as a young police officer. Once I became Chief and followed in his footsteps; and he would share with me how proud he was of me; that meant the world to me. Benny left me with one piece of advice that I have always tried to utilize in leading; he’d say “Chief, take care of your people and your people will take care of you.” When Chief Benny Napoleon called me “Chief” I was beside myself. Rest well my friend; mentor and brother. Sheriff Benny N. Napoleon.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a statement on his passing.
I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Sheriff Napoleon, and to learn we’ve lost yet another giant of the Detroit community to 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. 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.
Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist wrote:
Sheriff Benny Napoleon showed me and so many others the way.
His passing is a tremendous loss for the city of Detroit, Wayne County, and the entire state of Michigan. Benny was a pillar in the community—a model public servant who lead 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.
The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office lowered its flag to honor Napoleon, which they described as a “heartbreaking task” done with “extreme sadness” in a statement provided to 97.9 WJLB.
While he was tough on crime, he was beloved throughout the region for his compassion, faith and deep sense of community. He was a true leader in every sense of the work, known to announce to the families of new recruits that if the families promised to take care of them at home, he’d take care of them on the job!
Sadly, he was diagnosed with Covid 19 in November and fought hard to recover. A prayer vigil led by his daughter, Tiffani Jackson, and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Corps drew widespread prayer and support from throughout the community and across the nation. Jackson says his family acknowledges the outpouring of support they’ve received, as they remember the man who everyone loved so dearly…During this difficult time, we ask that you keep Sheriff Napoleon’s family, loved ones, friends, colleagues and the WCSO in your thoughts and prayers.