Benny Napoleon, Michigan Sheriff and Ex-Detroit Police Chief, Dies at 65

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WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. — Benny Napoleon, the sheriff of Wayne County in Michigan and a former Detroit police chief who ran unsuccessfully for the city’s mayor, died on Thursday. He was 65.

The current mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, confirmed the death on Twitter. Sheriff Napoleon had been hospitalized in Detroit for weeks with Covid-19 complications.

He joined the Detroit Police Department in 1975 and began rising through the ranks, serving as police chief from 1998 to 2001, when he retired from the department, The Detroit Free Press reported.

Sheriff Napoleon, a Democrat, became the assistant executive for Wayne County, where Detroit is located, in 2004, and was appointed county sheriff in 2009. He kept that position after winning elections in 2012, 2016 and 2020.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan was among those who paid tribute to Sheriff Napoleon on Thursday. “Sheriff Napoleon’s love for the people he served was returned many times over,” she said in a statement. “His quick laugh, eager partnership and candid counsel is what I will miss most.”

Benny N. Napoleon was born in Detroit in 1955, one of seven children of Harry and Betty Napoleon, the Detroit News reported. His father was a minister.

He attended Cass Technical High School, a public school in the city, and later received degrees from the University of Detroit Mercy and the Detroit College of Law.

In 2013, he ran for mayor of Detroit in a crowded primary field, at a time when the job was largely considered toothless because the city’s finances were in the hands of a bankruptcy judge.

“If we’re going to win this thing, we’re going to have to be out every single day of the week knocking on doors,” he told volunteers at the time.

He was the top vote-getter among more than a dozen candidates on the primary ballot, but faced a strong challenge from Mr. Duggan, a former chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center who mounted a write-in campaign.

That November, Mr. Duggan beat Sheriff Napoleon by a wide margin to become the first white mayor in four decades of a city where more than 80 percent of residents were African-American.

Sheriff Napoleon, who was previously married to Lisa Cunningham, is survived by his mother, Betty, 84; his daughter, Tiffani Jackson; and his brother, Hilton Napoleon, the police chief for Highland Park, Mich., a municipality that borders Detroit. It was not immediately clear how many of his six siblings survive him.

In April, Sheriff Napoleon wrote an emotional op-ed article for a local news site about watching his brother and other relatives come down with the coronavirus.

“If you’ve suffered from the symptoms of Covid-19 or had a family member have an encounter with the brutal virus, then you know just how devastating it can be,” he wrote in The River Rouge online newspaper. “So, just imagine having multiple members of your family stricken with the same vicious illness concurrently.”

Sheriff Napoleon tested positive for Covid-19 on Nov. 19 and was hospitalized the next day. He was put on a ventilator a week later.

On Sunday, Ms. Jackson wrote on her father’s Facebook page that his condition was improving, but she also said that Covid-19 was “such a complex virus that comes with many ups and downs, and my dad’s case has been no different.”

Michigan’s lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, said on Twitter that Sheriff Napoleon’s death was a “tremendous loss” for the state, Wayne County and Detroit.

“Benny was a pillar in the community — a model public servant who led by example through conscientious words and selfless service,” Mr. Gilchrist wrote. “He offered himself as a mentor at every opportunity, so that young leaders, like myself, can be, believe in, and become our greatest selves.”

Kathleen Gray reported from West Bloomfield, Mich., and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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