Erik Hooks has announced his retirement from Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet, ending a long career in state public safety.
Hooks, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety, has served in the role since the beginning of Cooper’s first term. He helped oversee North Carolina’s response to hurricanes, violence in understaffed prisons, mob teardowns of Confederate statues on public property, last summer’s riots and protests, and the COVID pandemic.
Hooks was appointed in January 2017, just after Cooper was sworn in for his first term. Hooks’ role includes service as the state’s Homeland Security adviser. He spent 27 years of his 30-year career with the State Bureau of Investigation, eventually becoming deputy director of the agency.
But Hooks and his department have faced scrutiny over the past several years. Among the controversies was a 10% raise Cooper extended to Hooks in 2019 after vetoing the state budget, along with raises for other state public safety employees. As a state employee, Hooks’ retirement income is based on average earnings over the past 48 months. With the raise, Hooks makes $179,403, $41,000 more than he did when appointed to the job in 2017.
Over the past several years, DPS has had trouble recruiting and retaining prison staff due to high turnover and what employees say are unsafe and unstable working conditions. Corrections officers make between $35,000 and $40,000 depending on where they work, but their supporters say it isn’t enough to draw the staff needed to maintain a safe working environment.
During Hooks’ first year in office, an Oct. 12, 2017, escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution claimed the lives of four DPS corrections employees. Inmates at a prison sewing plant stabbed and battered guards with scissors and hammers. Prisoners set fire to the facility.
In addition to the four guards’ deaths, eight officers and four inmates were hurt. Four inmates were charged with first-degree murder.
Before that, in April 2017 at Bertie Correctional Institution, a 29-year-old sergeant died after an inmate beat her with a fire extinguisher.
“Of all that’s going on at the Department of Corrections, you’d think they’d be more focused on giving raises to some of the rank-and-file employees who are risking their lives every day,” John Midgette, executive director of the N.C. Police Benevolent Association, said about the announcement of Hooks’ raise.
The violence led Hooks and lawmakers to propose changes. In 2018, Hooks called for a top-to-bottom review of the corrections system and training. Hooks and his department also faced accusations about a lack of action in 2020, when rioters tore down public statues in the capital city and other locations across the state.
“Leadership is not ceding to a mob,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said at the time.
The Department of Public Safety declined to say definitively who ordered police to pull back from defending statues, but said it was in the interest of officers’ safety. In 2015, a law passed by the legislature bans the removal of statues from the Capitol grounds.
During the COVID pandemic, Hooks and his department worked with DHHS to enforce Cooper’s emergency orders and mask mandates across the state.
“What we want to take is really a community-oriented policing strategy, where we encourage people in the community, we encourage businesses to voluntarily comply with the law,” Hooks said in an August 2020 press conference. “But we also want to engage law enforcement so that they can educate people out in the public, people in businesses, and then occasionally, they may have to enforce the law.”
Hooks is the second of Cooper’s emergency management leaders to announce retirement this spring. Long-time Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry announced his retirement in April. Last week, Hooks appointed William Ray, current chief of staff for N.C. Emergency Management, as the new director. Cooper hasn’t announced Hooks’ replacement, but his retirement is scheduled for Aug. 1.
“It has been the highest honor of my professional life to lead the thousands of men and women who serve with distinction in the various components of the Department of Public Safety,” Hooks said in a press release. “I am particularly proud of our work together to save and protect lives. Serving with these dedicated professionals through unprecedented natural disasters, human tragedies, homeland security challenges, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinary.”