Another member of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s coronavirus response team is leaving.
Erik A. Hooks, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, announced Wednesday he is retiring effective Aug. 1. The news comes within days of retiring Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry’s replacement being named. It also comes as the proposed Senate budget would split up Hooks’ department.
A replacement has not yet been named.
Several members of Cooper’s Cabinet, including the secretaries of environmental quality, commerce and cultural resources, have left as Cooper began his second term in January.
Hooks said in a statement Wednesday that 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.”
“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,” Hooks said.
Sprayberry and Hooks, along with Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, have been the most frequently seen faces of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Hooks joined the other statewide leaders for televised news conferences most weeks since March 2020 when the first COVID-19 case arrived in North Carolina.
Hooks’ agency received criticism during the pandemic for not protecting prisoners enough from COVID-19, and thousands of prisoners were to be released early as part of a lawsuit settlement earlier this year, The News & Observer previously reported.
The Senate’s budget bill, approved by that chamber in June in the first step of the state budget process, would separate the prison system into a new Cabinet agency. The proposed new Department of Adult Correction would have its own secretary under the Senate budget, The N&O previously reported. Later this month, the House is expected to release its own budget proposal.
A Cooper appointee, Hooks has served as DPS secretary and the state’s homeland security advisor since January 2017. He served as a leader in the State Bureau of Investigation before becoming secretary.
DPS is the state’s largest department, according to the governor’s office, with 27,000 employees in law enforcement and other positions, as well as about 12,000 North Carolina National Guard soldiers and airmen. Hooks oversees law enforcement, emergency management and corrections.
Cooper said in a statement Wednesday that North Carolina is a “safer, more prepared state” thanks to Hooks.
“Under Secretary Hooks, the Department of Public Safety has put the safety of North Carolinians first, working to combat crime, respond to emergencies including a once in a generation pandemic, attract and retain quality staff and address inequities in the justice system. I’ve been fortunate to know Secretary Hooks for more than two decades and while his leadership and counsel will be missed, I congratulate him on a well-deserved retirement,” Cooper said.
Cabinet leaders who have changed jobs in Cooper’s second term include Machelle Sanders moving from the Department of Administration in February to serve as Commerce secretary.
Hooks is from Spring Lake and a graduate of N.C. State University, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
The agency also includes the State Highway Patrol, Alcohol Law Enforcement and State Bureau of Investigation, among others.
In April, Cooper appointed Freddy L. Johnson Jr. as the new commander of the State Highway Patrol.