Sunday, August 26, 2018

"Wow, I Never Thought About It That Way" (Sheriff's Course, Week 2)



Remember this meme that was floating around a while back? It's a lot what I felt like, driving home from my second class, afraid to turn my head too fast because it was crammed so full of new thoughts, some might fall out.
 "Most problems in government," explained Undersheriff Matt Cline, stem from the same root as many of our personal problems -- they come from lack of effective communication. His talk was the kickoff to a three-hour class that had lots of enlightening facts and figures ... and several powerful "Wow, I never thought about it that way" moments.

First, just a few stats to give you a feel for the magnitude of the endeavor. We're talking about an organization with about 800 people plus voluteers (full- and part-time; both sworn and civilian). About 2/3 of their $75 million dollar per year budget goes for law enforcement, but there are also people and activities in the background who support the deputies on patrol (the guys you actually see on the street): you need a jail so you have a place to take anyone you arrest, and the bailiff at the courts, and admin and finance and dispatch. You need investigators, and forensics, and equipment and bomb-and-drug-sniffing dogs and training and worker's comp. You need to pay to keep the lights on in the building, and keep the vehicles maintained. That was the first "wow I never thought about it that way" moment. To equip a new deputy costs more than his first-year salary, when you figure the cost of a car, uniforms, gun, radio, bulletproof vest, taser, the list went on. And training -- lots and lots of training and continuing education in crisis intervention, defensive tactics, firearms qualifications, driving, CPR, juvenile law, hazardous materials (hazmat) response ... that list went on and on also. All this stuff below the surface, the base of the iceberg so to speak, costs about three times their actual salary, not even counting the original issued equipment. That number seems large but it's in line with the number I used when managing environmental cleanup contracts for the Army back in Colorado or managing research scientists in Michigan.

The behind-the-scenes class that I'm in, and "ride-alongs" with officers on patrol is one way the office is trying to help communication, and help ordinary people understand the range and complexities and nuances of what law enforcement does. One of my classmates, a local author, first went on a ride-along to help get information for a previous novel. And I found out why they had to do a background check before any of us could be accepted into the class. You see, if a bad guy attended, he would get a little bit too much insights into the inner workings of the sheriff's office and could use that knowledge against them...not good! (And that was my second "wow I never thought about it that way" moment of the evening, courtesy of Brian Lee, chief(?) of the law enforcement division, who has had the responsibility to sign off on those background checks.)

The most powerful anecdote of the evening was about the wearing of body cams, or, in the case of our county, the not-wearing. Let's admit it, there have been some really egregious past abuses of police power. So a bit of public accountability should be a very good thing, and arguably has been, in several cases that have been in the news in recent years. Of course everyone's got a cell phone now, so police actions are a bit more visible anyway, body cams or no. But still, if department policy is to refuse to wear cams, the first place your mind goes is to ask what nefarious behavior they're trying to cover up, right? And to wonder if we'll be on the front page of the Washington Post any time soon. But now, imagine this hypothetical (but extremely plausible) situation as described by Undersheriff Cline.

Seventeen-year-old high school student, a cheerleader, where someone serves her too much alcohol. She comes home, not feeling well, and proceeds to throw up in the bathroom while her parents try to help. Then she lays for a while against the cool of the tile floor.  Soon her breathing becomes a little labored and the parents call 911. The officer arrives and with his hypothetical body cam, not intentionally but just while he's walking to her, films the interior of their house and the sick girl on the floor.

Next day, the nosy next door neighbor goes to the office and requests a copy of the video, under the State of Florida's equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, which he is entitled to because all these police body cam videos are a public record and can't be withheld. And then the girl in her very vulnerable moment, and possible the interior of the house, are all over the internet forever. Unintended consequence of a law that, as written, does a terrible job of balancing public right to know with individual right to privacy -- in this situation there is really no vested public interest in knowing details, but there is also no good mechanism for redacting portions to protect individual privacy. So until the law is modified, until judgement is allowed to handle stuff like this with a bit more sensitivity, the department is adamant that this particular can of worms remain unopened. Not as a cover-up, but as a protection.

"Wow I never thought about it that way,"indeed.

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