The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office used enough force to require a state-mandated review 13 times through November of 2019, and in all incidents, the deputies’ actions were found to have been warranted.
According to reports obtained by the Daily Union through a public records request, seven of the use-of-force incidents occurred in the county jail, while the other six took place while sheriff’s deputies were out on patrol. The incidents involved high-speed chases, tasers, pepper spray, physical contact or inmate-restraint chairs.
The uses of force occurred in the jail when inmates were fighting with each other or deputies, or they were displaying self-harming behaviors that required the use of restraints, the reports show. In the patrol unit, the uses of force occurred when deputies were responding to calls and subjects resisted arrest or fled the scene.
Scrutiny of a law enforcement agency’s use of force should focus on the review process itself and whether the officer did anything to avoid or minimize the force, according to Michael Gennaco, an expert on police oversight. In 2017, Gennaco’s consulting firm — the OIR Group — completed a year-long study of the Madison Police Department.
“After the event, once force is used, was it investigated? Was medical attention given?” Gennaco, who was chief attorney of the Office of Independent Review for Los Angeles County, said. “You want deputies to minimize the use of force whenever possible and bring people in without the use of force. Time, space, get help ... all these things that might eliminate the need.”
The reports show the policies regarding investigation and response to the incident. The documents indicate how the investigation process worked and what, if any, medical attention was given to the person after the incident.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Parker said 13 use-of-force reviews are not very many for the number of calls the department responds to per year. For example, in 2018, the deputies responded to 33,544 calls, according to the office’s 2019 annual report.
“Given the fact of how many complaints we handle, if you break them down, within intervention actions where they’re being utilized … we’re on the relatively low end of the spectrum,” Parker said. “We take a lot of pride in training our people on professional communication skills.”
While Parker said the 13 were not very many reviews, employees are trained on the proper use of force.
“We have a majority of our people trained in crisis intervention training,” Parker said. “But, you have to be trained to use force when it’s needed.”
In many of the reports, whether in jail or on patrol, deputies write that they made a number of efforts to resolve the situation before resorting to the use of force.
The investigations are laid out in the reports like this any time an officer’s use of force rises to a certain level and an in-house review automatically is triggered. This review is done by members of the department who are experts in that tactical area.
For example, if the use of force occurred while an officer was making an arrest, a defense and arrest tactics (DAAT) expert would conduct the review and determine whethert the officer was justified in his or her actions. There are other categories such as firearms, prisoner control and vehicle operations that also could be considered.
Parker also said a lot of reviews don’t fall neatly into one specific category.
A high-speed chase that ends with someone being chased down and tased would involve a committee member who is an expert in emergency vehicle operator course (EVOC) and another who is an expert in firearms.
The investigation by that expert is done by using the deputy’s narrative of the incident, the narratives of any other officers on the scene and reviewing any body or squad car camera footage available.
Following what’s called the Use of Force Committee Review, the report goes up a level to a sergeant, who makes a determination on the justification, and then to a captain, who makes the final decision, according to Parker.
When the reviews go up the chain of command, Parker said, the sergeant or captain can decide whether the deputy used too much, or even too little, force.
“The main objective is to maintain control; a sergeant or captain reviewing that use of force could say ‘it was inadequate and we need to do additional training with officers involved,’” Parker said. “The other way, it’s been deemed they used excessive force, and ‘what are the corrective measures we need to do now?’ It’s going to involve training, but it could involve disciplinary actions being taken.”
An important piece of use-of-force reviews, according to Gennaco, is what lessons the department draws from them, not just individually, but departmentwide as well. If nothing is done after the review, even if force were justified, it’s just a piece of paper.
“Ideally, you’d see identification of issues that can improve the department,” Gennaco said. “Equipment, communications, tactics, supervision, all of those prisms, and that would be identification of issues we did well, what we could improve on and an action plan to improve those things. Even if you identify issues, if you don’t implement anything, then you’re not going anywhere and it just becomes a paper review of no import.”
The Jefferson County reports show that the committee found the deputy was justified in each use-of-force incident this year and the review committee still tried to use them as an educational experience.
Each review begins with the sentence, “the purpose of this review is meant as a learning tool.” In some cases, the documents show the review committee sitting down with the deputy involved to go over an area in which to improve.
Parker said the use of force prompts the department to ask itself two questions: “What did I/we do well during this incident?” and “If I/we had to do this again, what could we do differently or better from a procedural or tactical standpoint?”
He added that the office assesses all procedural policies — including the use of force — on an annual basis. He also said major incidents often will be adapted into training exercises to put officers into scenarios as close to real life as possible.
“Whenever you have deputies involved in a use-of-force situation, you look at the totality of circumstances involved,” Parker said.
“Policy review is a constantly living, ‘breathing’ process within an organization; you are reviewing the current approved written practices and determining if they are still applicable to changing times and trends within law enforcement, as well as determining if your staff are properly following those policies, understanding them and if additional training is needed in order to improve future performance.”
Parker said justified use of force is the norm in Jefferson County, adding that these reviews aren’t the only oversight of the sheriff’s office. He said the department rarely has citizens file complaints against it.
“In my time here, I don’t recall the last time we had a review where we had an excessive use-of-force complaint filed against our officers,” Parker said. “That’s coming not only from our own review, but the citizens filing a complaint.”
Parker said a big benefit when it comes to the department’s relationship with the community are the body and squad car cameras worn and used by deputies. He said that if a community member is making a formal or informal complaint, he can watch the video with them. He added that the department is starting to rotate body cameras down to the jail division.
“One of the things that put us in a position of advantage is we have body mics and in-squad video systems,” Parker said. “When a citizen files a formal complaint, if there’s video that goes along with that complaint, it enhances the ability to make a very detailed and accurate assessment of what actually took place during that incident.”
Then, he said, the command staff can say, “Let’s sit down together and look at the video and see what your perception is to see where discrepancies are.”
“The same thing pertains down in the jail,” Parker said. “My feeling with video, if you train people to be professional and courteous, that video is always a positive tool to have in the organization.”