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Sheriff's office struggles to hold
public trust in the face of scandal
[Jacksonville, FL]


January 09, 2001
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Sheriff's office struggles to hold
public trust in the face of scandal
[Jacksonville, FL]

Steve Patterson, Times-Union staff writer
December 26, 2000 Tuesday, City Edition
Copyright 2000 The Florida Times-Union
The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)
December 26, 2000 Tuesday, City Edition

(JACKSONVILLE, Fla.) -- A debate about recording interviews by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office highlights the pressure police are feeling to preserve public confidence after months of embarrassing and sometimes painful allegations of officer misconduct.

That pressure mirrors the experience of communities across the country where law enforcement agencies have faced recrimination for officer actions ranging from brutality to race-based investigations and participation in robbery, murder and drug trafficking.

But the history of those communities suggests that public confidence is more easily lost than regained, and that rebuilding faith in law enforcement can be a lengthy and daunting task.

'Trust, once you've lost it, can you ever really get it back? I don't know,' said Elizabeth Pittinger, who manages a civilian review board for police misconduct that voters in Pittsburgh created in 1997.

There and elsewhere, efforts to win back trust through reform have run risks of being tangled in disputes over political support for law enforcement, autonomy of local agencies and the requirements of existing civil service laws and collective bargaining agreements.

Whether bad deeds by Jacksonville officers will measurably harm trust in their agency remains to be seen.

Sheriff Nat Glover has reported little backlash from the agency's greatest humiliation, the indictment this month of three officers on civil rights charges involving robberies and the killing of a storeowner. At the same time, State Attorney Harry Shorstein said he fears a growing public skepticism of police, and he may ask detectives to videotape interviews with suspects to refute claims that confessions were coerced.

Shorstein said his concern stemmed from 'the environment we find ourselves in now of so many allegations of police misconduct,' from the indictments to an officer fired for improperly searching a bikini-clad girl.

Police critics in Pittsburgh had no blockbuster cases, such as the charges filed against Jacksonville officers last week, but wove dozens of minor complaints into lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. While lacking the shock value of a major scandal, numerous isolated indiscretions can carry a collective weight that damages a whole department's image. CITIZEN COMPLAINTS

'They [police officers] just treated people like crap,' said Witold Walczak, the ACLU's point man in Pittsburgh. 'That was sort of symptomatic of this attitude that 'we're in charge.' '

He said some officers exercised arbitrary street justice by jailing people on minor charges that couldn't stand up in court but would get people locked up for a night. Complaints of overzealous and unfounded charges were greatest in minority neighborhoods, and internal affairs investigators hardly ever found an officer in the wrong.

Eventually the U.S. Justice Department stepped into the dispute, and in 1997 the city signed an agreement to reform its policing and submit to at least five years of scrutiny by a monitor reporting to a judge.

The agreement, called a consent decree, listed specific changes the department had to make to satisfy Washington. They included annual police evaluations; rules for thoroughly investigating citizen complaints; a computer system to track police performance; and training or transfer for officers facing repeated complaints.

Those pledges created an objective way to measure change, with a promise of punishment in court if the city didn't keep its word.

'It is very clear that the public has more confidence in the police today than it did five years ago. And the reason for that is the consent decree,' Walczak said, adding there are questions mostly about what will happen when the monitor's work is finished. 'He is the community's window into what's going on in the department.'

But Pittinger, whose eight-person agency was created separately over objections from the mayor and police supporters, said she thinks citizens and police are both on edge.

'We've had a terribly tumultuous few years,' she said. 'The consent decree certainly polarized people.'

Officers who try hard to do a complicated job think their careers can be torpedoed by one mistake, she said. Meanwhile, only three of the 11 officers criticized by the citizens board last year were actually disciplined by the police chief.

She said a combination of cautious politicians, civil service laws and police union agreements have made real reform harder to reach. One officer was convicted of a felony and was fired, only to have his firing reversed by a labor dispute arbitrator whose rulings are confidential under Pennsylvania law. The same cop was fired two more times and each time survived through arbitration, Pittinger said.

'That handful of people who should never have been police in the first place terrorize people, and they get away with it because they're protected top to bottom,' she said. BATTLE LINES

Police unions in a number of cities have opposed changes forced on them from outside. In Jacksonville, the Fraternal Order of Police sent Glover its own recommendations for 22 reforms.

Pittsburgh-style federal intervention has been regarded in some cities as a way to break local inertia. Activists in Chicago, for example, have openly campaigned for the Justice Department to sue the city, using a 1994 law that allows federal action when police show a pattern or practice of violating civil rights.

But the idea of forcing change from the outside has also fueled hostility among police supporters, and in some cases drawn battle lines over whether change is even needed.

Phil Harmon, a lawyer from a Columbus, Ohio, suburb, campaigned almost a year for a seat in Congress largely on a platform of opposing Justice Department involvement in the Columbus police force.

'We stirred it up pretty good,' said Harmon, a conservative Republican who ran an independent campaign for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. John Kasich. Although he trailed badly in polls and ultimately withdrew, Harmon considers it an accomplishment that Columbus officials ultimately rejected the federal consent decree, choosing instead to face a federal lawsuit that is still in progress.

The subject has taken on national political dimensions, with conservatives labeling federal involvement as a Washington power grab to control local police. President-elect Bush has said he opposes Justice Department lawsuits against police except in extreme circumstances.

Harmon said reasonable people could disagree over whether problems in Columbus amount to anything more than isolated incidents, but that in any case the problem would warrant smaller, incremental steps.

'In Columbus, there was never a single federal civil rights charge brought against an individual police officer,' he said. 'We thought that didn't make sense, that if there were a problem you would go after the root first rather than the whole system.'

Glover so far has taken initial steps to produce local solutions, but has also borrowed outside ideas.

In September, when he formed a committee to advise him on reforms, he also announced the creation of an integrity unit that would be housed separate from other police offices and would test the honesty of other officers in secret sting operations.

That idea has been in place for several years in New Orleans, where in the mid-1990s a historically crooked police force became so notorious that business leaders said it was hurting the city's vast tourist industry.

'I think 5 percent of your organization needs to be in an integrity unit in every police department in the country,' said Terry Ebbert, director of the New Orleans Police Foundation, a non-profit group financed by top corporate executives to improve the city's law enforcement. SILENT PRESENCE

The unit becomes a silent presence in the department, he said, as officers periodically receive letters telling them they've been tested sometime recently and thanking them for their professionalism.

The integrity squad, the foundation, and far-reaching efforts to weed out bad cops and instill neighborhood-based policing became cornerstones of reform there.

But progress in New Orleans has involved a complicated set of factors that few cities would want to reproduce. Pay for officers was abysmally low, with rookies earning $ 18,000 per year when momentum for reform gathered several years ago. At the time, Jacksonville rookies earned $ 30,000.

Dozens of police officers were indicted -- some for murder -- dozens more quit under investigation and more than 100 were disciplined or demoted.

And with a city council soured on the police department, police backers initially turned to the corporate community as their only source of money to improve conditions.

The New Orleans Police Foundation donates $ 1.4 million per year to projects that benefit the police department, including underwriting medical insurance. While the city has provided money to hire more officers and raise pay, corporate donations are still an essential funding source. The foundation is involved in police recruiting efforts, managing advertisements for new officers and checking applicants' backgrounds.

Supporters point to opinion surveys that now show residents feel better about law enforcement. But even supporters say there are still some problems with misconduct, and that progress is a relative matter.

When the reform drive started, 'the only thing we were No.1 in the nation on was crime,' Ebbert said. 'We were down at the bottom in a lot of other things.'

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