Racial Discrimination and Use of Force Concerns
In light of recent events, we have received inquiries from concerned citizens who have expressed a desire to know what our agency does to prevent racial discrimination and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office; Specifically what do we do to ensure Deputies do not abuse their law enforcement powers and how are they held accountable for their actions? In regard to racial discrimination and use of force, agency expectations are clearly defined, taught, and enforced. Let me explain how we ensure this happens.
In 2009 when I took over duties as the Chief Deputy, we began to explore the requirements of accrediting the agency through the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation (CFA). Accreditation, is an industry best practices standard held by many institutions; such as education and health care, and it brings with it many benefits, especially to the community. State and National law enforcement accreditation includes high standards an agency must follow that are based on best business practices. These standards were initially created by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, National Sheriff’s Association and the Police Executive Research Forum. Accreditation not only requires an agency meet these high standards, but it also requires that agencies prove they are meeting them annually. This “policy and practice review audit” occurs by opening the agency (transparency) to an outside independent review by independent accreditation assessors and the public. Proof is satisfied through a re-occurring and in-depth inspection by these independent assessors who must report their findings to the state and national accreditation governing bodies. Our agency members go far above even these rigid standards.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office achieved its initial state (CFA) accreditation http://www.flaccreditation.org/ in June 2013. Every three years since then, the agency has been reassessed on its annual performance in order to maintain this state accreditation standard. In 2014, we moved to become nationally accredited as well, through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) https://www.calea.org/. This accreditation required the agency to meet additional and even more stringent standards. The agency achieved CALEA accreditation in 2015 and was recently reaccredited in 2019. CALEA accreditation is only held by about five percent of all nation-wide law enforcement agencies. The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office is currently the only Florida law enforcement agency west of Tallahassee to hold CALEA accreditation and the only law enforcement agency in Okaloosa County to hold CFA accreditation.
State and National Accreditation and the exceptional standards it requires, including mandated training and reporting requirements, provides an independent affirmation to the citizens of Okaloosa County that the agency is conducting business at the highest professional levels expected of it. From this structure the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office maintains oversight, direction, and control for all sworn and civilian members of the agency.
Again, in regard to racial discrimination and the use of force, agency expectations are clearly defined, taught, and enforced. Agency policies and practices clearly state that racial discrimination is not only prohibited, but is also unlawful. Agency policies and practices require members to use only the minimum amount of force needed to achieve lawful objectives and de-escalate this force as soon as compliance is achieved. In the event one of its sworn members use force in response to resistance by a suspect, the member must complete a formal report to explain and justify the type and amount of forced used.
De-escalation is not only mandated in policy, but additional training is also incorporated in the agency’s annual proficiency training requirements. There are also types of force which we do not train for and are prohibited by the agency such as the chokehold. All incidents involving uses of force must be reviewed by the member’s immediate supervisor and this review requires the supervisor to interview the suspect to determine if there were any perceived abuses, complaints or need of medical attention. All use of force incidents are subsequently reviewed by the agency’s Office of Professional Standards to ensure all responses were in compliance with the law and agency policies/standards. These reviews also help determine if additional training requirements are necessary. The Office of Professional Standards also conducts an annual review of all subject resistances to determine any trends or disparities in its treatment of all suspects.
To support the response to resistance reviews, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has required body-worn cameras (BWC) be worn by its sworn members while on duty, since 2014. Agency members are required to activate their BWC at the onset of each call for service, consensual encounter, and any enforcement action. This technology and policy requirement captures an entire incident from start to finish, and provides an independent view from officer and subject perspectives. In addition to reviewing specific response to resistance incidents, supervisors are required to conduct periodic reviews of BWC videos to ensure members are meeting all expectations of the agency.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office prides itself as being an active member and advocate of the community where we live and work, and will not tolerate any members committing unethical or prejudicial conduct. Our core values are imbedded in agency directives and training requirements. In addition to annual supervisory training, all agency members receive the Sheriff’s Expectation Letter which clearly defines the fair treatment of all. All new members receive bi-annual ethics training and must undergo Racial Intelligence Training & Engagement (RITE) training which is a nationally recognized diversity training program. This in reinforced by periodic mandatory re-training such as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Discriminatory Profiling and Professional Traffic Stops training courses.
A visit to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office’s website located at www.sheriff-okaloosa.org , as well as, its Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/OkaloosaSheriff, reveal the transparency of the agency. There are many resources available on these platforms, such as our annual reports, including our Bias-Based Profiling policy and respective annual reviews. On our webpage anyone can submit commendations and/or complaints which are directed to the Office of Professional Standards. This office is managed by a member of the Sheriff’s Command Staff and is responsible for handling complaints that may result in suspensions, termination and/or criminal charges. Lesser alleged offenses require a respective supervisor to conduct a supervisor inquiry which are subsequently reviewed by command staff management. All allegations, whether founded or not, are documented and these records are maintained for every complaint, and are available as public records request.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has in place numerous checks and balances to ensure agency members act responsibly and professionally in meeting the needs and expectations of the agency and the citizens we serve. All deputies undergo an in depth background investigation and vetting process before hiring and are provided training and professional development throughout their careers. Agency and supervisory oversight ensure that all members respond in accordance with all policies, accreditations standards, and statutes. Accountability for mistakes and wrongdoing range from letters of reprimand to arrest. I know of no other profession that works as diligently to screen, train, and develop its members in service of community. Our agency requires its members to record their every interaction with the public, mandates its members certify and re-certify in numerous federal and state training requirements and all while dealing with every criminal and societal ill laid at its feet for immediate resolution.
As Sheriff of Okaloosa County, I have great confidence the members of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office will serve and protect all individuals and treat them fairly, impartially, and professionally. Members clearly understand that our laws apply to law enforcement officers and citizens alike.
Larry Ashley, Sheriff