Body cameras have worked wonders to all but eliminate use-of-force complaints from the public. The addition of defibrillators to road deputies’ arsenal is saving lives. Software that automates ticket-writing is making it easier for drivers to read citations. But the county’s emergency communications system is being held together by “paperclips and rubber bands.”
That was the message from Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre to the Palm Coast City Council this morning, after appearing before the county commission the previous evening to present a somewhat different sum-up of his four years as the county’s top law enforcement chief. He spoke to commissioners about the improvements at the county jail, the importance of improving mental health supports for individuals and inmates (“It’s incredible that the county has been so progressive on these ideas, and willing to help law enforcement out”), the move to a new sheriff’s operations center, and raises for sheriff’s employees, among other achievements.
It’s been Manfre’s farewell tour of sorts, his chance to thank local governments he’s worked with—Palm Coast contracts with the sheriff for its policing services—but also to caution agencies about critically needed improvements.
None of the cautions were as explicit, or critical, as his description this morning of the county’s emergency communications system—the so-called 800-megahertz system that enables dispatchers, cops, firefighters and municipal and county employees to talk to each other.
“It is already failing,” Manfre told the council. “During the hurricane it was kept together by paperclips and rubber bands. If I related the stories to you, you wouldn’t believe it, just acts of heroism that occurred by law enforcement to keep that system going. We don’t have sufficient radio tower coverage, the present software is obsolete.”
The emergency communications system has been a sore point between the county and the sheriff, and between the county and Palm Coast, with the sheriff and the city pressing the county to invest in an upgrade, and the county, citing its $10 million system (which it paid for with a 15-year bond issue in 2005), saying it’s on schedule to be replaced by 2021. That’s too late, the sheriff and the city believe, though the county insists that the system is healthy enough to keep going that long. Today’s descriptions by the sheriff, though lacking specifics (he gave no example of failures), are the most critical to date.
There’s been “meeting after meeting” on improvements, he said, with the county “finally talking about hiring a consultant. After four years we’ve gotten at least that far. But this isn’t something we can wait on. The system is 10 years old.” If the county waits until 2021, he said, “someone’s going to get injured.” He added: “You’re talking about first responders who are putting their lives on the line, and the public as well who are really dependent on proper communication to make sure that their lives are saved or first responders get there as quickly as they can or get there to the right location. There was no greater example of this than during the hurricane.” There were dozens of agencies in the county during the emergency. “We literally couldn’t communicate with them. We had to talk to them over cell phones,” he said, urging the council to make upgrades a priority.
Yet Manfre’s words to the county commission the previous evening were sharply different. He credited the county for improvements to the 911 system—albeit a different system, though it also relies on the backbone of towers and emergency communications infrastructure—and credited the county’s IT director, who oversees much of the sheriff’s IT infrastructure—and infrastructure plagued by failures until its upgrades. “Jared Shupe has really come into his own in coordinating our IT services,” he said, “and most importantly the deputies, my employees, are happy.”
The mention of happy sheriff’s deputies, with their communications system, was different from the way he’d described the system this morning. There were other notable differences: this morning he praised Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon, mentioning “his guidance and therapy sessions,” but had little praise for County Manager Craig Coffey Monday, a reflection of the notoriously strained relations between him and Coffey. Still, Manfre was thankful to the county for raises to deputies and employees. “Our retention has gone up very high, and the only real loss we’re seeing right now are people retiring after 25, 30 years,” he said. He was also thankful for building a new jail and a new operations center.
Speaking to the council this morning, he had high praise for three additions to the arsenals of road deputies: Automatic External Defibrillators, computerized ticket-writing, and body cameras. The defibrillators, he said, are “a very quick way to bring cardiac help to victims. It has resulted just recently in saving a life in Palm Coast.” That was a $60,000 cost, but each road deputy now has an AED.
The city’s technology fund was tapped for the ticket-writing software. “Trying to decipher what a ticket actually tells you is kind of tough,” he said. “Deputies are out there sometimes tired and their handwriting is not always the best.” The electronic ticket now is generated and “immediately gets sent to the clerk’s office into our records department, so it’s a much more efficient way of doing business.”
Manfre reserved his most lavish praise for body cameras, the at-times controversial device that enables deputies to video-record all police encounters, and, in some circumstances, make that footage publicly available.
“I’m very proud that we have been way ahead of the curve on body cameras,” Manfre said. “I think there’s only three sherrif’s offices in the state of Florida fully implementing body cameras and we’ve had that full implementation in the city for almost three years now. But it’s a huge up-front cost.”
That statement about the three sheriff’s offices could not be verified, but the claim is echoed in the low and documented proportion of police agencies with body cameras. A Florida legislative analysis earlier this year found that, based on Florida Police Chiefs Association data from October 2015, “out of 301 police departments in Florida, 18 police departments used body cameras, and another 10 agencies had pilot body camera programs in place.”
“All of our deputies have body cameras,” Manfre said. It was a $100,000 expense, but worth the investment, he said. “And let me just tell you how significant it has been. Wherever body cameras have been implemented and it’s certainly clear in this county, use of forced incidents almost disappear. Complaints from the public disappear. We’ve had no use of force complaints and no sustained complaints from the public in the three years that we’ve implemented body cameras. And why is that? Well, it changes the dynamic.”
When people know they’re being filmed, he continued, “that same encounter that sometimes led to an angry exchange [that] would lead to a use of force, now it’s different. People act differently. The public when they know they’re on camera don’t say the things they do, don’t act out as much as they did before, and honestly, law enforcement acts differently, too. What’s happened in that in the few instances where we got complaints, just showing the video to the complainant—sometimes they literally do not know how they were acting towards law enforcement, and how law enforcement is acting toward them, because they’re so upset at the time, and the complaints go away. So that was a huge advantage that we’ve had in law enforcement by having those.”
Sheriff-Elect Rick Staly said he is a supporter of body cameras.
“You have certainly served us well and kept us safe,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland told Manfre at the end of his presentation. Referring to his wife, the mayor said, “I wish you and Cornelia much success and happiness moving forward, whatever the future holds for both of you. Thank you.”
On Tuesday the Sheriff’s Office distributed to local media the following piece by Sheriff Manfre, which is reproduced here as originally written, without editing. The title is the one Manfre gave it in the original document.
What’s Wrong With The Police
I have had a unique perspective over a 24-year law enforcement career on the actions and attitudes of police managers and police officers as an investigator, a prosecutor and a sheriff. Because I have never attended a police academy or worked as a street cop, my views of what I have witnessed are not colored by the police culture that permeates law enforcement decisions and reactions. I believe that there are real reasons for and solutions to the problems plaguing law enforcement around the country when it comes to community relations and the use of force.
First of all, the public must acknowledge the difficult mental and physical conditions that the average street cop must contend with in order to do their job well. The lion’s share of street policing is done by men and women between the ages of 19 and 30. After that period, because of seniority and experience, most are elevated to a special unit or a supervisory role. Most of the interactions with the public are with the youngest and least-experienced personnel in the organization. Last year, our 80 road deputies who take emergency calls responded to close to 150,000 calls for service ranging from traffic accidents, domestic disturbances, the mentally ill, reported crimes from theft to violent incidents, and natural deaths. We are asking our law enforcement officers to wear a lot of hats as peacekeeper, marriage counselor, mental health evaluator, crime stopper, traffic law enforcer, neighborhood watch, youth director and homeland security assistant. Police also work the debilitating 12-hour shift rotation that has them changing every three months from a day to night shift, which causes family and physical stress. Police face the daily danger of gun violence, traffic accidents and heart and blood pressure issues. They are exposed to people at their worst moments in their lives, who may be physically or mentally traumatized by crime committed against them, the loss of a loved one or domestic disturbances, and who may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Second of all, we are asking our police to make split-second decisions on life and death while dealing with these conditions. As in any other profession, law enforcement officers sometimes make mistakes. Unfortunately, when law enforcement is wrong it can result in the loss of life or serious injury. In order for police to do their job well, law enforcement managers need to embrace certain best practices to properly train and prepare their personnel.
No. 1 and most importantly is embracing enthusiastically the community policing philosophy. This philosophy espouses the central concept to good policing and that is treating every person in every encounter as a customer. This point of view allows the officer to maintain a neutral attitude toward the citizen they are speaking to regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or national status. This concept, where it has been successfully implemented, engages the community in assisting law enforcement in reducing crime through neighborhood watches, town hall meetings, youth activities and transparent communication.
Use of Body Cameras
No. 2 is the full implementation of body cameras to all patrol officers. In this age of video, it is essential that law enforcement have accurate video records of their encounters with the public. Body cameras are a game changer and positively influence the behavior of the citizen and the officer because each knows that their behavior is being recorded. In every agency that has implemented body cameras, use of force and citizen complaints drop dramatically. And that has been the case in Flagler County since we have implemented this technology. In addition, it saves time in the prosecution of the arrest by allowing the prosecution and defense attorney an opportunity to review the evidence to evaluate the strength of the case against the defendant.
Less-lethal force, de-escalation
No. 3 is de-escalation training and the use of less-lethal force, which have shown to reduce use of force and deadly physical force. De-escalation training teaches an officer to lower the temperature of encounters with the drunk, the addicted, the mentally ill or suicidal and the outright angry citizen. It is counterintuitive to back off or lower your voice when confronted with a verbally or physically abusive person, but, with practice, this is exactly what a well-trained officer will do. In addition, by using Tasers or beanbag ammunition in a properly altered shotgun, violent or suicidal persons can be subdued without injury to the officer or suspect.
No. 4 is yearly training of line officers and supervisors in the basics of their jobs. The jobs of the line officer and the line supervisor, corporals or sergeants, are difficult ones. They need to make critical, split-second and lifesaving decisions in the heat of battle. The more training they receive in those areas, the better able they will be to make the right choice. By using virtual simulators that can create real-life shoot or no-shoot scenarios, the officer has an opportunity to hone these critical decision-making skills.
Consistency and accountability
No. 5 is having a fair system of discipline and accountability that is used consistently and without bias when there are policy violations or internal investigations of police misconduct. This I believe is law enforcement’s weakest point in that the police culture becomes defensive when it needs to be its most transparent and forthright about its failures. On the other hand, the public needs to understand that the proportion of annual complaints against the million law enforcement officers and their tens of thousands of encounters with the public is very small.
No. 6 is the use of outside agencies to review use-of-force complaints must be made mandatory nationally. It is impossible to conduct an investigation of one’s own officer when there is an allegation of criminal conduct. There are too many internal issues that arise from this situation and, regardless, the public views any result other than criminal charges as a cover-up.
No. 7 is recruiting a diverse staff of officers who are reflective of the community’s makeup. It is hard for every agency to recruit African-Americans, Hispanics and women simply because the pool of applicants is so small compared to white men. This does not relieve the law enforcement agencies from actively recruiting and ensuring a fair and nurturing environment for these officers.
Lastly is the enlightened law enforcement manager, whether chief of police or sheriff who is open to changes and bettering the profession. None of the above will happen without this type of leadership. I have witnessed both the enlightened manager and the backward leadership style. You can tell the difference by the negative news stories. The backward manager’s agency is always in the news regarding some misdeed. The enlightened manager’s agency is rarely in the news for something negative. A concrete local example has been the Flagler Beach and Bunnell Police Departments. Over a period of years, there was one negative story after another involving both agencies, regarding potential police misconduct. With the hiring of Chief Matt Doughney in Flagler Beach and the hiring of Chief Jeff Hoffman and after he was hired by the Flagler County Sheriff’’s Office, Chief Tom Foster in the Bunnell Police Department, those agencies have turned the corner and now will run out of the negative news cycle.
Clearly, law enforcement needs to do more to ensure the confidence of the public. And the implementation of the aforementioned steps would help greatly. The federal government should ensure these best practices by providing federal dollars for increased training and to defray the costs of body cameras. Law enforcement must do a better job of communicating its mission on a daily basis to the citizens it serves. Citizens must do their part by understanding that they are receiving 24- hour, seven-day-a-week protection from their local police. And to receive the maximum from this service they are paying for requires support and cooperation, but also vigilance and a demand for professional, fair and unbiased interactions.
James L. Manfre,
Sheriff of Flagler County