Sheriff Smith’s Cognitive Dissonance Problem

Earlier I posted on our FaceBook page the 2012 recidivism report I found. Yet another report indicating that the sheriff was not successfully managing resources, with a slew of recommendations, most which likely have never been implemented. This is the one area she has continued to cling to as a success, but now we can officially question even that. But the interesting thing about that report was that it repeatedly stated the staff and community organizations were sufficient and capable. I believe she’s cut staffing even more since that time, so sufficient may no longer be accurate. But clearly, they felt staffing was capable if given the right tools.

On to a more recent report, one which I haven’t yet seen, but the Mercury has reported on. And curiously, ONLY they have reported on it at this time that I can find. The much talked about National Institute of Corrections (NIC) report the sheriff spoke of as if it would vindicate her in some of the issues she’s being confronted about.

From what is being said, it doesn’t. But….

Mercury News is pretty much showing it’s underbelly for the sheriff again. One article lists out some of the recommendations in the report, another article says a new report from NIC “spreads the blame”. Despite the report stating officers have been “taught” to escalate tensions through a lack of training, mentoring and support and that they were “confident there is no systemic use of excessive force,” the Mercury still tries to point out the sheriff brought in the NIC to investigate “the employee culture” even though that’s not really what they “investigate”… from their website, “NIC…provides guidance with respect to correctional policies, practices, and operations.” So let’s be clear, they were looking at the management practices of the jails, not investigating employees, who happened to turn out, again, to be the best resource the  sheriff has. In a side note, I am really, really curious to see this report and see what they said about PREA as well, since that is also NIC’s domain. When will this report be made easily accessible to the public?

What NIC pretty much found, according to the Mercury’s report, is that failures in the “employee culture” were due to the administration of the jails that failed to maintain and support basic established common sense practices. Yes, BASIC practices failed to impress — the same one’s we’ve been talking about now for what feels like forever.

Where does the blame lie when the top recommendations are items like “Update, educate and train on a new use force policy ASAP?” Use of force in any law enforcement agency is a BASIC policy where there should be little to no question, yet it’s pointed out that policy was unclear to most, training was substandard and needed modernization, and that practices varied from location to location and shift to shift.

How is this anyone’s fault other than the sheriff’s and those she promotes to positions that should ensure standards are continually met? If any agency isn’t constantly reviewing their use of force for appropriateness and new ideas on a regular basis, they’re failing. Our sheriff’s use of force policy is nearly non-existent at this point. An officer, when confronted with a situation and a hard decision to be made in an instant should have a damned good idea what their options are.

Keep in mind, prior to the sheriff, the PCAU reviewed every use of force incident for several things — adherence to policy, if policy was effective, if there were any questions or concerns about the policy that arose during the incident, if there could be improvements to policy, etc. Not today. Once a year, if anyone has time, they’ll give the policy a quick read and move on. Keep in mind, we’ve found out through varied investigations at this point most policies haven’t been reviewed since the sheriff took over.

Here’s something to keep in mind as well – all those people who she kept telling us were going to be arrested for use of force — if you have no policy, and an officer is doing what they believe to be correct and within policy, you really can’t show they did anything wrong. What they did is what your policies and practices taught them to do. Their potential wrongdoing becomes the wrongdoing and liability of the county that failed to have good policy and train their employees to that policy now.

Yes, this is the same lack of policy we have talked about having worked in the sheriff’s favor for years in enforcement — if there is no strong policy, you can always throw someone else under the bus. Not this time. Eventually something was bound to go wrong and policy would become part of the subject – seems that day is here.

The NIC makes the recommendation, “Develop new academy and jail-training programs, recognizing that with pending retirements, inexperienced new employees will be quicker to react with force.”

The training being used in the academy is called “obsolete.” In service training is nearly non-existent, “particularly in regards to dealing with difficult inmates.” There is no means of succession planning to ensure newer employees are ready to take the reins from those taking their 30 years experience when they leave.

So are the deputies responsible for creating training programs? Keeping their training programs up to date? Of course not. They are in part responsible for ensuring they are up to date on training, but they don’t create it. This is the responsibility of the sheriff to ensure sufficient and current training is in place and up to her administrators to ensure that everyone can get time to attend necessary training after they leave academy and are working for the office.

The training question goes deeper though — what training do instructors and training officers have to understand how to instruct? How to update courses? How to create a course? What courses must cover and how to best instruct those items? My sources say they recently just had one basic instructor course, but there has been no ongoing instructor training, there is no instructor development program. There is minimal training for new instructors and when that basic instructor training happens isn’t clear — it is likely not before or as they start as an instructor, but some time after they’ve been already in the classroom.

Academy instructors in both corrections and enforcement are hand selected by the sheriff and her upper admin. She has cut her best instructors because her inability to separate her personal issues from her work decisions. She has allowed instructors that have abused cadets to go unpunished. She has allowed these same instructors to be moved into other, less visible training positions without remedial development or other training on how to correctly do the job without injuring cadets. All this literally results in teaching cadets that inappropriate violence is an option when dealing with inmates.

A third point they offered for the sheriff to address is, “Employees report little guidance and supervision from sergeants; sergeants report a similar lack of direction from lieutenants.”

This is directly the fault of Laurie Smith and her assistant sheriffs. The problem is that no one below that level is allowed to make any kind of autonomous decision – not about who goes to training, not about department budget decisions, nothing. From big to small, nearly all decisions must go up the ladder. Sergeants must go to lieutenants, lieutenants must go to captains, and captains must go to the fourth floor. Failure to do so or failure to follow the direction given from that level, could result in any number of complications from suddenly being removed from an assignment to literally finding yourself under investigation.

This bizarre, controlling process has paralyzed both corrections and enforcement in many ways. When a question goes up, far too often an answer never comes back down. This manages to reflect poorly on everyone and create the environment you see today – lieutenants and sergeants incapable of providing direction and responses to those they manage. No policies to follow, no source to bring questions to and assure you can get a decision or answer that will be helpful. This is not new, we’ve pointed it out before.

Our office practices have been called “incestuous” by some and their observation was vindicated with this point: “The depth of knowledge about best practices and emerging correctional trends is weak, partly because of an unwillingness to seek new ideas and participate in learning opportunities.”

The sheriff, even to the public, insists she is something the condition of her office proves she is not. She has all but called herself visionary, pointing to her position as a POST commissioner. She also uses her leadership training at the FBI’s National Academy, a program that lasts only about 3 months and has probably been updated repeatedly since she attended. She claims she works with others outside, but simply being present does not mean she is listening and implementing what is said around her.

It’s much like how Smith has publicly insisted she is always looking at her policies and procedures…”we’re always reviewing…we always strive for perfection.” Those are the sheriff’s own words. What we’re seeing in report after report today, shows that something else is happening other than what the sheriff claims — both in regards to policy and her visionary leadership.

There is a constant cognitive dissonance between the emerging reality of so many reports and the sheriff’s continued claims that she knows what she is doing and she is doing what needs to be done.

She is reviewing policy and procedure against what? Her own ideas and practices. She has created an echo chamber that she believes validates her actions without ever looking outward for verification that what she is doing is striving for perfection, is best practices, that her ideas can be validated it the greater community. Her ego is to fragile to allow anyone to tell her that her ideas are less than perfect and fail to meet standards. People have been punished for daring to do so.

And if you think this intellectual incest is confined to the jails and isn’t part of enforcement, you’d be a fool.

The last point I’m going to address — there were more, but this is already too long — is the promotional process they mentioned. In enforcement the process has been destroyed over time. Because she already knew her process “worked”, the jails saw the process destroyed very quickly. This is what the NIC thinks of the promotional process: “Develop an objective promotional process that includes guards’ ability to communicate with both employees and inmates. Right now, there is an “ineffective promotional process,” based largely on oral interviews, which the researchers called “one of the worst predictors of behavior.””

About 10 years ago in enforcement, getting promoted was a multi-step process; a process that you needed to study for. You needed to prove you understood certain elements of managing people, decision making, etc. Since the sheriff doesn’t allow any of that until you reach the fourth floor anyway, she eliminated all those burdensome character examinations that prevented her from promoting those she wanted or needed to reward.

It’s that simple. I don’t know what else to say, you do something the sheriff approves of to protect her, to cover up her failures, to pretend you review policies all the time when the media is in her face, promote your anti-bullying program in her time of greatest need for a public diversion, bring in campaign money… she will give you something in return. That is the standard. You want a special assignment or a promotion — do something to please the sheriff, regardless of ethics.

She’s always been like this… “shoulder tapping” was the norm for years. No one would apply for an assignment, because they knew the sheriff either had already decided or she allowed the captain to pick the person they wanted. When the position opened up, the captain or lieutenant was sent to “shoulder tap” the pre-approved person. Same would happen for promotions — the problem with promotions back then though, you still had to be competent enough to get through the process.

Now the process consists of a short oral board with only the pretense of review and corrections has been blessed with that process now as well.

So I ask the Mercury News, looking at these issues — how exactly has the NIC report done anything other than lay the failure at Sheriff Laurie Smith’s feet, albeit in a less bombastic manner than the Blue Ribbon Commission? There is no report that vindicates the sheriff, and we have a lot of reports now. The same thing is said over and over and over and depending on what standard you wish to use… either since 2010 when Smith’s plan was reviewed and was given a failing grade, or since 2012 when the first needs assessment was done after the sheriff’s takeover, it’s only gotten worse since then.

Maybe you’re right, there is some blame spread out: The Board of Supervisors carries some blame — they have money to throw at all kinds of special interest issues, they have the money to give to PR firms to protect the sheriff from her bad decisions. They endless throw money at the homeless issues with little to nothing in the way of long-term results. There is a LOT of ineffective spending on their part and not enough results.

Results. I think that’s the point here. The Board of Supervisors certainly seem busy and engaged, but what are the results of their efforts? I call much of their work “Happy Bills” because so much of it seems to be propaganda to show how they’re working on the problems that we’re talking about today – but what are the results of all these public efforts? The gun buy backs that they did a round of during the last election season didn’t slow the violence. We are still looking at a record number of homeless because we spend so much on temporary measures that ultimately change little. And it appears we’ve gotten so much the money to do these things by cutting programs at the jails that would actually provide some long term results to some of these issues.

Supervisors rarely engaged at any depth and the jails prove that. The jails are the Board of Supervisors responsibility. The sheriff is only a contractor selected to manage the facilities. So I guess in that respect there is blame to “spread around.” They should have taken the report that elicited strong concerns over the sheriff’s plan in 2010 more seriously. They should stop pretending that the sheriff isn’t playing a shell game by telling the public that programming at the jails noted for quality in 2009 still exists. It doesn’t, the recidivism report shows that. They know it, the sheriff knows it. They ignored the 2012 needs assessment, they passed over the 2014 assessment that showed how much worse things were continuing to get.

And after all that, Cindy Chavez, sweet, sweet Cindy, pretends our jails are a community project that we can all take on together and feel good. Chavez had the audacity to pretend there were no clues along the way that she and her colleagues should have seen and stated “we responded to a crisis as community.” Why did the BoS not respond to the crisis before it became deadly as leaders? Because that’s the Board of Supervisors job. It really is such a shame that a person with such a shallow defense for the situation we find ourselves in is running unopposed. While the window-dressing is nice, if you’re not taking care of the structure of our community to keep it safe and running, all the offices for special interests in the world become meaningless. Of course in this county, buying the public with Happy Bills is what it takes to get elected — so there’s one more person to blame: The single issue voter who walks into the booth thinking, “I got what I want, who cares about the rest.”

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2 thoughts on “Sheriff Smith’s Cognitive Dissonance Problem

  1. Training. A friend of mine has been working in the main jail for less than a year. They recently commented they were training newer Officers on their shift. My head spun. As smart and professional my friend is, as a 20+ year veteran of another agency… This scared the crap out of me. Not only did I warn my friend the liability they were being set up for, but also this blog. They had no idea. Scary.

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    • It’s literally the blind leading the blind in our jails. If you look at the deputies that are currently facing murder charges none of them have more than 3 years. on.. yet they were on a high risk, high stress floor, by themselves without direct supervisors, senior officers or deputies, and virtually no standardized policy and training to lean on.

      The media has talked about a “theory” that the inmates can block the locks and open their cell doors — aren’t they going to be shocked when they find out this “theory” is supported by an actual video of an inmate showing how it’s done; the video is used for training purposes so the deputies are aware of how this can and is being done by some inmates.

      It’s a nightmare, and now some of the corrections deputies are supporting the sheriff that built this environment. I’m incredulous most days.

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