Orange County has adopted a police reform plan that includes measures to diversify the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and to make it easier for citizens to file complaints of misconduct against its employees.
The plan, approved 20-1 by the county Legislature, applies only to the Sheriff’s Department. Each of the other 31 municipalities in the county with a police department must develop its own “reinvention” plan or face a loss of state funding and appointment of a monitor to ensure that the mandate is met.
Chief Diversity Officer
The county’s report declares that the Office of Sheriff Carl DuBois “believes it is essential that law enforcement agencies reflect and represent the diversity of the communities they serve.”
But the agency’s full-time Civil Service workforce is 81.6 percent white. Blacks make up 5.1 percent of its full-time Civil Service employees and Hispanics 10.2 percent.
That compares to 2019 Census estimates of 13.2 percent for blacks and 21.6 percent for Hispanics for the entire county
Local law enforcement agencies complain that strict test-driven state Civil Service rules make it difficult to recruit minorities to their ranks. The situation is different for Sheriff’s Office part-timers where DuBois has more leeway. According to the report, 30.4 percent of those employees are Hispanic and 10.1 percent are black.
To promote “a culture of diversity” and to “project fair-mindedness” in encounters with citizens the advisory committee that prepared the Sheriff’s Office plan recommended that the department confer bi-annually with the county’s deputy commissioner for employee relations and affirmative action plan officer to assess its diversity efforts.
In addition, the committee proposed that the Sheriff establish a part-time civilian position of Chief Diversity Officer, who would work with the county’s Departments of Human Resources and Human Rights in matters of recruitment, hiring, professional development and employee retention.
13 complaints during 2018-2020 out of 60,000 encounters with the public
The plan estimates that Sheriff’s Office has 20,000 encounters for various reasons each year with civilians. It reports that police action generated 13 complaints during 2018-2020 of which two were founded, eight were unfounded or unsubstantiated and three are still under investigation.
The agency has created a space at the top of its website where citizens can make complaints or compliments about employee conduct, anonymously if they wish. The communications will be transmitted to an officer with the rank of lieutenant or above for investigation. Identified complaints will be informed of the result.
The committee proposed that any deputy must ensure that his or her name and badge number is prominently displayed in encounters with citizens. Deputies also must state that information verbally and repeat it when requested. The Office of Professional Standards and Compliance is tasked with assisting citizens who cannot recall the name of the deputy with whom they have any interacted.
Office to seek grants to purchase body cameras
The committee acknowledged that the office needs body worn cameras to record those encounters but concluded that the costs associated with the storage of footage would be “prohibitive” for taxpayers to bear. Instead, it recommended that the Sheriff’s Office seek out grants from outside sources to pay for equipment and administration of a body camera program.
Meanwhile, Middletown is spending $143,354 a year to outfit all 71 police personnel with cameras. For the moment, the ten-year program is being funded with tax dollars. “It will protect the public, and it will protect the police,” said Mayor Joseph DeStefano.
‘Welcome ‘fresh eyes on an old problem’
Most of the Sheriff’s Office report is taken up by a description of current policies and recommendations for improvements.
“We were not opposed to the (reform) process,” said Undersheriff Kenneth Jones, who served on the committee. “We did not oppose the suggestions” in the draft report.
He added that “review always brings positive outcomes.” The diversity discussion “brought fresh eyes on an old problem,” he said.
The undersheriff predicted that the state would use the plans to prod municipalities to seek accreditation for their police departments, a formal recognition that an agency meets or exceeds widely accepted policing standards. The Sheriff’s Office has both state and national accreditation. It is among 150 of the state’s 500 police agencies that are accredited.
The formal public comment period on the plan ended on Feb. 18, but “we will continue to receive public comment and retain it for future use when the Plan is revisited for compliance and review,” said Craig Cherry, deputy commissioner of emergency services for the county, another member of the advisory committee.