SHERIFF MICHAEL ADKINSON PROVIDES TESTIMONY TO THE PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON LAW ENFORCEMENT AND ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE

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July 1, 2020

WALTON COUNTY, Fla— Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson is invited to testify before the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and Administrative Justice.

The hearing, held on Tuesday, June 20th, was an opportunity for Sheriff Adkinson to offer his perspective and insight on the accreditation of law enforcement agencies.

In October 2019, President Trump signed Executive Order 13986 establishing the formation of the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice to perform a national review of law enforcement.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized a similar commission to study ways to improve American efforts to fight crime and create public safety for all citizens.

Attorney General William Barr has been tasked with the design, development, and implementation which includes providing a report to the President, Congress, and law enforcement based on the findings and work of the Commission.

An integral part of the Commission’s work is hearing from experts and practitioners with firsthand experience in the field about best practices, lessons learned, challenges, successful programs and initiatives, and innovative strategies to address and enhance law enforcement and the administration of justice.

Sheriff Adkinson’s testimony on accreditation analyzed how and why agencies gain accreditation and areas of improvement.

“I’m grateful for the unique opportunity to address the Commission,” said Sheriff Michael Adkinson. “It’s important we use every situation as an opportunity to educate, learn, grow, and improve.”

To learn more about the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice visit: https://www.justice.gov/ag/presidential-commission-law-enforcement-and-administration-justice.

SHERIFF ADKINSON’S TESTIMONY TRANSCRIPT: 

As a past commissioner for the Florida Commission on law enforcement Accreditation, I deeply appreciate the return on investment accreditation provides to the citizens we serve. Previous testimony has described accreditations in its mechanical form across multiple jurisdictions and I will not go into detail in that regard. However, it is important to provide the overall context for the status of accreditation nationwide. There are approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country of which approximately 838 have some form of accreditation. That is a staggeringly small number when we realize the depth and scope of what law enforcement is facing today. This effectively means that less than 1% of the nation’s agencies are participating in the accreditation process. There are numerous reasons for an agency to work toward accreditation. I would like to highlight what I believe to be the most valuable to the people we serve as well as a critique of where we can improve. However, I must provide a note of caution that not all accreditation is created equal.

Accreditation provides a level of openness and transparency that is critical in building trust equity in our communities. Frankly, there cannot be a discrepancy between what we say we do and what we do. Publicly acknowledging best practices and telling people how we operate does not provide a challenge to officer safety which is so often cited as the reason many of our policies are kept private. To put this bluntly, if your agency allows the use of an air blocking restraint technique then not only should that be independently reviewed, but the public should be aware. In 2015, I had the opportunity to speak at the Florida A&M University (FAMU). FAMU is a historically black college where I was asked to speak with students in the weeks following the Ferguson Grand Jury report. It was an experience that has proved invaluable to me over the last few years. One of the central things I heard from numerous students was the question “why?” Why does law enforcement use this technique? Why this policy? Interestingly, many of the students agreed with the policy in question when they had the chance to understand them and see them in context. One student best encapsulated the collective frustration when he asked me; “Sheriff why doesn’t anyone tell us this?” It was a great question and it lies at the heart of accreditation; do what you say you are going to do and be prepared to have your actions independently reviewed. Accreditation is one more avenue in which we can provide transparency to the public. Agency policies cannot be imposed on the public without being properly vetted and discussed in the public forum.

The Independent review provided by the Florida Accreditation Commission staff is imperative to the viability of an honest critique. In plain speak; agencies should not be able to assert pressure on the reviewing body. The strength of Florida’s commission lies in its state charter and balanced representation from multiple entities. This ensures that no one agency regardless of size and standing has undue influence on commission findings. As a commissioner, I witnessed agencies of all sizes be taken to task when appropriate. It was the candor and critique of the commission that allowed agencies to continue to provide quality, actionable items for them to use. It is a testament to that independence when you see Mayors, County Commissioners, Sheriffs, and Police Chiefs appearing personally in front of the commission to guarantee corrective action when appropriate. To be clear I am speaking about how the commission operates in Florida. There are 47 states that have some form of state accreditation. They are not created equal and, in some instances, represent nominal oversite. By way of example, some states allow accreditation light where only 25 standards are reviewed, while hundreds more are not. This is simply not the same thing as rigorous accreditation. It does not have to be that way and the first step to ensuring a quality product is to provide an independent body that does not have a financial interest to conduct the accreditation assessment. Accreditation at the state level is often resisted by agencies on the fallacy of cost. A good policy is never cost-prohibitive; however bad policy is always so. It is not a question of cost, rather a question of will power. I would ask that this body consider recommending that states charter accreditation commissions through their state legislatures so to ensure independence and rigor. State commissions have a distinct advantage over national accreditation in that state-specific laws and practices are accounted for and that standards reviewed are relevant.

Accreditation also serves as an incubator for best practices. During my time on the commission, I had the opportunity to listen to diverse organizations highlight innovative or reimagined practices that were tremendously successful. These programs were scalable and ranged from technical best practices to public programs designed to build on a currency of trust. By way of example, I would like to highlight two programs that I adopted from other agencies. The first is our early warning intervention policy. It is a policy designed around the fact that very few major breaches in training or officer action occur without indicators. Our belief is that by intervening early we may prevent future bad behavior thereby increasing the public trust as well as potentially correcting the officer’s behavior before it evolves into something career-ending. And when appropriate, it allows us the opportunity to suggest another career outside law enforcement. This policy works on the basic premise that somewhere in an officer’s behavior there are signs prior to the major breach of conduct. For example, our policy requires that an officer receives three complaints of rudeness inside of year then they are referred to counseling and evaluation. Why rudeness? Essentially, we know that rudeness erodes trust from the public also, rudeness compliant is one thing, but three separate people saying the same thing about an officer’s conduct deserves further review. It denotes a pattern. There is not a viable reason to allow an officer’s conduct to go unchecked or uncorrected. This policy came from my time on the commission. The beauty is that now this policy is transparent to the public and the assessment teams make sure we are doing what we say we do.

Another such program is an educational-based disciple. It is a program adopted from a presentation made to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was authored by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office. This program dovetails with the early intervention policy in that it provides mechanisms for the officers to take ownership of their actions and then provides a path to improvement (this does not apply to moral turpitude issues). Officers have a chance to participate in a corrective plan that emphasizes where their deficiencies were and to take steps to correct them. The decision to participate is up to the officer and they may make the decision to opt for a standard disciple. That choice alone tells us something. Our philosophy with this is simple; better, not bitter. These two policies highlighted above would, had they been in place in Minneapolis and followed, provided the agency an improved opportunity for a different outcome.

Finally, I would point out that I am a strong proponent for the fundamental elements of work from Dr. W. Edward Deming and his philosophy of continuous improvement. Specifically, Dr. Deming’s belief that “The prevailing style of management must undergo a transformation. A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from the outside.” This principle encapsulates the strength of a rigorous accreditation process. Accreditation provides the framework for continuous improvement through the promotion of best practices while simultaneously pointing out deficiencies in an organization’s operation. We as a profession must be willing to have that honest self-evaluation and accreditation hold the mirror up to us so that we can accurately reflect on our operations. Similar to how a standards and training commission monitors officer conduct performance and training for individual law enforcement officers, accreditation should provide that same assistance to agencies.

Recommendations:

I would ask that the commission consider these specific recommendations:

1) The formation of state accreditation commissions chartered by their legislatures. And that these commissions be statutorily independent of any state association or individual agency. And that said commissions be representative of the full scope of stakeholders involved in the criminal justice system. This commission should have the ability to provide onsite assessment and guidance to those agencies who choose to participate in the process.

2) That said commission is not contingent on fees alone to fund their operation. Providing a fee-based system as a sole source of funding can create a perceived conflict of interest. This should be avoided at all costs.

3) That the initial formation of state standards be adopted based on acknowledged best practices and policies from existing organizations. And with a specific emphasis on early intervention programs.

4) That said policies adopted by accreditation commission be transparent to the public unless a specific identifiable risk to officer safety or the public is noted. In that case, those policies should be approved by the commission or judiciary for public record exemption.

5) That said commissions provide a resource to train agencies in the principles of continuous improvement and systems analysis.

These recommendations are minimum and broad-based in regard to accreditation and I realize that there is the concern of local budgets. However, as of this report, there are currently 16 agencies operating under federal consent decrees and many others working under the Department of Justice memorandums of understanding within DOJ’s Collaborative Reform Initiative. I would suggest that the cost of continuing down the same path is more expensive and frankly untenable.

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