Is increased scrutiny from the public on social media and the professional news media affecting the way law enforcement officers do their jobs?
That question is on Delaware County Sheriff Russell Martin’s mind these days.
The question was raised on Oct. 23 by FBI Director James B. Comey during a speech at the University of Chicago. In that speech, the director stated that while he had no statistical basis to prove it, he did have anecdotal evidence from officers with whom he had spoken about the issue — that the increased scrutiny was affecting the way they execute their duties.
“I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars,” Comey said in his Chicago speech. “They told me, ‘We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.’”
In the wake of Comey’s comments, the White House disputed the director’s assessment.
“The evidence we have seen so far doesn’t support the contention that law enforcement officials are shirking their responsibilities,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said at his daily briefing on Oct. 26. “In fact, you hear law enforcement leaders across the country indicating that that’s not what’s taking place.”
Locally, Sheriff Martin weighed in on Twitter by posting on Oct. 27, “Listen to those on the front lines.”
Martin sat down with The Gazette on Monday to discuss the issue and what he is hearing from local officers.
“I appreciated what the (FBI) director had put out, particularly in light of the fact that he had actually talked to some front-line police officers and had kind of been on the street,” Martin said. “I thought it took some courage on his part to share his observations. I don’t know that the data right now is supporting one position or another.”
Martin noted that some law enforcement officers with whom he has spoken have indicated that they are concerned about the effect that the increased publicity regarding negative run-ins with civilians could have on the way they do their jobs.
“They’re concerned that they’re going to be met with more antagonism upon their arrival; more distrust out there,” he said. “An already difficult job has become more difficult because of this. The deputies have told me that they’ve had experiences where they’ve encountered that on calls.”
However, Martin said that he has not received any indication that Delaware County deputies are backing off from doing their duty.
“I haven’t had our officers admit that they’re avoiding the tough decisions,” he said. “But I do think that it’s on everybody’s mind. It can’t help but be on their minds. I’ve had deputies tell me that they’re so aware of the confrontations that it’s given them a little more pause than they would’ve normally had. On many levels, it’s probably OK, but sometimes you hope that a police officer doesn’t hesitate too long and find himself in a compromised safety situation.”
In regard to being recorded on video devices, Martin said he has encouraged Delaware County deputies not to avoid or oppose being recorded by local residents who choose to do so.
“We’re public employees working in a public environment and we should not be averse to being recorded in our day-to-day operations,” he said. “Obviously, if something was of a covert nature or we were on a barricade situation and we were trying to move an officer to a secure position, at that time we might want to say, ‘Hey, we don’t need any video clips being circulated. Help us manage this situation.’ But, in general, in day-to-day encounters with citizens, we should expect to be recorded or keep in your mind, ‘I was recorded, how would I want to carry myself.’”
The Delaware County Sheriff’s Office is still in the process of acquiring body cameras for deputies. The sheriff said his office has completed evaluations of three different types of cameras and related products and hopes to make a final decision in the next few months.
“My intent is to have those cameras on the officers that are out in the field and we’ve also given serious consideration to putting them on corrections officers that are on duty (at the county jail),” Martin said. “We think there’s benefits on both sides of the operation to having that availability to video record what we’re doing.”
While discussing the recent incident in South Carolina in which a school resource officer lost his job after a video of his physical encounter with a female student went viral, Martin said he has received numerous questions about the issue on social media. He shared his thoughts on the situation.
“This is not intended to sound like a politician, but I just don’t really have all the facts,” he said. “What occurred before the officer arrived? We don’t know what the officer was told or what led up to it. It looked really bad, though.”
Martin then related a recent conversation he had with a former school resource officer who experienced a similar situation while on the job. According to Martin, the officer cleared the classroom and informed the disruptive student that he would have to remain in the classroom by himself for the rest of the day if he was not going to go to the principal’s office as directed. The officer told Martin the student then agreed to go to the principal’s office instead of remaining alone in the classroom.
“That was a pretty good strategy for that particular student on that day,” Martin noted. “Could that have been exercised in (the South Carolina) situation? Again, I don’t know, but usually you like to impress upon your officers that time is on your side. The longer you can take to diffuse something and problem solve, it tends to be a better outcome. I would encourage school resource officers in that similar position to take as much time as you need to, to try to resolve that problem.”
In cases of officers having to use force to resolve situations, the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office has a “Response to Resistance Committee” that reviews each case and makes a determination on whether the use of force was appropriate or not. Officers are required to submit reports about incidents in which they are involved.
Andrew Carter can be reached at 740-413-0902 and on Twitter @AndrewCarterDG.