Spotlight coverage helps frame public discussion about Sheriff's Office best practices

COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE FOOTAGE - A still image of a canine use of force on inmate Christopher Bartlett in the Columbia County Jail. Revelations spilling out of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office over the past year have been voluminous and telling. They raise the question: Is there a culture problem at the Sheriff's Office?

There is no quick and easy answer. Conversations with Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson reveal someone who is staunch in his convictions, not prone to admissions of mistakes, and is guided by his own sense of right and wrong.

Since June, we have reported on the Sheriff's Office unusual practice, since halted, of having staff travel to Washington state to sell Oregon concealed handgun licenses at gun shows; use of a dog for a jail cell extraction, resulting in a dog bite on an inmate; internal probes into senior-ranking staff and ensuing demotions; and a reserve deputy program that had lax oversight, a questionable process for verifying volunteers, and resulted in the service of a convicted felon who only had his gun rights restored via a state legislative program clumsily approved nine years ago.

We have also learned of video footage, confirmed by Dickerson, of two jail deputies roughhousing while on duty. One punches the other, a move Dickerson characterized as a "sack-tap."

It's a long list. Longer still if we include the removal of former Sheriff's Office Reserve Deputy Tyler Miller, who was placed on inactive status amid an Oregon State Police investigation focused on his involvement with the Columbia 911 Communications District. Though the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office determined the circumstances in Miller's case didn't rise to the level of a prosecutable crime, it did conclude Miller had been by motivated by revenge for his actions in the 911 Communications upheaval — a concerning finding considering his role in law enforcement with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.

For Dickerson's part, he says he sleeps easy at night. But maybe he shouldn't.

Of all the revelations, perhaps the most troubling is news about jail staff siccing a dog on an inmate to enforce a cell extraction. When the Spotlight initially contacted Dickerson about the attack prior to breaking the story, he was unaware of it. After coming up to speed, he quickly ruled, as our headline noted at the time, the attack was "justifiable."

It wasn't. In fact, there is nothing in Sheriff's Office policies that allow for deputies to use canine units for intimidation or cell extractions.

Use of force on inmates is controversial. Unlike someone who had committed a crime and has fled from law enforcement officers or is resisting arrest, the person is already incarcerated. In this case, a canine was unleashed on an inmate, Christopher Bartlett, in a locked cell, who was combative and refusing to cooperate by moving from one jail block to another.

Emily Cooper, legal director for Disability Rights Oregon, approaches questions about use of force by first determining if it is just, and secondly by assessing if there is a less-intrusive way of using force. Law enforcement officials should be trained in Crisis Intervention Training, she notes, and should seek ways to de-escalate situations so that force is not needed.

One example she provides for an appropriate use of force would be to restrain an inmate to keep him or her from self-inflicted injury. Using canines to enforce cell extractions, to move a person from point A to point B, however, doesn't meet that threshold.

"I have never seen police canines used for cell extraction," she said. "I did not see that that's allowed under state law."

She also explained that, often, jail inmates have been charged with a crime, but have not yet been convicted.

Cooper points to American Bar Association criminal justice standards for treatment of prisoners issued in 2011, and notes that canines should never be used for the purposes of intimidation or control. One likely allowable use, however, would be use of a canine to conduct a cell search for contraband.

Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier, at the request of Dickerson, is now exploring whether the canine use of force was justified. Absent Dickerson's request, however, a DA review of the attack would still have been warranted.

Taken together with accounts about recent demotions, sketchy use of volunteer reserve deputies, on-duty roughhousing by jail staff and other activities recently reported out of the Sheriff's Office, the dog attack unquestionably points to problems with staff adhering to policies and procedures on the enforcement

and jail side of Sheriff's Office operations.

On the positive side, it appears Dickerson is not standing idle. He has hired new staff who have explored changes to the reserve program — actually implementing many of the controls that for years only received lip service — and is diving into ways to better manage people with mental disabilities who end up in jail as the result of committing a crime.

We believe our coverage of these stories is important and helps frame public discussion about Sheriff's Office best practices.

And, if nothing else, they should serve as a resounding wake-up call for Sheriff Dickerson.

Sheriff Jeff Dickerson offered his perspective on the spate of recent stories in an email to the Spotlight available online.

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