Our Opinion: K9s must be nixed from jail cell extraction equation
We are encouraged Disability Rights Oregon Followed through on its investigation into a canine attack on a Columbia County Jail inmate that occurred in August 2017, which was first reported in the Spotlight.
As a result, DRO, which is Oregon's federally designated protection and advocacy system for people who experience mental illness, is calling for state lawmakers to adopt new legislation in 2019 that would prohibit the use of canines in any use of force event in a jail setting (see "DRO calls for statewide ban on use of canines against jail inmates").
We echo DRO's call for state action on this front.
As encouraged as we are for DRO's effort, we are equally discouraged by many of the online commenters on social media platforms condemning DRO and its findings. Worse, many commenters seem to believe anyone housed in the Columbia County Jail should be stripped of his or her rights upon entry and subject to whatever intimidation and retribution tactics jailers wish to impose, despite the fact many in the jail have yet to be convicted of any crime. The thinking behind such assertions is likely either uninformed about the facts in the case that led to DRO's report or is simply grossly misguided.
It's important to clear the record on this particular case, which involved a dog attack on inmate Christopher Bartlett, a St. Helens man with known mental health illnesses and a history of confrontations with law enforcement.
There are several falsehoods in how this use of force was reported by Columbia County Jail staff as noted by Bartlett's attorney, Jacob Johnstun, and DRO investigators. If you believe the official jail deputy reports — which were not even composed as required until after we requested the video records in October, two months following the incident, and reflect shared language among the reporting deputies — Bartlett was acting aggressively, violently, and needed to be moved to an area where he wouldn't disrupt other inmates.
But the full video footage, as pointed to by Johnstun and DRO investigators, doesn't show this.
Instead, it indicates the entire incident is likely the result of Bartlett, after having been passed over for lunch, referring to a female jail deputy, Marti Kyles, by an "unkind nickname," as noted in the Complaint Johnstun filed on Bartlett's behalf in federal court.
The sequence that followed per Johnstun's claim involves Kyles summoning the extraction team, including former canine handler Deputy Ryan Dews, to remove Bartlett from his cell. It's hard to view it as anything other than punishment meted out
by jail deputies who were fed up with a well-known and longtime problematic inmate. Our justice system doesn't work that way, nor should it ever.
Following a review of multiple camera angles in the jail, including body cams, Bartlett was lying down on his bed, in a locked cell, when the extraction team arrived, the lawsuit complaint and DRO report notes. He was no threat to jail staff, other inmates or the public. Further, even if he had been acting irate, as most members of the extraction team reported, he was already alone in a locked cell.
There were no de-escalation efforts by the extraction team, which is a best practice in such situations. On the contrary, the team exacerbated the situation by commanding the canine Lars, a full-grown Belgian Malinois, to bark.
The ensuing extraction was the culmination of a complete collapse of professional standards and best practices, and all involved should be held accountable as such. It is equally relevant to note that former Sheriff Jeff Dickerson's assertion that the use of force was justifiable, prior to any outside review, was either ignorance about the details of the incident or hollow lip service, likely with the hope the whole incident would just go away.
Bartlett has mental health problems including mood disorders, delusional thinking and hypomania. As is too often the case in our society, law enforcement and the jail has had to serve as de facto care and treatment services for him and untold others. The DRO report notes that approximately 40 percent of jail inmates report a history of mental illness. Given that, our jail deputy staff need better training on how to deal with those who suffer from mental health problems.
At this point, three of the Columbia County Jail and Sheriff's Office staff involved in the Bartlett incident who were named in the federal lawsuit have left the agency: former Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, Dews and Andy Moyer. We don't believe that is mere coincidence. Also, Columbia County quickly moved, via its insurance agency, to settle the federal lawsuit with Bartlett for $251,000 plus attorney and court fees. While the settlement notes there is not an admission of wrongdoing on the county's part, the quick settlement and high sum say otherwise.
We now look to Sheriff-elect Brian Pixley to right the ship. For his part, Pixley noted in a correspondence with the Spotlight that he does not intend to use canines for jail cell extractions, and has rightly identified the need for additional training of jail deputies and to assemble a specialized team to be used for cell extractions when inmates are combative or noncompliant.
We expect Pixley to act on his intentions, and will be watching to see how they play out.
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