As technology advances and society evolves so has the state of policing, on both sides of the fence. With national outcry over the last couple of years over police brutality and excessive force, there have been some trickle-down effects, from the public questioning standard practices to trying to better understand the situation at large. But there is another side to the story as well, from the officers’ perspective and the people who manage and train those who deal with the common Joe as well as the most unruly in society.
Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean, a 37-year veteran, oversees 700 sworn officers, including deputies on patrol and those working in the jail. The Sheriff’s Department is in contract with five out of 10 of the county’s cities, plus unincorporated areas. Oxnard Police Chief Jeri Williams, a 26-year veteran, has 244 sworn officers in her department overseeing the county’s largest city of more than 200,000 people. Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, a 29-year veteran, has 127 sworn officers to serve the county seat. As communities and police departments work at building trust and creating partnerships, Ventura County’s top three law enforcement officials share their points of view and how national issues have impacted them locally.
Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, Oxnard Chief Jeri Williams
and Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean.
How are things different from when you first started in law enforcement, given the change in atmosphere?
Williams: Remember, I came from Arizona so there is a little bit of a difference but at the same time, busy, engaged. I think all of us signed up to help people. I don’t think any cop signs up not to help people but there was much more support from community at the time. I think that the tide is shifting, definitely shifting towards questioning, analyzing. We didn’t have social media 26 years ago so people can play judge, jury and executioner based on a snippet of information they get in social media.
Corney: I think the 24-hour news cycle, social media and stuff has made it more complex for officers. It’s on Facebook, it’s on Twitter, it’s on the news and people draw their own conclusions based upon partial information and not the full set of facts. It’s definitely something that I know talking to officers, It’s something they think about, something their families think about. Their wives and significant others, kids are sitting at home watching this and trying to differentiate between what’s happening in Baltimore and what’s happening in Ventura County. I think that’s a little more stressful, a little more complex for the officers.
Dean: I think it’s a little more difficult and, sadly, as you move up in the organization, you don’t get to do real police work anymore and you kind of lose touch. I remember a long time ago, 37 years ago — before cell phones and portable radios really worked — when I was done with my shift, there’s a really good likelihood that I could go home and my neighbors on my street or my apartment building knew who I was. Every time I walked into a store there wasn’t a worry that there was a video or that my kids saw me on a video of something that I did, whether it was totally appropriate or someone felt it was inappropriate. Now I think, for these young officers on the street, it’s very difficult. It becomes more of a 24-hour-day lifestyle and work environment that isn’t necessarily positive because the kids go to school and they’ve got the videos and they’ve got YouTube and all that social media. And one of the unfortunate things we see that happens — I don’t care what the event is — is people prejudging without getting all the facts. I think it’s very difficult for young officers these days to separate and get some time away. It’s a stressful job when you’re working and have to live it and go home and go, “Hey, Daddy, look what the kids showed me at school, look what I saw, look what happened.”
This is happening regularly?
Dean: Oh yeah, sure. Young guys get home and somebody talked to their kids because they’re all sharing the video and it’s very difficult and it makes it an even more stressful occupation.
Do you think that those social media tools give people a sense of empowerment?
Williams: It does give them anonymity at times, and power, so it’s very easy for someone to anonymously just lash out at anyone. There is no accountability or responsibility to it but Geoff said it well: You’re making decisions or making judgments based on limited information. It takes us a while to get through an investigation to find out the facts of the investigation. But at the same time, people in positions of power or elected officials almost feel compelled to make a decision, a quick decision about what happened as opposed to what police chiefs and sheriffs have to do.
Dean: One of the things I’ve learned over the years is, don’t get excited with the first phone call I get at 2 in the morning because it is going to change. I say, “Call me back in an hour and let me know what the issues are then and what’s really going on” but with the social media, it’s just right there. We get a hundred calls. The public deserves an answer but they also have an obligation to slow down and let us do our jobs.
How does this impact your officers and their desire to stay in the field?
Corney: It’s hard to know where people’s resiliency to our jobs is, and it really depends on the experiences they have but it becomes incumbent on us to have protective factors set up, programs and cultures that help support them.
Support systems, programs, etc. Are these particularly new in the field?
Dean: When we all started, we would toughen it out but we’ve come to understand that, hey, these officers are human beings and they’re very traumatized by things they see, the death of a child. … I remember my first SIDS baby death or telling a parent that their 12-year-old was just killed in a car accident, and it used to be, “Hey, suck it up and deal with it.” Now we realize that’s not the right way.
We never hear about PTSD in law enforcement. What’s the overall impact?
Williams: I will tell you some of my officers involved in some of the critical incidents we’ve had in the last couple of years are second-guessing their career choice. I’ve had a couple of them say, “You know, this is really hard, this is really challenging, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” And so, 20 years ago, that just wasn’t an option. It was just as Ken said or Geoff said, you just suck it up and go to the next call. I actually do have a couple that are really reconsidering or really strongly thinking whether or not they want to stay.
The court awarded $2.9 million earlier this month in the wrongful death suit of Robert Ramirez, who had been overdosing on meth when Oxnard officers were called. How has this situation impacted them?
Williams: We had a conversation with some of the involved employees. It is obviously surprising to get this kind of verdict, frustrating on the officers’ part, second-guessing themselves. The community is now second-guessing us, too. It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility given to our guys and gals on the street.
How will your officers handle such calls in the future? It seems like a very delicate situation.
Williams: We, as a group or as people, can have a conversation as people about people calling officers when either a drug issue or a mental health issue happens. Are our people absolutely trained to take care of or manage in those types of situations? I’ll tell you no, we’re not but there should be segments of society, either the behavioral health system or mental health system — any kind of system should be able to better manage those and at the same time we, as law enforcement, go to our elected officials and ask for or request help. We don’t get funding to help our officers in training with things like that so it’s a very frustrating dynamic right now.
Dean: It would be great to have a mental health professional and a doctor on every 911 call but it’s just not possible. Oxnard started the program years ago — 40 hours of crisis intervention training. We give them some medical first aid training but yet you get someone that swallows meth — we’d love not to show up but send the doctor, send the paramedic, but I can tell you when the doctor and the paramedic show up and that guy’s fighting, they’re going to stand back and say, let the officers handle it. So this guy’s going crazy and the officer will go, “If I go hold this guy down and something happens, then it’s going to cost me $2.9 million.”
How often do you get a call about poor conduct by your officers?
Williams: It’s a very low number.
Dean: I had 40,000 contacts last year. [On average], we do about 120 internal investigations a year. Probably about 60 percent of those are generated by us, things that we hear about, but it’s just a small percentage of the total number of contacts we have — traffic stops, calls for service, everything.
Corney: I find that generally in our profession we’re spending more time explaining what people are seeing in the media from other places and explaining our conduct, and they’re asking us what our perspective is. I talk to our school resource officers who are having walk-by conversations with students about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, South Carolina or Baltimore. The kids at school were trying to process this in relation to the police officer that’s near and dear to them.
How do tragedies impact you and how you run your department?
Williams: I’ll go back to the Missouri incident. As a police chief seeing, hearing the police chief response, seeing how horrible, in my personal opinion, he managed that from a media standpoint, it was relatively embarrassing to me. We’ve had many conversations from the chiefs’ end as well as internally on how to better manage, how to better contact, better push out information. We looked at our policies and procedures just to make sure we had things in place that could help mitigate some of the challenges that they had in Missouri.
Corney: We talk about how social media has kind of complicated our environment, but think of the benefit we get out of it because we get a lot of teachable moments. I’m sure Geoff’s and Jeri’s departments show some of the videos that go on the news in briefings, and the sergeant with his team gets a chance to talk about it and where the officer acted appropriately or inappropriately or too soon to tell; it’s still a teachable moment for somebody to look at that.
What’s going on with the drug trade in your jurisdictions?
Corney: We’re in the business of protecting our communities and promoting a quality of life in our communities and reducing the proliferation and the impact of hard drugs, heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine. We see the impact of that, we see the lives that are forever ruined and we see the people that are career criminals because they’re drug addicts, and so finding ways to address that appropriately is, of course, through enforcement. I can tell you from my perspective that the drug trade is an enterprise that’s very profitable for people. So drug dealers spend all their time figuring how to get around what we do to stop them. Getting arrested, dealing with law enforcement and policing issues, is just cost of doing business; so it’s all uphill and the more lax our drug laws are and the less accountability we have in that system, it makes it that much harder for us. It’s tough, but in my view, it’s definitely a fight worth fighting. It’s something we have to do because when you really see the impact this is having on our communities, it’s significant, and huge percentages of our property crimes directly related to drug addiction and drug use.
Dean: Actually I think we found a huge percentage of our violent crimes or domestic violence, all of our crimes are tied to substance abuse and while it’s never a battle we’re going to win because Americans are just abusers of narcotics, I think we can continue to take a slice out of the pie to reduce that. I think that we save people’s lives because we make it more difficult for them to get it. I would be scared to see what it would be like if the doors were just open. We’ve seen it in places like Amsterdam when they legalized it, and realized within a year or two the cartels took over and they finally had to change the laws back because it was terrible. The addiction rate went way up, the domestic violence rate went way up, the violence went way up so it’s not whether or not we’re going to win, it depends what you call win, how many lives that you save — does that mean victory?
It’s the 90/10 rule — 90 percent of people aren’t in that realm, 10 percent are and it’s the same ones over and over. So how important is treatment and monitoring post facto?
Dean: Huge. It’s huge. The problem why Prop. 36 was such a failure, and it was a failure. Prop. 36 is drug court. So it was, you come in and you’d have a substance abuse habit and I’m all for treatment to get them off but out of 10 programs they would send people to, two were worth a darn and that’s why we’ve spent so much money on our jails, putting people in substance abuse programs. If I can get 25 percent off drugs, that’s a huge victory. There has to be enforcement because substance abusers are like children — it depends where you draw the line on the sand. And if there are no ramifications, which is one of the really terrible things about Prop. 47, all these people that were going to the treatment aren’t going now. They’re doing 60 days in my jail, no probation, no treatment so they can go back out and start using again.
Williams: If there are people out there who want help and assistance, the community has a responsibility to provide that. Can we help to shelter them and to put them into those? Absolutely. But there are program-resistant individuals out there that, no matter what we do or what opportunities are available to them, they choose not to and so we’re called in to deal with those persons.
Corney: One of our challenges is – generally speaking — is 90 percent of the people who aren’t addicts and don’t have substance abuse problems, don’t have those experiences in their lives, don’t understand the 10 percent who are. When they see incarceration and criminal justice sanctions against people they want to say, if they could just work with them, there’s got to be a better way. In general, we support rehabilitation that works, that has good outcomes. There’s very strong evidence that when people are incarcerated, their drug use goes down. If there’s a better way, that’s fine but it’s hard because I think the general vote or majority of the voter block sees it as, rehab has to be better. And I agree it has to be better but we can’t get it as effective.
Let’s talk about Prop. 47. How have reduced charges for crimes, including meth and heroin possession, thefts under $1,000 and of stolen guns changed policing?
Williams: I think anecdotally we could all say that we’re definitely seeing an increase in some of our property crimes. And it’s directly tied to those repeat offenders or seriously habitual offenders in our communities that keep offending over and over again and there’s no teeth in the system to stop them from doing what they’re doing.
Dean: My jail population is back up to where it was. They said they’re going to have to empty out jails but it’s back up. It dropped down because they’re all taking these misdemeanor sentences and they’re doing an extra 30 days. They’re staying in there longer for a misdemeanor charge because they don’t want probation. Though, really, our crime rate is going up because they’re out reoffending and it hasn’t reduced the jail population. I sit on the Board of State and Community Corrections as a governor appointee, and it’s our responsibility to find a way to dole out the savings that were supposed to come — but people were lied to on what this was — for safe schools. There’s $200 million [expected to be saved]. I will be shocked if it’s $20 million by the time it’s all done. Because if it all comes from population savings from the California Department of Corrections, not local jails, they’re still at their [inmate population] cap. They’re barely making their federal mandate. And it’s very sad what’s happened. But then again, go back to our substance abuse people that aren’t getting any help. Somebody’s got a date rape drug, we can’t hold them. Somebody’s got a gun, [a theft under] a thousand bucks and there’s stories of crooks stealing TVs out of stores and they go, “It’s under a thousand bucks. There’s nothing you can do to me.”
Corney: All these hard-core drug addicts are out on the street and in our communities. They’re stealing; they’re committing crimes; they’re involved in violent crimes. It’s tough because it’s a tug of war. Addiction is an enterprise; recovery is an enterprise — there’s people who want to see money going into that, too. I think if Geoff could shut down a jail tomorrow, he’d do it but his responsibility is to incarcerate people who are harming our community. I also think from the addict end, the majority of people caught in that cycle of addiction and crime, they don’t want to live that way.
Dean: Some of them have to get to the bottom before they’re willing to make the change because it’s just so addictive and it’s so sad.
Corney: And getting to the bottom, there’s a lot of victims.
On the issue of mental illness, it’s been said that 25 percent of the people in your jail suffer some type of mental illness.
Dean: Twenty-five percent are on some type of psychotropic medication so the percentage itself of some type of mental illness is probably significantly above that. That’s 25 that we know about, that we’re treating, that we’re providing medication for.
That too is a cycle because if they’re on medication, they appear to be lucid, they go before a judge, they’re released because they’re not of harm to themselves or the community, and then they stop taking their medication. It’s a vicious cycle.
Dean: It’s very frustrating. We’ve gotten to the part where we give them a week’s worth of medication. We drive them to the mental health provider but so many of them are dual diagnoses or they’re homeless and they just don’t do it.
Would Laura’s law, which allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment, be useful in such situations?
Dean: We can force medication out in the public on them but that’s the debate: Is it really better for them? Who decides if it’s better for them? It’s a terrible cycle. … There’s a goofy law that the county just opened a 14-bed facility. I ask, why did we open a 14 bed facility? Why didn’t we open a 25-bed facility? Because if you have 15 or less you can apply for a federal reimbursement under Medicare. If you have 16, you can’t do it. You talk about stupid legislation, that is anti-treatment.
What’s the state of gangs in Ventura County these days?
Williams: They’re alive and well in our county. Fortunately, for Oxnard, we have a gang injunction. I think that’s a great tool that’s been properly executed and properly utilized. At the same time, flipping from police chief hat to community member hat, there are some kids out there who want to belong to something. It’s a socioeconomic issue, it’s an education issue, it’s an educating the family issue so that gangs will be around for a while as long as kids have a need to belong or a need to feel important.
Corney: From my perspective, the concern over gang violence and the impact in our community goes back to this whole drug issue — they’re turf oriented. The nature of gangs has shifted more towards enterprise. I think there’s a much earlier age and there’s a much deeper involvement in the narcotics trade for gangs now than the typical street gang there used to be 20 years ago.
Dean: There’s been kind of a consolidation and you’ve got this power base — it’s kind of based in prisons but they run things out here. We saw collaboration between gangs that don’t get along but they were told by people on a higher level, “You will get along and you will commit this robbery and you will do this.” I think we have 50 different gangs from all over the place in the jail right now.
What can the community do to intervene?
Williams: Begin the process of interacting with kids soon. There are a lot of parents out there who, by nature of having to work two or three jobs, have to be at work at 6 in the morning and they don’t get home until after dark. What are the opportunities for the kids? Where are they going? What are they doing? When you have parenting classes in Oxnard that teach parents what their rights are as a parent, there are some people who don’t even know they have the right to tell their kid, “You can’t go out, you’re staying in here.” We’re teaching people who don’t understand the rules of parenting how to parent, and so my altruistic view of life is that every parent knows what to do and how to do it. God knows, I’m not the best at that because I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a parent, but just giving those kids boundaries and hopefully it starts soon.
Dean: Education. Education. I don’t think we’re going to change the gang life-cycle mentality unless we somehow assure that our young people get a good education because everybody I see that goes to jail, education is just the key. If we can get them educated, then they can go out and feel better about themselves. A lot of kids out there don’t have a lot of opportunities.
What can you tell citizens that you are doing to try to make their communities safer?
Williams: What I find interesting about your question is, everyone automatically assumes it’s law enforcement’s responsibility. We do have responsibility to keep the community safe, I will say that. At the same time, though, if someone has been involved in a violent crime or a property crime, we still have community members who don’t feel comfortable or who don’t feel secure or who don’t feel safe letting law enforcement know who did it, so is that a cultural problem? Is that a communication problem? Is that a trust problem? It’s probably a combination of everything so I think we have a responsibility to begin building the dynamics of trust in our community. There is also a fear of retaliation.
Dean: At what point does the community step up? We’ve evolved in society so it’s always somebody else’s problem. At what point does the community take personal responsibility and talk to the parents? They know their kid is a gang member and is out shooting? At what point do you do that and not just deflect your personal responsibility to somebody else? At some point I think there’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back and the community becomes so outraged that they do it, but I mean, is it changing?
Williams: We’ve had some community members step up and want to be empowered and want to make a difference in the community. There was one lady who at City Council, maybe three or four months ago, pretty much stood up and demonized OPD. So we took that as an opportunity to go outside and speak with her after Council. She’s now become someone who was one of our biggest critics to someone who’s one of our biggest advocates. She’s had a couple of kids who were either incarcerated, who were involved in gangs, and one of the conversations I have with community members when they start talking about how horrible the Oxnard Police Department is, what are you doing? How can we figure out a way to work together? We’re trying to take those opportunities and creating partnerships at the same time.
The Ventura Police Department has started to use body cameras. How has that been working out?
Corney: First of all, the key to it is the support of the officers. Jeri was saying the officers see it as something that’s a tool for the betterment of what they do and so they’re using it successfully. We’ve done it for about a year and it’s getting ready to go into full implementation by the end of the summer. We got the approval and we got the cameras. Of course the cameras are only one part of the policies. There’s storage and some other issue that have to go on. But the simplicity of saying, “We take a video,” and that’s going to change the world, is really imagined. When we actually get into it and start to look at it, there’s a lot of complexities. I think it’s also got the ability to skid the criminal justice system. We have had people plead out because they didn’t want their families seeing the videos or we’ve had people change their behaviors. We’ve saved a lot of time processing complaints that were just outright lies — play it and the person goes, “Oops! Never mind.” I think it gives our officers a greater degree of confidence in this environment we’re in today.
Williams: It’s an important tool for us to use. My personal opinion, it shouldn’t be regulated by the elected officials in Sacramento. We should have the opportunity to have some autonomy to be able to implement the systems that work best for the city of Oxnard, city of Ventura, county of Ventura and not have some of those mandates given to us.
The public has expressed concern about the purchase of military artillery and other equipment. Tell us about what you have and why.
Dean: We do not have any artillery. We have several former military vehicles, but none of them are armored type. Pickup trucks, Humvees for our search and rescue teams and the like. We do have an armored vehicle, but it is a civilian model that we purchased.
Williams: We do not have military artillery. We do have an armored rescue vehicle. This vehicle is used for the following purposes: patrol calls involving armed subjects, SWAT callouts, citizen/officer rescues, training purposes.
What do you think the state of law enforcement will be 10 years from now?
Williams: I see body-worn cameras to be that new frontier for us if implemented properly, if accepted properly by the community and society, we’ll look back, say that was awesome; it was something great that we did. I’m hopeful that the legitimacy, peace or the trust based between law enforcement and the community will further that.
Corney: Law enforcement is a tool of what we do but we’re going to be a big success going into the future I think. We’re going to use technology to help drive to successes, security cameras, body-worn video cameras. Technology is going to help us with investigations — DNA, GPS. I think we’ve got a lot of opportunities we need to be able to capture and work on. Of course, we’re going to have challenges as we go through these. Technology is moving faster than courts can keep up with — privacy concerns and things like that — but I think, speaking in Ventura County, I think we have great partnerships and we’ve got some good people in the wings.
Dean: I think, in 10 years people are still going to be killing people and some people are still going to be using drugs. I think this advance in technology is going be really good for law enforcement because there’s going to be more answers for the public; and I am so confident that when the public sees what our people actually do every day and what they’re doing in 99.8 percent of the events, it’s going to be really, really good for us. And I think we’re going to see an increase in domestic terrorism. Our communities have to work together to protect against these schematics, and the priority level will change. The upside to all this technology and all this media, I think people are going to see more of what we do and we’re going to be able to share more of what we do.