Law enforcement accountability and reform are at the forefront of a tense and anguished national conversation in recent weeks. For Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, these are issues that have drawn his office’s attention — and action — for several years.

The sheriff’s office is in the midst of a selection process for three deputies and a lieutenant to serve consistently in Sisters under a new, enhanced $725,000 per year contract with the City of Sisters.

According to DCSO public information officer Sgt. William Bailey, three current DCSO deputies have applied for the positions and one lieutenant is interested in the position. Sgt. Bailey — who will be promoted to lieutenant as of July 1 — is already acting as an interim, supervising the deputies who are currently working in Sisters and the west county.

City administration and council will participate in the final selection of the deputies and their lieutenant. They’re not expected to be in place till later in the year.

“Some of it depends on the training of the new recruits we have on the road — and some of that has been delayed due to COVID-19,” Sheriff Nelson said.

Recruitment for the sheriff’s office has been a challenge for some time, and Nelson sees that situation only getting more acute in the current climate.

“I do anticipate more challenges in that area,” he said.

The Sheriff said that the agency has done three back-to-back recruiting drives — and needs to do more.

“We will not be able to fill all of our positions in patrol out of the third (cycle) so we’re going to do a fourth,” he said.

There may be more of a reluctance in the populace to pursue a law enforcement career these days, but Nelson said that a large part of the recruitment issue comes down to more stringent standards.

“We are seeing a higher washout in the background and probation period,” he said.

That’s actually desirable, the sheriff says.

“As you can imagine, this job is not for everyone,” he said. “We are looking to get people out who don’t belong before they become a problem for the profession.”

Nelson considers recruitment the foundation for reform and accountability.

“The accountability piece, look, that starts with recruitment and hiring the right people,” he said. “That’s where it starts.”

The “right people,” according to Nelson, recognize and buy into a culture based on “customer service.” Nelson wants recruits with a positive attitude, who function well in a team environment; people who have an ethic of public service and who “have compassion and empathy for the people we deal with.”

Nelson acknowledged that there has been significant turnover at the sheriff’s office during his tenure since 2016 — some of that normal retirement or job-change losses, some terminations. Several actions flowed from the arrest and conviction of DCSO Captain Scott Beard who received a five-year prison sentence in September 2017 and was ordered to repay $205,747 after pleading guilty to two counts of money laundering and two counts of theft from programs that receive federal funds.

While some see the turnover as evidence of turmoil in the sheriff’s office, Nelson considers such personnel actions as representative of accountability and transparency. In an interview last spring, he told The Nugget that he believes that the public has a right to know about personnel issues to the degree authorized under the law.

“We employ human beings, just like anybody else,” he said then. “I don’t expect them to be perfect, but we will deal with personnel issues as they come up.”

The imperative for law enforcement officers to hold their peers and colleagues accountable has been emphasized in calls for police reform. Activists have recently promoted the principle of a “duty to intervene” among police officers. Nelson aligns with that principle.

Nelson noted that sheriff’s office policy has long held that deputies are obligated to report misconduct or be held accountable for misconduct themselves. The Sheriff told The Nugget that that policy is being amended to add a duty to intervene in incidents of misconduct — a practice that he says is already at work in the culture.

He acknowledged that, “we’ve received reports of behavior that is unacceptable.” At the same time, “we know (deputies) are intervening because we’ve heard of the examples.”

Nelson said that he is arranging for implicit bias training and an officer intervention training is already scheduled (see sidebar).

Some changes have come the hard way — in the wake of serious incidents.

In 2016, Deschutes County paid a $1 million settlement to the family of a man who died in custody in the jail in 2014. Edwin Mays was arrested for intoxication. Jail staff thought he was high on methamphetamine, though Mays denied taking drugs. Mays died of an overdose, and investigators reviewed his case for possible misconduct by the Deschutes County Jail staff. Reports indicated that staff mocked Mays and were slow to seek medical treatment for him.

Nelson told The Nugget that personnel action was taken against three jail staff in regards to the incident, and that procedures and medical staffing and preparedness were improved in response to the incident. The jail now has 24/7 medical staffing and the sheriff’s office works with a medical director, Eden Aldrich, FNP.

Dealing with people who have mental health-related behavioral problems or who are in crisis can be a fraught and complicated problem for law enforcement, and there are calls nationwide to shift away from law enforcement intervention to the use of “crisis workers.”

In Deschutes County, dispatchers will send out a personnel from the county public health department’s Mobile Crisis Unit at deputy request to help deal with such incidents. Nelson also holds out high hopes for the newly-opened stability center designed to provide an alternative to incarceration for those whose brush with the law stems from a mental health and/or substance abuse problem. (See related story)

The long-term wellbeing of law enforcement personnel is also a key concern. DCSO is in the final stages of development of a comprehensive “Health of the Force” initiative to bolster mental and emotional well-being among personnel — and their families — who operate in an exceptionally stressful and demanding environment.

“We’re asking normal people to deal with abnormal situations,” Nelson said.

DCSO is enhancing its counseling offerings on a “no questions asked voucher basis.” Nelson recognizes that availability of resources is necessary but not sufficient: Law enforcement has to adapt itself to accept counseling and wellness protocols as a benefit that is not a sign of weakness and does not leave personnel vulnerable to negative judgment.

“We’re going to offer it, we’re going to encourage it,” Nelson said. “Reaching out for support is the best way to work through problems when you are dealing with them as an individual.”

Bailey noted that DCSO’s use of force incidents are documented and reviewed at multiple levels — from matters as simple as placing a subject in an “escort hold” and removing them from an area to the use of deadly force. Though it is not mandated except in the case of fatalities, DCSO commonly activates a multi-agency major crimes investigation unit when there is a use of deadly force. DCSO also reports on serious use of force incidents to the FBI.

Nelson and Bailey also noted that deputies are trained in de-escalation techniques.

“That can prevent a lot of uses of force,” Nelson said.

The Sheriff also said that the agency seeks to use tools and technology from The Wrap restraint device to new less-than-lethal force alternatives to drones and other means of providing better information on situations and deployments — all with an eye toward increasing safety for law enforcement personnel, subjects of law enforcement action and the public at large.

Virtually everyone associated with law enforcement recognizes that this is an exceptionally challenging time to work in the field. Sheriff Nelson believes the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office has been on the right track for some time and is focused on bringing people into the work who will be a credit to the profession — including new dedicated personnel to patrol the City of Sisters.