Douglas County sheriff candidates share views on public transparency, training against bias-based policing
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Story updated at 4:49 p.m. Monday:
Three candidates for Douglas County sheriff shared their thoughts recently on transparency in issues of officer misconduct and what the department needs to do to train against racial and bias-based policing.
As the Aug. 4. Democratic primary approaches, the Journal-World will be discussing a number of topics with candidates for Douglas County sheriff and other offices.
Sheriff Ken McGovern announced in June that he was retiring after his current term ends. Three of his employees have thrown their hats in the ring to fill the position. No Republican candidates have filed, so the victor will almost certainly be determined in the primary election.
In the order in which they filed, Lt. Jay Armbrister, Deputy Dale Flory and Capt. Doug Woods have all been with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office for the entirety of their law enforcement careers.
Armbrister, 44, of Baldwin City, has worked for the sheriff’s office for almost 23 years. He has selected Capt. Stacy Simmons as undersheriff.
Flory, 45, of Baldwin City, has been with the department for more than 23 years. He has selected Lt. Clark Rials as undersheriff.
Woods, 52, of Lawrence, has been with the department for 33 years. He has selected Capt. Troy Squire, of the Lawrence Police Department, as undersheriff.
Training on racial and bias-based policing
All law enforcement officers in Kansas are required to complete a couple of hours of annual training on racial and bias-based policing. All three candidates said they would increase that training.
Armbrister said corrections officers, who work at the Douglas County Jail, already receive some additional cultural competency training, so for example, they’re prepared to understand the importance of serving meals at the appropriate time for inmates observing Ramadan. He said he would like to see cultural competency training expanded to all officers.
In addition, Armbrister noted that June is Pride Month. He said that “as far as we’ve come, we’re still so far behind” on treatment of transgender and nonbinary individuals and proper use of pronouns. He also said he wanted to reach out to the local Native American populations and the Haskell Indian Nations University community. He said he didn’t have a specific plan for how to do that yet because he wanted to be further educated on how to work effectively with those populations.
In regard to the Black Lives Matter movement and interactions with people of color, Armbrister said that “we as law enforcement need to sit down and shut up and listen to what these people have to say.” He said these populations have been oppressed for thousands of years, “especially at the hands of people who look like me: middle-age white men.”
Flory said he wanted to have the department complete Beyond Diversity training, which is an intensive two-day training program that many leaders in the Lawrence school district and Lawrence Memorial Hospital have completed. Flory said he has heard great things about it.
Regarding racial and bias-based issues he sees in the department currently, Flory said he wouldn’t list specifics, “but you see it, you hear people occasionally talk about stuff that — we just need to better police ourselves. If we’re expected to act a certain way, we need to do that within our agency behind closed doors.”
Flory’s selected undersheriff, Rials, is black, and Flory said Rials would lead a social justice committee that would get the community involved and “keep us on track.”
“I think we’ve become complacent, but we’re expected to be the voice for the public, and that’s a great burden,” he said.
Woods said he would increase training to a minimum of eight hours per year. He said it would be all-encompassing training for bias-based policing and racial profiling issues that have occurred in the past with other agencies, including “a lot of issues that we’re dealing with nationwide.”
Woods said that if he saw such issues in the department, they would be dealt with, but he doesn’t currently see them.
“If (a member of the public) were to make a complaint, that would, of course, be investigated to the fullest extent, but I don’t see that (racial or bias-based policing) occurring in the sheriff’s office,” he said.
Woods said he’s not against a citizen board to review complaints, but he thinks it would be important to consider how the members would be selected and what role they would play.
“I think it’s important to bring people to the table who have a common interest, and you train those folks from the community to understand what law enforcement does, and when they do things right in the right situations,” he said.
According to reports on file with the Kansas attorney general’s office dating back to July 2011, the sheriff’s office has not had any complaints of racial or bias-based policing filed against it in that time frame.
Of 88 sworn staff members at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, 72, or about 82%, are white, according to numbers from Public Information Officer Jenn Hethcoat. Employees who are black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander constitute single-digit totals of sworn officers. Of all 186 sheriff’s office staff members — including civilians, corrections officers and sworn officers — about 84.4% are white. That majority is consistent with July 2019 U.S. Census estimates that show that Douglas County’s population is 83.4% white.
Transparency in misconduct
Candidates shared differing views about what they believe should be shared with the public versus what should remain private when complaints are filed against officers.
Armbrister noted that there is a delicate balance between what can be released and when, but he said he hoped to build trust with the public in that regard. For instance, he said he thought the office could educate the public about why video footage in an internal investigation could not immediately be released but keep the trust by releasing it when he could, or be held accountable if he doesn’t do so.
“I feel like we have to adapt our operation to feed that information as quickly as we possibly can,” he said.
He said that creating a citizen review board or advisory board to review complaints against law enforcement was one of his top goals, though he said he would be selective in who was named to the board. He would want members to have completed the sheriff’s office’s citizens academy, for instance, so they understand how to be culturally competent with law enforcement as well.
Flory said transparency was one of his top priorities, and he believes that anything that can be shared with the public should be — “One hundred percent, the public needs to know.”
“I think the more transparent you are, the better you’re going to serve your public and the better interaction you’re going to have with the public, and it needs to start at a young age,” Flory said.
Flory also said he was “completely for” a citizen board that would review complaints about officers. He said he hoped that any member of the public who witnessed legitimate law enforcement misconduct would file a complaint about it.
“This is one way we can remove those officers that dishonor the badge and make it difficult for the overwhelming majority of good officers out there,” he said. “I don’t think any officer would challenge this, as this would help us all in the long run.”
Woods said he thought how complaints were dealt with were personnel matters and protected issues. In regard to the findings of internal investigations, he said it “gets a little bit sticky” depending on the nature of the complaint.
However, he said he would want to hire someone from outside the agency to handle those types of investigations and be responsible for professional standards, including looking at how the department runs. Many of the sheriff’s office employees have been there for decades, and it can “make it awkward for both sides.”
That person would also review things such as paperwork and video footage, see how officers are performing their everyday duties and make sure that the taxpayers are getting the most for their tax dollars. Someone from the outside could see how the department could shift its focus or use personnel allocations in a better way, for instance.
“I don’t want to be stagnant in any way,” Woods said. “If there’s a better way of doing things and somebody from the outside can point those out, then I think that’s great.”
The Journal-World reported recently about some 2017, 2018 and 2019 annual reports missing from the sheriff’s office. The reports contain detailed data on demographics of the jail population, programs, staffing, training and more. The sheriff’s office previously told the Journal-World that the reports were not yet completed because of a change to the position tasked with completing them.
All three candidates said that, if they are elected, citizens should expect those to be completed annually.
The Journal-World also asked the candidates about their own records. All three candidates denied ever being the subject of any complaints or investigations for alleged racism, bias, excessive force or anything of a serious nature.
Armbrister shared a story about making a snide comment to someone he’d pulled over for running a stop sign back in 2000 or 2001. He said the person he’d stopped called in a complaint. He said the driver told him that she’d “slowed down for” the stop sign, and he repeated something he’d heard from his training officer along the lines of, “If I was hitting you with this flashlight and you yelled at me to stop, do you just want me to slow down or would you want me to stop?”
Armbrister said he “absolutely should not have said that.”
He said he’s had other complaints against him but they’ve all been found to be incorrect.
He also said he lost a preliminary breath test during a DUI arrest once; also, in an ongoing case, he lost a recording of an interview with an alleged sexual assault victim, but department policy states that all such interviews be kept. He said he was worried about getting the woman to the hospital and the last thing he was thinking about was recording it, and it was his fault.
As a supervisor, Armbrister said he has found incidents in which policies have been violated, and he has handled those incidents or sent them to the right people to be investigated.
Flory said he’d never received such a complaint, nor did he recall making a complaint about a colleague. However, he said he’d been named as a party in a civil suit about 15 years ago along with the Douglas County Commission, county appraiser’s office and sheriff’s office.
“It was in reference to a property tax appeal hearing that I was asked to sit in on and keep the peace, which I did,” Flory said. “After the hearing, which was audio recorded by both the gentleman and the appraiser’s office, the gentleman filed a suit, claiming his rights were violated by the presence of me being there.”
A jury later entered a verdict in favor of the county, Flory said.
Woods said he has been investigated for being rude to another employee, five or six years ago, and he has a letter in his personnel file documenting that.
“I was in the wrong, and I was rude to an employee,” he said.
He said he’s had a few other complaints against him over the years that were determined to be unfounded. However, any complaints against him have had “absolutely nothing to do with race or anything like that,” he said, and he’s never been written up for anything else.
Woods also said he has not made such a report about a colleague.
The primary election will be Aug. 4. The last day to register to vote is July 14, and the last day to request an advance ballot is July 28. For more information on voting, visit douglascountyelections.com.
Contact Mackenzie Clark
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Related coverage: 2020 Douglas County sheriff election
• May 29, 2020: Douglas County undersheriff withdraws from race for sheriff
• April 21, 2020: Captain files to run for Douglas County Sheriff in 2020 election
• Oct. 16, 2018: Lieutenant files to run for Douglas County sheriff in 2020