A few months ago, former La Plata County Commissioner Wally White told newly elected Sheriff Sean Smith that people were complaining about deputies driving unmarked cars.
Smith thought about it.
Then he ordered a new fleet of 10 black vehicles with gold lettering: “La Plata County Sheriff’s Office: To Serve and Protect.”
The change isn’t merely cosmetic.
In the first sixth months since La Plata County Sheriff Smith assumed office in January, the $14 million agency has undergone significant change, both organizationally and culturally.
November’s sheriff’s race was one of the hardest fought of the last election. When Smith, then a deputy, ousted his boss – former five-term Sheriff Duke Schirard – many people in the Sheriff’s Office worried that the new leadership meant bloodshed for its staff of more than 135 people.
Smith said he took office amid rampant speculation that “heads would roll” – speculation that has proved wrong. Instead, the staff, with few exceptions, has remained intact, while the organization’s policies, self-image and leadership structure have undergone transformation.
At a time when deaths caused by excessive police force have caused soul-searching in law-enforcement agencies across the country and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, Smith is leading the Sheriff’s Office to shift its self-identity, from a strictly hierarchical staff whose sole purpose is enforcing law and order to an open, equal and soulful organization that sees its purpose as service.
He said the Los Angeles Police Department first rolled out its motto, “To Protect and to Serve,” in 1955, and the motto quickly caught on throughout the nation. But in the intervening decades, “that service mentality went away,” Smith said. Instead of law-enforcement agencies instilling humility and commitment to their communities, officers too often felt “no obligation to protect you.” Additionally, he said they often lacked the will to listen to, talk about and grow from their community’s needs.
Smith is taking the Sheriff’s Office in the opposite direction, he said Tuesday in an interview with The Durango Herald.
In response to calls for more traffic patrolling in the county – a mighty order considering that until recently, five deputies were tasked with patrolling 1,700 square miles – Smith had the office perform a staffing analysis.
“We had the data for years, but it’s the first time we’ve done an analysis,” he said.
The data showed some shifts were much busier than others. So, Smith is abandoning flat staffing levels and adopted “power shifting” to leverage existing manpower such that staffing levels increase 30 percent in response to demands for service, ensuring that deputies going forward will have more of a presence on the roads than ever before.
Other technological shifts at the office reflect larger conceptual revolutions.
Smith said he “just spent a lot of money on 18 new cameras” that will be installed in Sheriff’s Office vehicles, and that will automatically download footage whenever a deputy returns to the office.
But he doesn’t believe in speeding-ticket quotas – or traffic cameras.
“I think those things are a joke. It’s just making money for people. Nothing deters people from speeding more than those flashing red-and-blue lights. And, it’s much better to have an officer with some discretion. We can tell whether someone got five tickets in the last month, or whether to just warn someone that there’s deer and elk on these roads, so just slow down,” he said.
Body cameras are also on the way. Smith said he expects deputies to start wearing them not long after the onset of the new fiscal year.
While many law-enforcement agencies are defensive about cameras in the wake of cellphone cameras capturing apparent incidents of police brutality, Smith is determined to confront the truth.
“There’s always going to be things that happen in law enforcement that are questionable,” he said.
“As incidents between police and citizens are blowing up around the country, cameras are being sold as some kind of answer. They’re not an answer. They’re a tool. The answer is to change the culture of the organization back to the service mentality. When we bring in body cameras, I think they’re going to capture great work every day,” he said.
While meeting with The Durango Herald’s editorial board Tuesday, Smith spoke with a meticulous command of numbers and a level of emotional honesty rare in an elected politician about his first six months on the job.
After bringing in management consultant Phil Bryson of On the Edge Productions and soliciting feedback from a promotional board of six outsiders and Undersheriff Frank Sandoval, the Sheriff’s Office is in the process of reinventing itself, inside-out.
“We really looked in the mirror,” Smith said.
On Thursday, Smith, in keeping with his commitment to community outreach, will explain the changes he’s ushered in at a 2 p.m. public informational meeting at the newly remodeled La Plata County Administration Building on the corner of East Second Avenue and 11th Street.
Smith acknowledged that as the Sheriff’s Office has gone through a period of transition, introspection and restructuring, not everything has gone smoothly.
Three members of the Schirard’s leadership team and one sergeant quit or retired shortly after he won the election. And Smith said he has fired two people who were already suspended when he was sworn in.
The Sheriff’s Office used to have four divisions with vastly different budgets, staffing levels and responsibilities.
Now, there are two divisions and a small administrative support team, and anyone with three years of experience as a supervisor can compete for leadership positions.
Smith, unbidden, started reading aloud from one deputy’s application for a leadership position, in which the deputy confessed yearning to have a career that fulfilled his soul, his desire to become a better man - one who honored law enforcement’s highest calling: service.
Five paragraphs in, Smith finally looked up from the application, saying, “Forgive the strong male overtones.”
There were tears in his eyes.
Then, he gathered himself and quickly moved on, discussing the cost-effectiveness of fuel-efficient motorcycles.
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