The state attorney general's office has outlined a number of deficiencies in the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department in the wake of a policy review sought after several deputies were accused of violating laws or department policies.
The report was released Thursday and prepared by Deanna R. Nelson, an assistant attorney general assigned to Jefferson County. Its three principal recommendations are that the department establish a clearly articulated policy for handling incidents of possible misconduct involving department employees, institute regular goal-oriented employee evaluations and seek accreditation with an outside agency such as the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The review came after county legislators requested that the Public Integrity Bureau of the attorney general's office look into how the department handled a Dec. 1 incident in which Deputy Adam B. Hallett was found unresponsive in his patrol vehicle with a bottle of Jim Beam Red Stag bourbon whiskey in the vehicle's center console.
Sheriff John P. Burns said that he was “very happy” with the report and that he and his department have been trying to put some of the recommended policies in place for a number of years. Those initiatives, which include instituting employee evaluations as a prerequisite for accreditation, have met with repeated resistance from the county, according to the sheriff.
Accreditation is voluntary, but would open up the department to more grant money and allow deputies to attend more training.
According to county attorney David J. Paulsen, the sheriff has been discussing the accreditation option with the county. The accreditation process involves multiple inspections by the state and can take anywhere from 18 months to two years.
According to the report, “... accreditation provides a community with a sense of ease that its law enforcement professionals are just that — professionals. ... The NYS Division of Criminal Justice Accreditation Program addresses 133 different standards, inclusive of 69 administrative, 12 training, and 53 operations standards.”
Agencies must meet all requirements and submit to annual reviews. The accreditation lasts for five years.
According to the Division of Criminal Justice's website, there are more than 100 accredited law enforcement agencies in the state, including the St. Lawrence and Oneida county sheriff's departments and the Watertown City Police Department.
Mr. Paulsen said the report from the attorney general's office failed to answer the larger question underlying the county's request for an external review.
“How do you handle cases in which allegations are made against the very upper levels of management? That's a far more difficult issue, and I wish they'd address that,” Mr. Paulsen said.
One of the department's top officers, former Undersheriff Andrew R. Neff, was suspended with pay following allegations that he sent a convicted felon, Michele R. Bowens, lewd photos using a department cellphone in direct contradiction of a county policy about consorting with criminals.
The former undersheriff apparently was familiar with the policy, according to a series of text messages allegedly sent by Mr. Neff to Ms. Bowens, which make reference to the suspension of Deputy James J. Randall for having a relationship with convicted felon Raven C. Carreira, who sued the county over an alleged defamatory statement made by one of the department's detectives, Steven C. Cote.
“That's (expletive) up. I can't be hanging around with u with all that going on! My guys get suspended for such things!!” one of the messages reads.
“OK. And we can't!! We suspended a deputy for dating raven carreira...because she's a convicted felon,” a second message reads.
“Yea...I can't be a hypocrite,” a third reads, with the next message stating, “No. It's the job. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
Mr. Neff retired during a state police investigation into the incident. Miss Carreira's lawsuit was tossed out by State Supreme Court Justice James P. McClusky because the notice of claim for the lawsuit was filed too late.
The county asked the attorney general to investigate the Deputy Hallett incident specifically and not a pattern of misconduct, even though five separate incidents have been brought to light over the last year.
Nothing new has happened with the Hallett case. Both Deputy Hallett and Deputy Matthew A. Vaughn, who threw the bottle of whiskey into a town of Henderson field, according to investigations into the incident, faced internal disciplinary charges and both still are on duty with the department.
To ensure a better response to similar incidents that may arise, Mr. Burns said he would be sending a lieutenant and a detective sergeant from the Law Enforcement Division to a discipline school where they will learn to bring employees up on charges and handle matters like the Hallett incident.
These officers would function as a de facto internal affairs department, according to Mr. Burns. They would be supervised by the sheriff and the undersheriff.
Asked what would happen if an allegation of misconduct were brought against him or the undersheriff, Mr. Burns said cases like that would go to the district attorney.
The review from the attorney general's office has had a brief but fractious history within the county.
During a special session in January, the county Board of Legislators unanimously voted to have the county attorney draft a resolution requesting that the Public Integrity Bureau look into the Hallett case after glaring contradictions emerged from two reports about the incident prepared separately by Mr. Paulsen and Mr. Burns.
Initial forays into the matter made by Mr. Paulsen were met with frosty reception by the attorney general's office.
Despite this, letters requesting the assistance of the Public Integrity Bureau were mailed to the attorney general's office in Albany and to New York City, where the integrity bureau is based.
No official acknowledgement was ever received. Mr. Paulsen followed up on two separate occasions, offering more information about the Hallett incident, but received no reply.
Eventually, a letter from the attorney general's office arrived, just in time for the March 5 meeting of the full board — the date by which the county had requested a reply.
The letter, which was brief, also came from Ms. Nelson and advised the county that it had all the power it needed to conduct an investigation into the matter on its own.
This incensed legislators, including board Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, who said at the time, “We reached out to the AG's office with great respect and the Public Integrity Bureau ... and we got the brush-off. And if anyone thinks that we didn't, all they have to do is read that letter.”
It was in that letter that county officials were informed that the attorney general's office would be conducting the policy review with the sheriff.
Explaining the rationale behind the letter, Michelle C. Hook, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said at the time, “We did not think our involvement was merited in this case based on the information they provided. We are happy to work with the Sheriff's Department to amend their policies and procedures.”
On Thursday, Ms. Hook reiterated that the county has the jurisdiction and ability to handle the matter internally. If a conflict of interest becomes an issue, the county can always appoint a special prosecutor, she said.
In January, Mr. Paulsen said that he identified the Public Integrity Bureau as the appropriate agency to handle the investigation because the county was seeking an office that would be as independent as possible.
Others facing allegations of misconduct within the Sheriff's Department in the last year:
n Detective Steven C. Cote, the subject of a civil action alleging he deceived a female deputy into posing nude for photographs as part of an online pedophilia investigation.
n Deputy James J. Randall, who served a 60-day suspension for having a relationship with a woman with a criminal record, in violation of department policy.
n Corrections officer Mark H. Kellogg, facing a third-degree assault charge stemming from a bar fight at Adams Center. He also is on duty.
n A nurse with the corrections division who resigned after she was confronted about using her access to Samaritan Medical Center's electronic records database to illegally access medical records of non-inmate patients not in her care.
The full report can be found at http://watertowndailytimes.com/wdt_repository/editorial_files/20130328_sheriff_burns.pdf