Douglas County official renews fight against jail, Sheriff's Office accreditation - Omaha.com
Published Monday, December 2, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 6:44 pm
Douglas County official renews fight against jail, Sheriff's Office accreditation
Accreditation of law enforcement agencies on the rise in state
Douglas County isn’t the only government in Nebraska to seek accreditation for its corrections and law enforcement agencies.
The state prison system is accredited through the American Correctional Association, and other jails, including Sarpy County’s, are exploring the idea.
Among clients of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies are the Omaha Police Department, the Nebraska State Patrol, the Lincoln Police Department, the Papillion Police Department and — new this year — the Union Pacific Police Department.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department is in the process of becoming accredited.

The Douglas County Correctional Center and the Sheriff's Office always have someone looking over their shoulder.

Both are accredited by outside organizations, and administrators say these audits keep employees up to speed on law enforcement trends, protect the county from lawsuits and cultivate a professional workplace.

But recent trouble in both departments has spurred Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle, who has fought accreditation for years, to resurrect his campaign to abandon accreditation.

Short of that, he wants a closer accounting of the costs involved. Jail and Sheriff's Office officials say accreditation costs them $63,000 combined, but Boyle considers that a lowball figure that doesn't account for several hidden costs.

Douglas County settled a federal civil rights lawsuit earlier this year brought by two men wrongly accused in a 2006 double homicide. The case hinged on evidence planted by David Kofoed, the county's former crime lab supervisor.

The county also is the target of a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by a former jail employee who says she walked in on her boss — the accreditation manager — having sex with a subordinate, with whom she was allegedly sharing prescription painkillers.

And federal prosecutors are weighing charges against two jail guards accused of sexually abusing inmates this year.

Boyle said the incidents raise questions about the value of accreditation. “Are they focusing so much on accreditation that the obvious need to demand good behavior has been ignored?” Boyle asked.

Both departments received perfect or near-perfect scores on their most recent audits.

The allegations of sex and drug use in the jail's accreditation office in 2010 were not reported to auditors because inmates weren't involved. The Kofoed incident was disclosed, but auditors determined that the Sheriff's Office followed correct procedures in its investigation.

When asked about the evidence-planting case at a recent County Board meeting, Chief Deputy Tom Wheeler said Kofoed is an outlier.

“No accreditation, no policy or law, can control somebody who wants to commit a crime,” Wheeler said.

Douglas County Corrections Director Mark Foxall said the American Correctional Association has been briefed on the most recent allegations of sexual abuse by correctional officers.

Boyle doesn't appear to have much support from fellow board members to eliminate accreditation. But they agreed to review the number of lawsuits against the county since each department gained accreditation and to collect more detail on the costs.

“I'm on board with accreditation, but let's really take a microscope to the costs,” County Board Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson said.

As for the disciplinary problems, current and former officials say the incidents are minor blemishes on an otherwise admirable track record.

The jail in particular is a case study of the benefits of accreditation, County Board member Clare Duda said. A consultant's report from 2004 described the jail as a “war zone” where racial tensions ran high, employees formed distrustful cliques and managers doled out favors to cronies.

“We were ruling our own staff by intimidation 20 years ago,” Duda said.

That's no longer the case, Foxall said. “I attribute the culture change in the Douglas County Department of Corrections to accreditation,” he said. “The staff I've talked to don't want to go back.”

Accreditation also has streamlined policymaking, Foxall said. Before, management interpreted state jail standards as general orders and bound them in a giant, poorly organized book indexed by date.

Jail staff members spent a few years translating American Correctional Association standards into workable policies. Now, standards and policies are bound in an easy-to-reference file, Foxall said.

The standards cover everything from intake procedures to acceptable noise levels to the caloric value of each meal. They are revised twice a year based on proposals by the association's members.

Prisons in Nebraska are accredited by the correctional association, but the facility at 710 S. 17th St. in Omaha is the state's only county jail approved by the American Correctional Association.

Douglas County successfully lobbied the Legislature in 2010 to exempt such accredited facilities from state standards that govern other Nebraska jails. For two years before the jail was exempted from state oversight, both the association and state auditors inspected it.

Foxall said the association auditors were far more thorough.

Jail managers are required to report significant events that might affect “standards compliance, agency operation, or the quality of services provided by the agency,” according to the association's policy manual. That includes events such as deaths, assaults, allegations of sexual impropriety involving inmates, riots and grievances.

But that doesn't include staff misconduct. The internal investigation in 2010 of sex and drug use in the accreditation office was not disclosed to auditors, for instance.

Nor should it have been, said Jeff Newton, who was corrections director at the time.

“The accreditation standards are looking for significant events in the inmate population,” he said. “It has nothing to do with staff misconduct. ... Accreditation is not going to prevent staff members from making mistakes.”

Details of the incident emerged in a lawsuit filed by Nancy Mullenax, who said her position was eliminated after she reported walking in on the accreditation manager having sex with a subordinate in a common area of their office.

Court and investigative records obtained by The World-Herald revealed allegations that the lovers were sharing prescription medication and that one officer was trying to overcome an addiction to painkillers when the affair started. Both officers resigned shortly afterward.

Newton's annual report to the ACA that year mentioned the resignations but gave no details.

There is wide disagreement over how much the county pays to be accredited.

Jail officials estimate the cost of maintaining accreditation at $47,000 a year. This includes the percentage of three employees' annual salaries earned while working on accreditation, plus the fee to have the association audit the jail and community corrections every three years.

The Sheriff's Office cost estimate came in at $16,000. That included annual fees to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a software module and audits every three years.

Boyle and the officers unions suggested that both numbers are low. Boyle said the jail's estimate didn't include travel to conferences and the sheriff's didn't include staff time.

Duda says he welcomes a full accounting but warned that Douglas County stands to lose money if it drops accreditation.

The county receives $86 a day for every federal inmate it holds. In 2012, it received $7.6 million for housing prisoners of the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A memo that jail officials sent to the County Board said the contract with ICE stipulates that the jail needs to meet accreditation standards to house the agency's prisoners, though unaccredited jails in the region also take federal inmates.

Reverting to Nebraska jail standards would reduce the jail's rated capacity by 76 beds, meaning fewer potential beds would be available for federal prisoners. According to the jail memo, Douglas County could lose $2.4 million annually.

“For us to now consider dropping accreditation — it's a couple of steps backward,” Duda said, referring to the memo.

That estimate is a worst-case scenario, however.

It assumes that the jail would be full, that the last 76 beds would have gone to federal inmates and that all those inmates would have stayed for a full year.

But last year, the average stay for a federal inmate was 52 days. On a recent day, the jail was three-quarters full by ACA standards, or about 82 percent full by state standards, suggesting that there is room for additional inmates, federal or otherwise.

Jim Maguire, president of the Douglas County deputies union (who is Boyle's nephew), said the sheriff's cost estimate is far off. He asked union members recently what they thought it cost to maintain accreditation, and most estimated the minimum was closer to $100,000 a year, counting staff time.

The accrediting agency “forced us to write all these policies instead of just winging it, and that's good,” Maguire said. “But now that we've got (accreditation), it's really expensive to continue.”

For instance, he said, it's good policy to require deputies to wear a traffic vest when running radar. But it's wasteful to have crime lab technicians drive out to take pictures documenting that the standard has been met, he said.

Dunning said that crime-scene technicians aren't taken out of duty just for accreditation purposes and that only about one-fifth of the policy coordinator's time is devoted to accreditation work.

He said Boyle's campaign stems from a personal vendetta dating to his recall as Omaha mayor, which Boyle disputes.

“Why wouldn't you want any governmental agency accredited?” Dunning asked. “It's crazy.”

Contact the writer: Cody Winchester

cody.winchester@owh.com    |   402-444-1216    |  

Cody Winchester is a metro-area watchdog reporter. He covers Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

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