The Efficiency Audit That Wasn’t

by Mark Scaramella, October 26, 2011

“There are things in here that you're probably going to say, Well, the Sheriff isn't happy with that. And you're probably right! I'm not very happy with that,” declared Sheriff Tom Allman at last week’s Board of Supervisors discussion of the recently completed $28,000 “efficiency audit” of his department.

“However,” Allman continued, “this is a fair snapshot. It wasn't done for my benefit or for your benefit. It's done for the benefit of the citizenry to see where the Sheriff's Office is and hopefully where the Sheriff's Office is going to go. I appreciate where the consultants went with this. I think it was money well spent.”

Everybody in the room agreed that the report was “money well spent,” that it provides some useful ideas for making the Sheriff’s Department more efficient.

But was it money well spent?

Not really.

While the report made some useful recommendations, the primary ones being the re-assignment of staff to beef up the Coast sector; using sergeants to supervise patrol deputies rather than as figureheads for special projects; improving evidence storage and handling — most of the report consisted the consultants’ (two retired cops) opinion of the Sheriff’s management structure and some of his operational policies. (A complete summary of recommendations appears at the end of this report.)

There were $28,000 worth of suggestions, many of which, if not all, had to have already occurred to Sheriff Allman who, after all, has inherited a basic structure built up over many years, the fiscally flush years, by his predecessors.

The actual “efficiency” recommendations are pretty thin at best, and none of them will save any money or save significant patrol time. In fact, several of them would significantly increase costs.

But nowhere in the report did the consultants even consider, much less propose money-saving strategies.

For years, people inside and outside the local justice system have thought it would it be cost effective to set up an arraignment court at the jail rather than shuttling prisoners back and forth between the Jail and the County Courthouse. Could the Fort Bragg mini-holding cell be upgraded so that it could hold people overnight — mostly drunks, under the influence, and drunk drivers —rather than immediately transport them to the County Jail in Ukiah, an hour to the east? Would the establishment of an honor farm save money by providing an intermediate form of short term incarceration for frequent fliers and, now, the non-violent offenders being released to to make room for anticipated low-level felons who will henceforth do their time in county jails rather than state prisons? Would a mental health crisis van spare patrol deputies from hours spent dealing with crazy people as is done in several neighboring counties? (Local example that reoccurs everywhere in the County, a Boonville deputy constantly is called out to deal with the drug-induced paranoia of a local tweeker.)

We've been raising these questions for years, and so have others closer to the administration complex in Ukiah.

But there’s not one suggestion in the 100-page efficiency audit that would save money.

“To you the Board of Supervisors, I can say that this is not a notebook that's going to gather dust,” insisted Sheriff Allman. “This is a notebook that we're going to work together on, and I hope that the ad hoc committee remains the same or continues with two members of this board to set some goals that may be a six-month or twelve month or 18 month goal to say: Are we really going to go where we think we need to go to what I believe is a core basic service that we have to give the citizenry?”

Allman was being as diplomatic as possible, hoping to use the report to justify a few new hires when next year’s budget battle comes around while avoiding the somewhat negative observations the consultants — “Harris and Harris” of Auburn, California — made.

Perhaps predictably, Supervisor Hamburg asked about the references to marijuana in the report.

“Another thing that shows up in the report a lot is the 9.31 program [the County’s pot cultivation ordinance that basically sells a local license to grow specified numbers of plants] and the whole marijuana issue. And the relationship between that and the homicide rate.”

Mendo’s pot cultivation ordinance is connected to the homicide rate? We all know that there is a considerable amount of violence associated with the still overly valuable drug, but there's no tangible correlation between 9.31 and murder, is there?

The consultants were skeptical of Mendocino’s official attitude toward marijuana.

“The pervasive marijuana drug culture may improve some economic factors,” the consultants wrote, “but it reportedly has a negative impact on crime rates and victimization of the residents of Mendocino County. A report by San Diego County that included a five-year trend of marijuana dispensaries showed a large underreporting of sales income by the dispensaries. This trend has been found throughout the state. The net effect of course is that the economic impact does not include a tax increase for the county coffers that are commensurate with the amount of sales that is occurring in their jurisdiction. It is impossible to quantify with any degree of confidence if the economic impact of the marijuana culture in Mendocino County outweighs the crime increases and victimization of the citizens. How does someone put a price tag on the consequences of a homicide, injury, or battery? The project team was told repeatedly by a variety of [Sheriff’s] department members that the increased marijuana trade in Mendocino County negatively impacted the violence in the county. In reviewing the 2010 homicide rate for Mendocino County, we found that there were eight reported homicides. We determined that three of those were officer-involved shootings resulting in ‘justifiable homicide’ (Universal Crime Reporting manual reportable as an “unfounded” homicide and therefore not counted towards clearance rates). While eight homicides are not overly ominous, it is particularly high for such a small population group. Inquiring further, it is the belief of several department members that this high rate is attributable to disputes in marijuana cultivation, distribution and sales, and home invasions of those involved in marijuana cultivation, distribution, and sales. To corroborate their belief, we researched the homicides for Mendocino County for 2009 to date. Of the 15 homicides reported since 2009, seven were drug related with six of those related to marijuana cultivations, distribution, or sales (a 40% ratio). In the experience of the project team, this is a significantly high ratio of homicides attributed to this category, and supports the belief that the local marijuana culture significantly impacts homicide rates for Mendocino County.”

Interesting. But what this has to do with the County’s 9.31 cultivation ordinance isn’t at all clear.

Hamburg continued, “But since we're talking about morale, you know, I don't want to not discuss that because it's a difficult issue; it's a very real issue and it certainly didn't start with this administration. You know, it goes back many, many years. But to consider it as something that has a significant effect on morale, as you say in your report, it's a significant contributor to morale issues within the department. I think that's something that the Board and the public should be aware of. I mean, this is real. I don't know if there are ways — I don't know if there's something we should be doing about it or if this is just the way it is. But, I think, you know, I just had to mention it because it is so prominent in your report and I'm sure members of the public are going to read it and see the same thing. Perhaps, the Sheriff will want to say something about it. Or maybe there's just not a lot to say. But, you know, this is an ongoing issue in our community and is something that is very real.”

Consultant David Harris replied: “We don't disagree with you, and it is one of the very unique things about Mendocino County, very unique. It's not — none of those are meant to be a complaint about the sheriff or the sheriff's department. I'm sure he is a very fine man. But we would be very remiss if we did not mention it in our report and to report that it was mentioned that there was concern in the areas we mentioned it. For you to mention it, obviously, it's part of the political process that you guys have to deal with. It's not necessarily commentary on our part, it is just reporting commentary from other people.”

In many fewer words, lots of local cops do not like toleration, let alone local licensing to grow, marijuana.

Supervisor John Pinches took a shot at the problem: “Well, you as a professional; that's one of the problems we have with the whole marijuana industry in this county. You just said that Mendocino County is unique in this area. Marijuana is not unique to Mendocino County. Marijuana is not unique in any of the 58 counties in California. But somehow we've had the spotlight on us in the last almost 40 years it's still on us -- what the feds are doing is putting the spotlight still on Mendocino County. I don't really understand it. Because certainly marijuana is not unique to only Mendocino County. I mean, it's -- the medical marijuana, I believe that it's legal in 15 states now… It's like we're treating things differently. We're treating things kind of on the ground. Our sheriff does a wonderful job trying to weave in and out of the federal and state and local medicine ordinances and all that. He's trying to weave in and out of the process. We're attempting to deal with what's on the ground. Other agencies above us, federal agencies, don't even deal with what's on the ground. But to say that we're unique, we're not unique. The only portion we're unique is we're trying to deal with what's happening on the ground every day out there in people's homes and backyards. And that's — do we take criticism for it? Are we downgraded for that? I don't know. But it's kind of discouraging to me. I've lived here all my life and watched this totally evolve and we’re still at the forefront and the spotlight of what's going on. It's very — first of all, it's very unfair to our citizenry of Mendocino County and frankly it's very unfair and hurts the morale of our law enforcement personnel in this County. That's not in the study, that's just my opinion.”

Pinches, of course, is right — although also kinda windy. The federal government regards Mendocino and Humboldt counties as the birth place of the marijuana culture, and regardless of what local authorities do to rationally address the prevalence of the drug, the feds continue their own raids and prosecutions without regard to local attempts to regulate production and sales with a view to at least offsetting enforcement costs to some degree.

Consultant Harris replied to Pinches, “Our comment on uniqueness is that 9.31 is unique. I think that Supervisor Hamburg mentioned that this is related to 9.31. So our reference is that that's the part of the marijuana issue that is unique here and we have not encountered 9.31 or any variants in other places. It's not that it doesn't exist, it's just not in our experience.”

Consultant Steve Reader added, “I think from a unique standpoint, is that, like you said, forever, it's been more of a culture here of marijuana growers and stuff. Especially as the economy declines and the fishing industry has gone south and the lumber industry has gone south, Humboldt County and Mendocino County have been known forever as having more of a culture of marijuana growers and the effects of that. And that also adds to that uniqueness. From the standpoint of the officers, one of the things that officers — officers go to the Academy, your officers probably went to Sacramento or they went to the Bay Area, and they were there as part of a large officer community learning their lessons. And they learned a certain way. And when they are part of a community that maybe takes a little different view on the enforcement of marijuana law and maybe a little more lenient view of the growers and stuff like that, there is a — it hurts their feelings that they are somehow not enforcing those laws, not being as hard as they were taught to be at the academy and so forth and like that. I think that's a little bit of that that realm for them. So that's why when we talk about Mendocino County being unique there is some unique effects on the officers and their view of what law enforcement should be doing and stuff like that. Issue needs and so forth.”

“It hurts their feelings”?

Well, boo-hoo.

Feelings aren't the issue. “Efficiency” was supposed to be the issue. But, of course, most cops, by training and personal feelings, are zero tolerance. As are a majority of people, even here in Mendocino County where a large number of citizens make their livings from marijuana.

Supervisor Hamburg: “But it should be understood by our sworn officers that these policies are made by the part of county government that is responsible for creating these laws and it's their job, and I know Sheriff Allman appreciates this and takes this attitude, it's up to the Sheriff’s Department to enforce the laws as they are, basically, set forth by this body. Isn't that true? I mean, we can't promulgate laws that are inconsistent with the state, although we do promulgate laws that are inconsistent with the federal government. It's just a very confusing area. I can understand where deputies would feel like, Well, I'm going to enforce the law as I see it. But which law? We all know we're just in this very confusing maelstrom where it's just hard. But everybody knows that you have deputies in the county, and sergeants, and other personnel who think that what we're doing is realistic, it's compassionate, and it works. And we have other sworn personnel who think were full of baloney and that we're borderline criminals for even promulgating ordinances that are inconsistent with federal law.”

Co-consultant Steve Reader responded, “My sense is that you're exactly right about one thing and that's where we talk about a morale standpoint. We're talking about those things that affect morale. Sometimes people are confused. You just mentioned that some of the sworn officers are confused. I think that causes a little bit of bad morale. It's an issue for you guys. I think the Sheriff is doing a good job of dealing with it. It's something for you to be aware of. And that's why we included it in our report. We just wanted to mention that there are areas — the 9.31 program is kind of unique and it does cause some issues and maybe not dissension in the department, but maybe some disagreement in the department, like you mentioned.”

Hamburg had more to say: “I thought the study was very valuable to me. You know, it gave me a lot of information about the internal workings of the department. Things I frankly didn't know. Some of it made me feel good. Some of it made me feel not good. It was all really valuable. … We have 16 sergeants, two of whom are acting Sergeant. And 46 deputies. And that doesn't pencil out according to best practices as you point out repeatedly. So the thing that I really noticed going through the report was OES, the office of emergency services, where you have a sergeant, and you point out in the report that there are many jurisdictions where that office is handled by non-sworn personnel and you particularly suggest I remember that that function be given back to the CEO's office. You talk about the Animal Control function being a distraction to the overall department. That's something I have sympathy with. The morale issues — you talked about those earlier, I'm not sure that those don't need some treatment. I mean, as good as our personnel are, those 90 or 100 people that are working in the department and morale issues detract from productivity. You say it in the report. And anybody who's been part of any organization knows that to be the case. So if we're just going to gloss over that and pretend it isn't in there I guess we can do that, but I thought it was pretty glaring.”

Hamburg returned to one of his standard points whenever the Sheriff’s Department budget is discussed: that cuts have to be made across the board and everybody has to take a hit, including the Sheriff. Lots of his constituents — and Sheriff Allman — think that this means Hamburg is soft in his support of law enforcement.

“I don't agree with Supervisor McCowen that this shows that that the Sheriff's Department has taken a hit,” said Hamburg. “Every department in our county has taken a hit. And as Johnny [Pinches] just pointed out we're going to take more hits, not less as we go forward and as much as the Sheriff's Department is a core function of county government there are other functions in county government that we simply have to continue to carry out. I mean we have other constitutional duties besides public safety. Even if that's number one. We have a lot more that we have to do to continue to function as a county. So my concern going forward is, you know, how much dust are we going to let this gather or are we going to actually look at some of the specifics in it and resolve that we are going to act on it because we did spend $28,000 and we did spend a lot of staff time and did I want to see you come back to the board and say what you think about this OES issue. Should we leave a sergeant in charge of it? Should we leave a sergeant in charge of COMMET? Should we fold COMMET and the Task Force into the rest of the Department? Would that be more efficient? I mean, I want to see the questions that are raised in this audit answered! Because I don't want to be a supervisor who was part of a $28,000 study that goes nowhere.”

Sheriff Allman: “To review and investigate our options is something that we're all willing to do.”

Hamburg: “Way before implementation, certainly in a 90 day period, couldn't we get something back from you, Tom, where you and the committee give us your response to these recommendations? I mean, there’s a matrix here, about a five-page matrix, which lays out findings and recommendations and I would like to know your response to these recommendations because you're the guy who's there where the rubber meets the road, but I want to know what you think of these recommendations. I certainly don't want to wait six months.”

Allman: “I certainly want to express that to you Supervisor Hamburg. However, I've had this no longer than you have. But before I say anything I want to read this several times and I want to, to be quite honest with you, even though they're the paid consultants, there might be other efficiencies that we could agree upon that are not even mentioned in here. So I'm not going to commit to a timeline. I don't really think that's a fair question, Supervisor. But I think that with a new board coming on next year, and we're looking at the budget cycle in the third quarter, you know, we started looking at the new budget, I think everything is going to come into play quite well. But what I don't want, and I want to publicly state this one more time, I don't want anybody to go through this and say, Well let's go along with whatever page 34 is, I'm just picking a number out of the hat, that says this while ignoring the whole thing. For every action there is an equal reaction. The Sheriff's Office has been a team player. We haven't hired or promoted since May of ’09. And sometimes it's during the implementation of some of these recommendations there's going to be pressure on the Board very directly to say we have to improve the staffing levels of the Sheriff's Office of this County. We have to. There's no other option to that. And for every position we take away, whether it's OES or Animal Control, those are positions that are also fulfilling other duties within the Sheriff's Department. So I'm not exactly sure what you're asking for. But I'm not going to give you a date right now.”

Hamburg: “All I'm asking for…”

”Allman: Let's get back probably in January, January is a very good month, and say this is what a good road map is.”

Hamburg: “All I'm asking is within a certain amount of time that we have a report back from the ad hoc committee… just a response to the report. Is that too much to ask?”

Allman, somewhat testily: “I appreciate your recommendation Supervisor.”

* * *

Although some of the consultants’ suggestions, such as reallocating existing resources might be helpful, none of them would save any money — presumably the main purpose of the report.

If the report of the ex-cops doesn’t collect dust, it’ll be because Allman will act on a few of the recommendations simply because they make sense or help to buttress his requests for more than bare-bones staff.

Summary of all recommendations: 

Use a more collaborative process; fill holes in coverage and the staff shortage on the coast; consider realigning chain of command structure; too many sergeants on special projects, not enough supervising; fill vacant positions; “possibly change patrol schedule”; do not eliminate or freeze positions without replacements in place; change shift cycles; use “focused recruitment” for empty Coastal slots; use more on-line reporting for minor crimes; replace old vehicles; shelve “patrol with a purpose” (deputies on-call instead of on patrol to save vehicle mileage); deploy at least one double car for currently understaffed shifts; use more “community service officers” (formerly Sheriff’s auxiliary); assign a sergeant to Covelo; slow down the pace of layoffs; improve clearance rate reporting; “consider covering patrol with patrol deputies, not detectives”; return acting sergeant to the Coast; return OES function to CEO’s office; fold COMMET (marijuana eradication staff) into investigations bureau; have the DA use a “disposition form” to help clear out the evidence storage room; reduce controlled substance testing to only those cases being prosecuted; give evidence supervisor more training; simplify booking; return Animal Control to Health & Human Services; adjust dispatcher hours and fill vacant dispatch position; co-locate dispatch with rest of department; develop a false alarm ordinance; reduce printing of “non-useful documents” in Dispatch; consolidate admin offices; “better align staff duties and responsibilities to those who the work serves”; take steps to “strengthen relationships, foster trust, and improve candid and forthright communication”; increase finance unit staffing; and, form a “criminal justice policy committee.”

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