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Sheriff: 'I was elected to do a job, and I'm doing it'

Amid turmoil, Staton denies wrongdoing, tries to solve problems


PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Multnomah County Sheriff Dan StatonThe past few weeks have been busy ones at the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

Since late January, Sheriff Dan Staton has settled a potential sexual harassment lawsuit, come under criminal investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice, released an internal audit that shows “racial disparities in force” reports at the jail, and released another report showing a trainer is under investigation for disparaging both inmates and civilians who come in contact with sheriff’s deputies.

All this is happening as a citizen commission is considering whether to place a measure on the ballot to make the sheriff an appointed, instead of elected, official — something that contributed to the state justice department investigation. The 15-member Multnomah County Charter Review Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon. The agenda includes making the sheriff an appointed position, as well as the administration of the jail.

Despite the controversies, Staton says he has not done anything wrong and is working to solve longtime problems in the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

“I was elected to do a job, and I’m doing it, and I’ve told my staff not to get distracted,” Staton says.

The truth is, turmoil within the sheriff’s office is not unusual. Former County Chair Ted Wheeler proposed making the sheriff an appointed position in 2008, prompting so much opposition from then-Sheriff Bernie Guisto that a facilitator was appointed to help the two two men communicate. As the Portland Tribune reported Jan. 7, 2008, when the sheriff was an appointed position between 1967 and 1982, the turnover was high — seven in 10 years, before voters amended the county charter to make it an elected position.

You can read the previous Portland Tribune story about former County Chair Ted Wheeler's attempt to make the office of sheriff an appointed position rather than an elected one at: tinyurl.com/jmu53pd.

Since then, the two sheriffs before Staton were forced to step down. But Staton was elected to a partial term in 2009 and two full terms in 2010 and 2014.

Although Staton has clashed with the Multnomah County Commission over budget issues, his tenure had been relatively free from controversy until late January, when Chief Deputy Linda Yankee filed a tort claim notice with the County Attorney’s Office claiming Staton sexually harassed her and created a hostile work environment in his office. A short time later, it was reported that Staton had been accused of inappropriately directing his staff to collect background information on charter review commission members and threatened violence against those supporting making the sheriff an appointed position.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Multnomah County Chair Rod Underhill then asked Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to review the allegations for criminal violations. Rosenblum replied that the ODOJ had opened a criminal investigation on Feb. 11.

Staton notes he also requested an ODOJ investigation, and believes he has done nothing wrong.

“I’m not going to hide from anything, but there are things the attorneys say I can’t talk about until the investigation is over,” Staton says.

Where things stand

Here is where recent issues at the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office stand:

• Sexual harassment tort claim notice. Staton and Yankee settled the potential lawsuit during a Feb. 11 mediation session arranged by the Multnomah County Attorney’s Office. Settlement terms include giving Yankee a retroactive pay raise, placing her on paid administrative leave from March 1 until no later than July 1, 2017, and paying her attorney fees. Salary and attorney costs could exceed $250,000, which is far less than the damages usually sought in sexual harassment cases. Staton denied Yankee's charges and the settlement does not admit wrongdoing. The ODOJ is investigating whether any laws were broken.

• Backgrounding review of commission members. The county attorney's office has looked into charges that Staton inappropriately directed his staff to collect background information on the commission members. It was told that Google searches were conducted because the county did not provide any biographic information on the members after they were appointed. No biographical information is available on the county website concerning the commission. The MCSO Information Technology Department has said no employees used confidential law enforcement data breaches to gather the information. The ODOJ is investigating whether any laws were broken.

• Threats of violence. A union officer furnished notes taken during a Jan. 11 meeting with Staton that includes a reference to threatened violence by Staton against those in favor of making the sheriff an appointed position. Another union official at the meeting told KGW News that he does not remember any threats. The ODOJ is investigating whether any laws were broken.

• Use of force and disparaging trainer remarks:

An internal audit requested by Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton has found that employees at the county jails disproportionately use force against minority inmates.

For example, according to the audit obtained by the Portland Tribune, although African-Americans accounted for only 27 percent of the jail population between 2012 and 2014, they were involved in 40 percent of the use-of-force reports filed by employees of the Mulnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

The audit is dated Sept. 14, 2015. Among other things, it says the MCSO does not have a system for identifying employees who use force at a higher rate than others. At the same time, the audit found that 15 percent of employees were responsible for 45 percent of the force reports.

“I’m concerned, but this audit is part of a larger report that needs to be completed to fully understand what’s going on. Some force is used in response to altercations between inmates,” says Staton, who estimates the final results should be available within a few months. “The public will be fully informed when we’ve completed our work.”

During the four years covered by the audit, the MCSO Corrections Division submitted an average of 1,220 use-of-force reports each year on an annual average of 307 incidents. That means four employees typically file reports on the same incident. The most common type of force used is physical control, such as holds.

The audit includes “next steps” for addressing disparities in the use of force by MCSO employees at the jail. These include: developing a monitoring and reporting process for employees who submit a high number of use-of-force reports; tying use-of-force reporting to other sources to assess the risk of underreporting; evaluating complaints of excessive use of force; determining the risk of excessive use of force; and assessing the current use-of-force reporting process to gain reporting efficiencies and improve data reliability.

According to the audit and Staton, once the final report is completed, it will be reviewed by the executive branch of the sheriff’s office and the sheriff. At least two county commissioners will be asked to participate in identifying areas of concern and developing a plan to address them.

Sheriff also investigating trainer

In addition, a MCSO trainer criticized in a separate report is under investigative review by the sheriff’s office. According to Staton, the trainer is barred from instructional activities until the review is complete and determination about discipline — if any — is made.

According to a Corrections Officer Training Fidelity Observation report obtained by the Portland Tribune, the unnamed trainer undermined MCSO policies intended to limit the use of force. The trainer was observed dehumanizing and mocking both inmates and citizens who come into contact with employees, inluding using disparaging language toward inmates.

In the most troubling incident observed, the internal report states: “The trainer told the trainees that they would soon be in favor of a ‘Bullet-In-The-Back-Of-The-Head Lottery.’ In this lottery, each corrections officer would be able to choose one inmate per week to ‘take out back’ and ‘put a bullet in the back of their head.’ Then the trainer told the story of the inmate he wished he had been allowed to execute. He told the story of a very young pregnant woman whom the trainer had been witness to booking. During the booking, officers found baggies of narcotics hidden in her vaginal cavity. The trainer was openly upset in class for several minutes about what this may have done to the fetus and repeatedly described various types of violence he would like to commit against this pregnant inmate. He repeatedly called her ‘evil’ and an ‘idiot.’ ”

According to the report, “This incident is disturbing on two levels. The first is because the trainer was openly admitting to his desire to personally execute an inmate during the training, and then normalizing those feelings as inevitable and universal among corrections officers. The second because it suggests a deep ignorance regarding inmates who may be the victims of sexual and drug-related human trafficking.”

The report also noted the trainer ignored race as an issue.

“As a result, the new corrections officers received no training on how to anticipate and handle their own implicit racial biases. The sole mention of a racially charged incident was when the Use of Force trainer authoritatively declared the problem with the 1991 Rodney King incident was that the officers involved ‘kept trying the same thing,’ and not that it was an example of excessive use of force,” the report says.

The report concludes: “The MCSO clearly has official policies emphasizing proportional use of force and the role of governmental interest in making use-of-force decisions. However, these policies are not as clearly taught as they could be. Moreover, these policy positions are often undermined by conflicting stories and statements from the trainer in charge of the classes, which potentially encourages a demonized understanding of inmates, and a sense of separateness from other civic institutions, as well as the public. Additionally, trainees will possibly come away with erroneous information regarding the actual safety of their force options as well as relevant case law.”