Audit: Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is 'frozen in time,' one step away from 'catastrophe'

CINCINNATI -- The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) suffers from operational issues that have left it "frozen in time" and "one step away from a catastrophe," an audit released Thursday found.

The $50,000, 17-page audit -- requested by Sheriff Jim Neil when he assumed office in January of 2013 -- identified three over-arching issues with the department: Staffing, technology and training.

As a result of an unchanging culture, the audit states the HCSO is "extremely rigid in all aspects of its structure, operations, staffing, resource allocation and use," which has prevented it from adopting modern best practices in policing.

A Structural Failure?

The audit blasts the 25-year leadership of former sheriff Simon Leis Jr., stating Leis failed to promote employees with "true law enforcement experience" and treated career advancements politically.

When Neil took office, the audit states an entire command tier simply disappeared.

"The command staff was comprised exclusively of personal and political associates of the former sheriff, some with no true law enforcement experience except at that level," the audit states. "The failure to identify, train and promote up-and-coming leaders to positions of increased authority and responsibility caused the agency to lose talent."

A command staff member referred to this issue as "The Lost Generation" -- people who retired before being given positions of responsibility and authority, despite obvious talent, the audit states.

"A half decade of continuous reductions in force have left the HCSO with a truly bare-bones staff," the audit states. "There is no fat or even meat left to cut, and any further reductions in staff will cut bone."

In the corrections division, a baseline staffing -- or an amount the sheriff's office considers appropriate -- is at 291 personnel.

But the audit states there is no data to support 291 employees is enough, and this decision was most likely made by one person more than 20 years ago.

"Blunty, HCSO is one serious confrontation away from a catastrophe -- a riot, or a deputy, civilian employee, visitor, or an inmate killed -- due to its understaffed correctional facilities."

The HCSO also does not have any inspection function or division, which is "mission-critical" in any law enforcement agency, according to the audit. Without this function, the sheriff's office risks the safety of residents and deputies and the effectiveness of its policing.

The audit states another "mission-critical" function is missing from the sheriff's office: Research and planning.

Research divisions are typically responsible for creating agency-wide strategic plans, developing programs with other agencies, expanding funding opportunities and more -- and the HCSO doesn't have one, something the audit called "virtually inconceivable in an agency of its size."

"The structural deficiencies are glaring, and have had major ramifications throughout the HCSO. They help explain the manifestation of profound training deficiencies, outdated general orders, policies, procedures, rules and regulations."

No Strategy And Falling Behind

"It's always been this way." "Good idea, we won't be using it." "He wants it this way, period." "They're Hamilton County Sheriff's deputies, they don't need any other training."

These are all common refrains heard by auditors during the review process of the HCSO's operations -- statements that reflect operational failures.

The sheriff's office has never had a mission statement to provide its employees, leading to "serious consequences in the way personnel conduct operations," the audit states.

Most of the sheriff's office's policies have been untouched for 20 years or more, severely impacting the training of deputies.

A mid-level supervisor told auditors that in his 20-year-plus career, he had never had updated use of force training beyond the initial academy training he received.

"Eliminating training when it should be emphasized is foolish and dangerous," the audit states.

Auditors said nowhere is the agency's resistance to change more evident than in its refusal to adopt common technology.

The audit states the sheriff's office suffers from a "hostility" and "fear of 21st century technology," and at the time of Neil's transition, there was no outside email capability.

The sheriff and chief deputy do not even utilize email, something commonplace in other agencies since 1995, according to the audit.

Something even more surprising to auditors, the sheriff's office is on a paper-based records system and is running an outdated consumer-grade financial software.

"These failures to implement necessary technology significantly impact the operations of all aspects of the HCSO," the auditors said. "During one visit to the records section, we heard the distinctive chime of antiquated 1990's email provider AOL and a staff member informed us that 'We just got an email.'"

Can The Sheriff's Office Change?

The audit, written by former Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher and civil rights attorney Scott Greenwood, is the first of many more.

In the coming weeks, Streicher and Greenwood will release more detailed findings and recommendations for the sheriff's office.

But auditors said one thing is for sure in the coming months: The agency needs to make significant changes to become more effective, efficient and safe.

"The sheriff's office has the capacity to do so, and both sworn and civilian personnel have the desire, dedication and discipline to make that a reality," the audit states.

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