Cross: Sheriff Russell Martin, Restoring Integrity In Delaware County, Ohio
November 30, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross Delaware County, Ohio, Sheriff Russell Martin, who took over following the resignation of his predecessor.
Q. Some people go to college without a clue what they want to do in life. You, on the other hand, went straight for a career in law enforcement; after you completed an associate’s degree in law enforcement technology at Rhodes State, you went on to Bowling Green U, where you got a bachelor’s in criminal justice. What made you want to take up the mantle of cop? Why not join up directly, instead of putting yourself through half a decade of grueling study? (Was it actually grueling?) Did you have your heart set on the big job, chief or sheriff, from the start? And why did you stay in Ohio?
A. I originally entered college with the intent of pursuing a degree in journalism. It was 1976, and on the heels of Watergate investigative journalism had reached elevated interest. During my high school career I participated in several sports and caught on with the hometown “rag” as a weekend stringer who for a few bucks covered local sports throughout the county. I loved writing and enjoyed picking the brains of local coaches for their sports and leadership tips.
The journalism school was full of incoming freshman and it didn’t take long to discover that the job market would be glutted with aspiring journalists. My dreams of covering the Super Bowl for Sports Illustrated got a quick dose of reality when a long since defunct newspaper’s editor visited a class one day and candidly told many eager freshman that a career in journalism was going to be a difficult task. “Make journalism a minor.” he said.
As the result of spending too much time in the school gym playing pick up basketball, and not enough time on my philosophy and economics courses, I saw my grades begin to dip and started to rethink my career goals. Neither of my parents had attended college, but both had a desire to see their only son acquire a degree. I started to consider a career in the military and when I mentioned this to my father, a former member of the Army, he appealed to me to stay the course.
At about that same time I was seated with a group of students watching a made for TV movie entitled “Helter Skelter.” The movie was obviously about the Charles Manson murders. Students then had to share a television in the lounge and the mini series captured everyone’s interest. I began to wonder about the satisfaction police officers must feel when they take someone off the street who really is a menace to society. I claim that was about the time I became “infected” with the virus that would eventual grow into full-fledged case of “love for policing.”
Our family always had a respect for local law enforcement in the small community in which I grew up and when I mentioned this to my parents, neither discouraged me from the pursuit. But they also desired that I still get a college degree to compliment my career choice. The academic and career journey began with the choice to enroll in a local community college that offered an Associates Degree in Law Enforcement, while exposing me to the realities of policing.
Q. After you completed your studies in January of ’81, you signed on as a patrolman with the City of Delaware Police Department. Along with bad hair and worse music, the early 80s were notable for a nationwide rise in crime, part of what would turn out to be a thirty-year “crime wave.” In Ohio, however, the story was a little different: from 1980 to 1985, violent and property crimes actually fell, and quite steeply.
As a result, were you and your fellow beat cops insulated from the criminal-justice trends – notably, Reagan’s massive expansion of the War on Drugs and all that followed – sweeping the nation at the beginning of your career? Were you stewards or sheepdogs? Talk of police militarization was still decades away, but in retrospect, were there already “warrior cops”? How did policemen (there weren’t many female police officers back then) see their own jobs? What did Ohioans think of the originally Left Coast concept of community policing?
A. I joined the Delaware Police Department after a year of marriage and a stint working in local meat packing plant, all the while taking civil service exams throughout Ohio. I refer to that year as the “graduate school of hard knocks.” Working 12-hour days in a tough environment with few benefits solidified the work ethic that I would need to have a successful law enforcement career. I always say my worst day as a police officer was still better than my best day in the meat packing plant.
That year in that environment helped grow an already deep respect for the laborer, and I believe they are anything but common. It’s one reason of many why I believe in being a good steward of the taxpayer’s dollar. They work hard for their money and deserve public servants willing to work just as diligent and hard with their taxes and for their citizenry.
The police agency I joined was already starting to make changes in professionalizing the department. I was among a group of college graduates that were hired at about the same time. The Police Chief, Dick Browning, was using psychological evaluations to review candidates and had set in motion many progressive policing ideas that saw the department move from local hires with a military background to a broader candidate base, including the first women to join the department. The Chief also applied for and benefitted from numerous grants that were available to purchase equipment. He was also the agency’s first FBI National Academy graduate and understood the benefits of advanced training and education.
Delaware City, located almost dead center in the state of Ohio, had your typical “garden variety” crime. We didn’t deal with typical urban problems at the time and our frequent calls were thefts, domestic disturbances and bar fights. But one thing was evident. There was a growing interest in officer safety and tactics. I believe it was the beginning of a two-decade focus on training officers to be more warrior and less problem solver.
It was well intended, and as a young officer I was not interested in dying in the line of duty. We reviewed data and scenarios in the academy about officer line of duty deaths and specifically the high percentage of officers (over 50%) who were killed with their own handgun when it was taken from them while on a call. I believe it was the beginning of a transition from community policing to an emphasis on survival and suspicion.
It would eventually have the desired effect in that fewer cops lost their lives in the line of duty, but it probably contributed to a sense of slight paranoia that on any given call you could be killed with the gun you brought to that call. Good police officers were able to maintain the balance between relationships with the community you serve and managing calls tactically. But for the next two decades, a lot of training revolved around officer survival. And who would argue against it or the possible unintended consequence? Frankly, we all wanted to get home safely at the end of the shift. Period.
9-1-1 and response time began to impact policing philosophy, and evaluations often mentioned how long you took on calls or your availability. I was once criticized in an evaluation for walking a small block that included a few bars and a movie theatre because I often stopped to visit with the owner of the theatre. Sometimes he would provide observations about what he witnessed outside the bars, but often we just talked about family. For fear of being disciplined in the future, I trimmed back my visits and unfortunately spent more time in my cruiser and less time walking the downtown.
Q. After ten years on patrol, you started getting promoted through the ranks; you held a number of increasingly senior supervisory jobs. One bone of contention for advocates of criminal-justice reform is whether police administrators can be trusted to impose consequences on their fellow cops for misconduct. What about you? Since you’d gotten promoted off the street, were the bonds of camaraderie especially strong? Were you willing and able to punish bad actors? At the time, what kind of questionable behavior was tolerated, and what tended to be punished? How have things changed?
A. Day in and day out, you respond to calls with co-workers that you depend upon to help you quell a domestic or wrestle someone larger than you in a bar fight. You experience and share some of the most intimate and personal struggles that people have in their lives with a handful of fellow cops that very few other people even realize are occurring. You sit in the locker room after each shift often engaged in an informal debriefing about the arrest you made, or what could have happened.
Few professions provide such visceral and raw emotions or experiences. Perhaps only in a foxhole do people bond any tighter than the cops who routinely work together on shift for several years. When they work in concert on high-risk calls and restore safety and order in the midst of chaos it can be a beautiful thing to observe. But it does create alliances and allegiance to each other that if left unchecked or unrealized can cause co-workers to struggle in ethical decision-making.
The struggle is the result of human nature and empathy, not some inherit desire that turns those in authority into abusers of their responsibility. On one hand you want to hire people capable of empathy and concern, but then we ask them to dial it back when they develop those same feeling toward coworkers. But the reality is that when you apply the social contract theory to American policing, the expectation by the community you serve is that the police are held to a higher standard. And rightfully so.
I had to discipline a sergeant when I became Chief for conduct that I strongly believed compromised community trust. This sergeant and I had handled the most high profile homicide cases in our community when we worked in the same division and prior to my promotion to Chief. And yes it was one of the most difficult and emotional issues that I ever had to contend with.
For years it impacted our relationship and on some level the matter divided the agency between those who thought I was doing the right thing and those that thought I had become insensitive and too political. I learned some painful lessons during that time and realized that often in leadership you sit in a lonely chair. I have now taken the experience and incorporated it into ongoing reinforcement within my agency and the outside officers that I instruct on community expectations and the value of understanding the Social Contract as a cornerstone of our democratic and representative government.
Q. In 2003, you received a prestigious invitation to attend the FBI National Academy, an elite police-training course. How’d you get the nod? Are the feds, now of junk science and systematically worthless labs fame, really the crime-fighting geniuses they’re cracked up to be? Were you able to put your newfound contacts to good use? You’re an advocate of local accountability for police forces – is there something vaguely sinister about getting the best and brightest from the nation’s PDs to fall in line behind the FBI’s standard? And was it as grueling as they say? Did you run, and survive, the Yellow Brick Road?
A. Every few years, the administration within the Delaware Police Department would pick and submit for consideration a member of the agency whom they considered a possible choice for future promotion or appointment for greater responsibility. I made it known that I had a desire to pursue promotion and that I wanted to be as prepared as possible if and when the opportunity presented itself. I was honored when I passed the vetting process. Considering that each previous candidate from our department had risen to the position of Chief, I presumed the training was of value.
I was not disappointed in my FBINA experience. It remains a career highlight and one of a handful of associations within my life that has had significant ongoing professional impact. The course work was challenging, requiring responsible self-initiated study coupled with some of the best instructors I have ever sat under. But just as important was the opportunity to sit either around the dinner table or in work groups with law enforcement officers from all over the world reviewing a host of ideas as they related to how to improve policing. I found that most participants were responsible, successful officers who cared deeply about the communities they served and the profession they had chosen. I also gained a new confidence that my ideas about law enforcement were relevant in any setting.
I have no false perceptions about our federal partners. On the contrary, the ongoing exposure to them and most other agencies revealed men and women of genuine humility that wanted to learn from each other for the sake of improving their capabilities and improving their communities. As for the networking; to be able to connect with FBINA graduates around the world, especially when we are exposed to borderless crimes, is an invaluable resource. On my first family trip to Paris, it was an FBINA grad that picked us up at the airport and later treated us with a visit and meal with his own family; a cultural exchange that has given us a greater appreciation for European history, the French revolution and our current partners in the ongoing war on terrorism.
My Yellow Brick Road maintains a prominent position within my office. A daily reminder of this lasting experience.
Q. One year later, and 23 years after you signed on as a patrolman, you became Chief of the Delaware PD. You must’ve had mad skillz to secure that promotion, because if seniority and experience were enough, everyone would get a turn at the tiller. How’d you emerge as the candidate of choice? And once you were in charge, what were the changes, big and small, you made to the department? What were your goals in making them? Were any in fact necessary, or was everything going swimmingly in ’04? Did the rank-and-file resist your tyranny, or did they welcome you as chief with open arms?
A. When I look back on my career, I had more losses than victories as it pertained to promotional opportunities. It just so happens that through perseverance and timing, the promotions eventually added up to the appointment as Chief of Police. The selection process included a national search and an assessment of the final candidates; a process I scored highest on, but still didn’t assure me of the promotion. The City Manager had the final decision in the appointment and one of the other candidates was also an internal competitor of higher rank.
Fresh off my stint at the FBINA I did have a quiet confidence that after sitting in classes with law enforcement executives from around the world, I felt just as capable as many of my national and international peers. I also had confronted career disappointment in the past and felt like it prepared me to handle the very public process of the Chief’s appointment. Throughout the process I stressed two things that I believe separated me from the competitors; 1) I had scored the highest on the assessment 2) No other candidate could assert that they had supervised every division within our agency. And personally, my theology provided a peace that whatever was to ultimately occur would serve a greater purpose in my life and for the greater community. Frankly this belief and mindset eliminated a lot of the internal pressure and enabled me to perform transparently with greater confidence.
Eventually, as the process wore on, I asked the City Manager directly what else he needed to make his decision. He reminded me that the Chief of Police hire is the most significant appointment a City Manger makes. It carries the greatest liability and sets the tone for the community. Eventually, he offered me the opportunity and although my father had been deceased for a few years, my first thought was “I wish I could experience this with my Dad.”
There are advantages and disadvantages in getting promoted within your own agency. The advantage is that you know the agency and they know you. The disadvantage is that you know the agency and they know you. Although I inherited a good police department, the City Manager assured me he did not want a “caretaker” but a problem solver. The other internal candidate told me early on that he could not work for me and that probably became the first issue to contend with. Eventually he would retire and move on, and that issue resolved itself.
Over the course of the next eight years, I focused on consolidation of services, dealing with the economic downturn, developing succession and creating an environment where we wanted to focus on problem solving policing not just the traditional responses.
Q. Eight years in, your tenure as Delaware chief came to an abrupt end when then-Sheriff of Delaware County, Walter “Magnum” Davis, agreed to resign his post and never again hold office in exchange for a deferred prosecution agreement. (He’d gotten caught spending county money on an out-of-state trip with an alleged mistress.) And his predecessor as sheriff lost his job after he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors. You were tapped to serve as interim sheriff until the November elections.
With about 200 employees, the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office was a bigger enterprise than you’d ever run before. Not only that, but it was mired in scandal, and it was your job to turn the ship around. Were you at all apprehensive about leaving your job as chief (and, by that time, President of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police) behind for a challenge like that? What did you have to do to clean up the department? How deep did the rot go? Did the actions of your predecessors reflect on the rank-and-file, or were they ashamed and embarrassed by what had been going on? Was it difficult to win their trust? At least you didn’t have to worry about losing the election, right?
A. I was very comfortable as the Chief of Police of the county seat. I was enjoying the opportunities and challenges provided as the President of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police and advocating at the state level for Ohio’s law enforcement agencies. I had no political aspirations at the time, but I was also disappointed in seeing how poorly the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office had been managed. I was partnering throughout the state on initiatives for policing, but in our own county the Sheriff refused to work with local law enforcement to share and improve services countywide. It was exasperating, because I knew the potential that could be leveraged by working with the other agencies in Delaware County.
I had little time to consider pursuing the appointment and subsequent election to Sheriff. I would have to retire, resign as president of the OACP, take an initial salary cut and tackle the problems left behind by the previous Sheriff. Exiting church one morning, during the consideration stage, my wife looked at me and could probably sense how I was laboring over the decision. She sealed the deal when she stated simply, “If you think you can make a difference I’ll support you.” It was all the affirmation I needed. Some said after that I left the frying pan for the fire. I was not in a frying pan…I had been sitting in a very comfortable chair when I jumped.
I really thought after 32 years my reputation would precede me at the Sheriff’s Office. Although I had worked with many members of the Office, I soon learned that I had to start all over gaining the trust and confidence of most co-workers. Frankly, I will confess that I thought too highly of my leadership ability and presumed in a year we would be recognized as one of the best Offices in the state. It has taken four years for many of my co-workers to believe I am who I say I am. But I also believe that they had been so poorly lead by the previous Sheriff that trust in the position had been significantly eroded.
I quickly learned something else about myself. I had 32 years at the previous agency and had a deep abiding affection for that department and my co-workers. Within a few months, that same sentiment was realized in my own life for this “new” Office. It confirmed for me how much I care about this profession, the men and women who serve and the community we work in.
Q. As sheriff, you’ve signed off on hundreds of SWAT raids on the homes of suspected drug offenders. You’ve defended the practice before, notably in a debate with Radley Balko; you said the routine use of SWAT teams works to people’s benefit because it helps keep cops safe, who in turn protect the public.
Setting aside the property and psychological damage, the loss of community goodwill, the inevitability of the shot dog, the potentially horrible mistakes like raiding the wrong house or dropping a flash-bang in a baby’s crib: What kind of “protection” is it when the people who interact with cops are forced to bear all of the risk? When it’s the cops who, between their aggression and their fear, generate most of the danger? Are you, perhaps, prioritizing law enforcement over protecting people?
In addition to criminal priors, you’ve said you factor whether someone owns a gun into your decision to send a SWAT team. Is it right to penalize the legally innocent people on whom you serve warrants for exercising their constitutional rights? Would other metrics be cool? Statistically, African-Americans are responsible for an outsize share of violent crime. Are black suspects deemed more deserving of a visit from the guys with BearCats? Where do you draw the line?
A. I have respect for Radley Balko’s research and observations. I provided copies of his book to all the law enforcement executives in the county. I also believe that a piece of equipment doesn’t necessarily equate to a militarization of police. It’s policies, practices and leadership that define how we do our job in this profession. We’ve given serious consideration to how we utilize our multi-agency tactical unit. First and foremost, we emphasize training and industry best practices. There are far too many “SWAT” teams in place that probably don’t have the oversight needed to make sure they are responding to community expectations.
One of the first things I did when I became Sheriff was create an Executive Board that oversees all of our countywide joint work groups. Although the sitting and voting members remain law enforcement executives, we have routinely invited the city managers and township managers to the table. We possess a working group of law enforcement executives that include Chiefs who do nationwide agency assessments and are forward-thinking problem solvers. We also have representatives from the County Prosecutor’s Office at the table reviewing our policies and procedures. Much of our work is then returned to local agencies and shared with local citizen academy groups.
I currently employ three analysts in my Office. The Administrative Analysts assigned to the countywide work groups is tasked with measuring and looking for metrics that determine our effectiveness. By and large, in our county the Tactical unit is deployed to respond to barricade and hostage situations. I’m responsible not only for the safety of our citizens, but the men and women I direct. The use of special tools and equipment more often than not is used to minimize exposure of risks to all the parties involved.
Q. Then there’s asset forfeiture. Where do you stand? Indispensable law-enforcement tool, needed to keep kingpins from gifting drug money to their girlfriends? Tyrannical way to expropriate the innocent? Convenient way to plug a hole in the budget? What’s your office’s asset forfeiture program look like? How much are you confiscating? Do you cooperate with the feds?
In June, Ohio’s House passed HB 347, which, if enacted into law, would keep police from confiscating unconvicted people’s stuff and restrict access to the federal Equitable Sharing Program. (It’s in limbo in the Senate.) Do you support it? Surely not? What would your friends from the National Academy say?
A. In regards to seized assets and the value they have impacting the struggle to control the distribution of illegal drugs, I don’t believe you throw the baby out with the bathwater. In Ohio, I do not believe law enforcement has abused the asset seizure laws. There are enough safeguards in place to protect the truly innocent.
I don’t want to be a part of separating citizens from their lawfully gained property. It is a fundamental right in this country. But I don’t have any problem separating drug money from dealers who exploit peoples’ addiction for their financial gain. We recently converted $27,000 of locally seized drug cash to assist a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and I routinely look for ways to promote substantive educational programs with lawfully seized assets from drug dealers. Knee-jerk reactions by the legislature rarely provide substantive solutions, but they do sound good in an election cycle.
Q. Finally, there’s discipline. You’ve proven on several occasions that you’re unafraid to drop the hammer when cops misbehave. At the same time, Ohio has its share of police unions and loudmouth union reps. Do the Steve Loomises of the City of Delaware make your life hard? What about the voting public? Nationwide, police departments are having a bit of a PR problem. Has the storm of anti-cop outrage passed you by, and if so, how’d you manage it?
A. I said early on that we will train those that don’t know and discipline those that don’t care. Fortunately, most care and dare deeply. But I have no toleration for those who will tarnish this profession. Far too many serve for all the right reasons, and when one misrepresents us, they have eroded some of the community trust that has been afforded for us to do our duty.
I grew up the son of a union laborer who spent 42 years working in the same factory. I heard around the dinner table my father discuss some of the protections the union afforded and how they helped leverage raises in an industry driven by the bottom dollar. When I started policing, we had no union and frankly very little say in compensation. I loved the job but as I desired a home and opportunities for my family I realized that early salary comparables would probably resign us to a pretty moderate lifestyle. There were genuine discussions around the table between my wife and I about career options. Pursue the possible salaries associated with the private sector or maintain a life in public service. She was a schoolteacher and we both very much loved our jobs. But in the early 80’s, when college graduates were recommended for the policing profession, we often looked at our peers and wondered about our future.
The Union’s helped bring salaries up in the 80’s and I believe the realized benefit to that was greater retention, a more competitive labor pool and greater expectation from the community to earn that salary. But we have entered a new normal after the economic downturn of 2008, and public servants need to be very careful not to become greedy. There is a delicate balance between fair compensation and pricing yourself out of the market or alienating the constituents you serve. Just as importantly, we all owe it to the communities we serve to work diligently for them and manage our budgets with great stewardships.
The relationship between management and the union can be successful if they genuinely share the same goals; to provide quality law enforcement to the community they serve. Frustration develops when management fails to listen to the concerns of front line officers and when the union overreaches in dictating policies that inhibit best practices or becomes unreasonable in protecting officer’s behavior that erodes community trust or expectation.
I don’t believe the current arbitration process is most effective. I have a hard time with a third-party arbitrator who has no ties to the community dictating policies and then riding out of town, leaving behind the law enforcement executive to deal with the fall out. But by and large, when parties are reasonable and emotions and personal agendas are set aside, management and the union can coexist. Like most conflicts in life, it comes down to the personal relationship and trust.
Q. A couple weeks ago, you won re-election to another four-year term. (Congratulations!) What’s in your future? Got any big plans for the sheriff’s office? How about running for higher office, in 2020 or beyond? Or is a lifetime of herding cops enough for anyone, and you can’t wait to get out of government? What’s in the cards?
A. I recently reorganized the Office into four divisions, all supervised by Directors that have been tasked to focus on employee development, especially leadership and accountability. What you don’t audit you accept. We want to look even closer at how and why we do what we do. My staff knows my desire to have an internationally accredited operation and be known as one of the finest Sheriffs Offices in the country.
I’m not satisfied yet and complacency is not a part of my psychological makeup. Law enforcement around this country has faced the most turbulent and difficult challenges it has ever confronted in these last two years. I want to see it through and continue to advocate for and support this great profession. I’ve spent more time reviewing the Federalist Papers and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract essays in recent years. I do believe quality law enforcement is a partnership with the community and an honorable profession that can greatly enhance constitutional freedoms and quality of life on the local level.
I feel like I still have a lot to contribute on the topic of leadership and law enforcement. I make it a practice to focus on the job at hand and the people have elected me to be Sheriff of Delaware County. I am still humbled and honored that God would allow me this privilege and the people of this great county have provided for me the opportunity. I can’t talk about leadership and its value in tough times and walk away yet. We’ve still got work to do. And frankly it’s still better than working in the meat packing plant.