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Ada County sheriff discusses policing policies during virtual town hall meeting

Ada County Sheriff Steve Bartlett answered questions from the public about police procedures and community goals.

ADA COUNTY, Idaho — Conversations continue nationwide over how law enforcement interacts with community members and what agencies are doing to combat violence and racism in their cities.

Those same conversations are happening in the Treasure Valley. On Wednesday evening, Ada County Sheriff Steve Bartlett held a virtual town hall to answer questions from the public about his agency. 

Bartlett started the conversation saying the sheriff's office is based on four key values: integrity, service, dedication and attitude. He said he looks for those values in all new hires and upholds every employee to the highest level of service in each of those areas. 

"Being a member of the sheriff's office here in Ada County is a privilege," Bartlett said. "We don't take that job or task lightly."

ACSO has a total of 754 employees across multiple departments, including court services, the driver's license division, jail and patrol. 

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Bartlett said his first priority when hiring is to find the right people and to fill the needs of the community. 

He talked about employee demographics, which closely mirror the community. 

According to Bartlett, Ada County's population is about 90% to 91% white and so is the sheriff's office. The county has a 1.39% Black population, while 1.57% of commissioned sheriff's office employees are black. Bartlett said about 8% of county residents are Hispanic, but Hispanics make up only 5.12% of the sheriff's office.

During the town hall, one of the most common questions from the public was about the use of force.

The county's data from the past 30 months shows hundreds of thousands of interactions between deputies and the community. Use of force data looked at two areas: calls for service and the jail. 

"In patrol, our use of force number is 0.12% of all of our calls for service," Bartlett said. "Even lower than our patrol is our jail numbers and our use of force number for all of our contacts and calls for service in the jail is 0.03%." 

In that same time frame, according to Bartlett, neck restraints were used 31 times or 0.02% of total interactions. Zero injuries were reported as a result of those restraints. 

Bartlett said the neck restraint is used only as a last resort and only when absolutely necessary to save a deputy's life or a community member's life. And he said it should never be escalated to a situation like the one that resulted in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

"A use of force is used to gain compliance in that situation," he said. "However, the second - the immediate second - that force is granted and complied with, that technique is to be ceased."

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ACSO also tracks employee evaluations and monitors the conduct of any employees named in use of force complaints.

Dispatch calls are recorded and reviewed, as well as body cam footage and officer reports.

"We ask our supervisors to not only watch the video, read the reports but please take the time to call that victim of that crime or citizen complaint or whatever that may be," Bartlett said.

Another common question from the public during Wednesday's town hall was how Ada County is combating racism and bias among its deputies.

Last year, Bartlett said, ACSO spent more than $500,000 in bias and de-escalation training. That includes both implicit and explicit bias training. He added that all staff, not just those on patrol, are required to complete the bias training. 

"We also have a number of classes where we bring people in from the community," Bartlett said. "Whether it be somebody from a faith-based group or a cultural discussion, we try to have real conversations.

"We want to talk about, what is it that you need from your sheriff's office, how do our cultures interact with each other?" Barlett added. "And to ensure that when we show up on a call, we have set aside our personal biases, our personal beliefs, and really are there to take care of the public."

Bartlett said he wants an open dialogue with the community because the key to any type of improvement is "critical listening."

"I believe that all people should be treated fairly and equally and when that's not happening, no matter who you are, something's broken and as sheriff, part of my responsibility is to ensure that's not happening here," he said. 

Bartlett ended the town hall by saying he hopes Wednesday's discussion will be the first of many.

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