Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Public safety

Cure for Hernando County Sheriff's Office issue: a dose of sunshine

Since Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis has pronounced himself "baffled" about a crime wave blamed on, of all people, his own deputies, maybe he'll consider my recommended cure:

Openness, transparency, a dose of good old government sunshine, an end to his habit of holding back as much information as he legally can for as long as he can.

It would be better for us, the taxpayers, and better for his deputies. You might even say it would keep them honest.

See, Nienhuis, for all his good qualities, has one prominent bad one — a tendency to put his folks above the rest of the community, a tendency that could give some of his deputies a feeling that they're part of a privileged, even invulnerable, breed.

He likes to brag about background checks that sift out all the defective types. He fought off the drastic budget cuts that have wrecked other county departments; his agency is just too important.

A deputy who unloaded a clip of bullets into a naked, disoriented woman in 2012 was not just cleared, but rewarded for his "valor."

And last year, when asked about withholding the details of two fatal shootings, he said his detectives deserved the right to work in a scrutiny-free, "sterile" environment:

"That's exactly what the people should do — trust us until we give them a reason not to."

Now we have five reasons: two deputies arrested for grand theft, one for driving under the influence of alcohol and another in an especially hideous case of child abuse; finally, Deputy William Martinez was charged last week with false imprisonment for holding a young woman in the back of his patrol car and making her do some unspecified (of course) sexual act.

In a news conference the next day, Nienhuis said these arrests mean we should trust his agency more, not less.

His office had proven it was willing to go after its own. It provides its own accountability and doesn't need the kind that would come with more public scrutiny.

And even at this conference, which was, after all, a show of openness, he showed no signs that he might be more open in the future, that he would revise his policy of keeping a lid on information until detectives and prosecutors have had all the time they need to mull over evidence and make an arrest — or, in Martinez's case, a little bit afterward.

Talk about whether Martinez deserved more than a misdemeanor battery charge for his actions was reduced to a guessing game. Even though the deputy had been charged and resigned from the agency, Nienhuis refused to say what these actions were.

In other cases, he said, the facts always come out "eventually" in the courts, and his office gets them out quicker than that, "usually (within) days and months, not years."

As stunning as it was to hear a sheriff say it's okay to withhold facts for months after incidents occur, it fits exactly with what I've seen of his press strategy:

Keep a lid on shootings and such when they happen, limiting coverage and keeping the pressure off his office. Let the facts slip out later, when they are barely newsy enough to support a headline.

Sure, maybe these recent arrests are just a string of bad luck, just proof that there are a few bad apples in a large barrel of deputies who are, after all, human.

But that's the point. Humans behave when they know someone is watching.

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