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One year later 

Sheriff Bill Elder reaches out to the rank-and-file

click to enlarge Bill Elder has met with every employee. - COURTESY EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
  • Courtesy El Paso County Sheriff's Office
  • Bill Elder has met with every employee.

With his office still recovering from turbulent years under predecessor Terry Maketa, El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder is pulling together people from throughout his chain of command to provide feedback on operational concerns.

Formation of this Sheriff's Advisory Council is one of several changes Elder has imposed in his first year in office, some of which stem from an assessment by outside consultant KRW Associates LLC — itself an effort undertaken in Maketa's wake.

Maketa, who served three four-year terms before stepping down in December 2014, was accused of showing favoritism related to his alleged inappropriate relationships with several female staffers. Those issues, plus disciplinary actions he imposed on certain officers, triggered numerous claims and complaints.

So far, the county has spent $821,496 on settlements with employees or ex-employees, attorney fees, and consulting and investigation expenses stemming from those claims. Other claims remain pending.

Elder's dealing with challenges that, in some ways, are more nuanced: improving communications among staff, re-establishing cooperation with regional agencies, and finding ways to make the best of current staffing levels. As he puts it, "We're constantly reviewing how we're doing things."

The KRW study, which cost $55,335, looked at the department's organizational climate and offered recommendations to "enhance morale, organizational proficiency and leadership." Researchers were led by KRW principal Lorne Kramer, former Colorado Springs police chief and city manager. They interviewed more than 200 employees as well as outside officials, such as county commissioners, the county's attorneys, District Attorney Dan May and Springs Police Chief Pete Carey.

The assessment, started in February and finished in June, found that while Elder had taken steps to improve communication and trust within the department, "much more needs to be done."

"Management needs to accept responsibility to improve communication with the organization at all levels," the study reported. "The area of effective communication needs to address concerns to include favoritism in re-hires, promotions and disciplinary system."

While the majority cited communication as a "significant" weakness, with "a large number" of interviewees reporting a lack of information-sharing, KRW also reported that employees discussed "not knowing who is assigned where or what their duties are" and that when they sought clarification, "they were told by the supervisors and managers that they did not know the answers either."

Elder says he's now met with every one of the department's roughly 800 employees to hear them out, "clear the air" and outline his goals.

The KRW assessment criticized the name of Elder's weekly newsletter, The Informer, saying it "should be changed to something that does not have multiple meanings." The newsletter features blurbs about new programs, project updates, citizen praise, an "employee spotlight" and events in employees' lives, such as births and weddings. Elder says the newsletter used to be titled The Informant, which "didn't go over very well." After changing it to The Informer and drawing criticism from KRW, Elder surveyed personnel asking for ideas. "Nobody responded," he says, adding the current title, used by several other agencies around the country, will stand.

"At least we're communicating on a frequent basis," the sheriff says.

The Sheriff's Advisory Council will "drill down" for solutions to operational and organizational problems, he says. The group of 20 to 30 employees representing all facets of the office will have its first meeting Dec. 30, at which Elder will outline his vision for their work.

"And it's pretty simple," he says. "These are meant to be bottom-up strategy-type sessions. I want them to go back to their respective shifts and assignments and hold a meeting with the employees in their work group. I want them to identify the top five positive things and five negative things to work on."

At a meeting in January, he says, all those ideas will be winnowed and prioritized into 10 to 15 initiatives.

"Then I'll task [council members] with developing solutions to those issues from their perspective," Elder says. "This is not meant to be a bitch session. I'm going to have the line level work on solutions to their problems and then share them with staff, and that will give them buy-in to the whole process."

The group will meet quarterly, or more frequently if deemed necessary, to make good on KRW's recommendation that employees "be allowed to participate in the changes and the future decision-making process."

"Every good strategy starts with building a relationship," the study says. "The restoring of trust and confidence in employees is essential to the success of the change effort. We emphasize not to underestimate the challenge ahead. It will take persistence and constant reaffirmation of the plan and progress. A firm approach to ensure transparency and responsiveness to employees' complaints and concerns is a must."

KRW notes several common themes heard from staff, including that the office "has become increasingly isolated from other regional law enforcement agencies and the military" and the isolation has contributed to an "unproductive relationship" with some county departments.

Maketa had reportedly restricted his budget process to himself and his controller, who happened to be one of his alleged paramours. Elder says he has reorganized finance, personnel and payroll functions to include county oversight. "We're not trying to run a separate organization," he says.

As for cooperating with other agencies, Elder boasts of his tight relationship with Carey, the Springs police chief, which enables cooperation on community activities as well as operational efficiency. For example, by summer the Sheriff's Office will complete installation of a new records management program that will not only save the county $600,000, but also streamline law enforcement.

"All of our case reports, evidence, anything we do records-wise will now be on a combined multi-agency platform," he explains. "If a car is stopped in the city and someone in the county queries that car, they will know it was stopped in the city. Previously the records systems for law enforcement agencies were independently owned and stand-alone equipment, so I had to query my records, then I had to call the city, Fountain, Manitou and Monument."

EPSO deputies now participate with police officers on the Homeless Outreach Team, as well as in human trafficking and crime reduction. These arrangements, Elder says, are similar to that within the long-standing multi-jurisdictional Metro Vice Narcotics and Intelligence unit.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office is re-establishing links to military bases, he adds, as evidenced by a recent exercise inside the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. "We're already discussing the next one," Elder reports, noting sheriff's personnel have joined a monthly brainstorming meeting of area law enforcement and military officials.

"Now that the Sheriff's Office is involved," Elder says, "it's taken on a new life."

But Elder admits the department faces challenges in deployment of resources. "We don't think we need more people," he says, "we need to deploy them smartly."

The Planned Parenthood shooting on Nov. 27 revealed one problem: When tactical (SWAT) officers were pulled from their regular duties, it left holes in patrol and elsewhere.

"If patrol, or school resource officers need [an officer] there, and we strip them for a tactical response, we leave their current function unmanned," he says. "We need to be smarter."

Elder also predicts that "organizational changes" will be made in the next two weeks.

He doesn't elaborate further, except to say he might make one of his bureau chiefs a direct report to him rather than to one of his chief deputies.

  • Sheriff Bill Elder reaches out to the rank-and-file

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