Q&A with Sheriff Eric Higgins
What did you learn at Exodus which shaped your vision for how you want to run the sheriff’s office? In terms of incarceration, reentry and interaction with/the role of law enforcement? What I learned from volunteering with Exodus is that a lot of men and women coming out of prison, do not have the social support or information to help them make decisions that will positively impact their ability to succeed and not reoffend. And once they are out they are hit with the reality of not only obtaining a job but maintaining employment. Affordable housing and reliable transportation are also key to their success. Now, needing these things is not any different than the needs of those who have not been incarcerated, but the fact that a person has a felony record may impact their ability to obtain them. Added to that may be the need for those individuals to not return to their previous residence and associate with the same people. This may mean not being around family members for a time. Again, this is not new information, but what I have learned from facilitating classes with students who are still incarcerated is that if we can provide them with information and give them time to evaluate their situation and identify goals that they would like to achieve prior to their release, that they are able to make more informed decisions about their housing, associates and identify people and organizations that will increase the chance of successfully returning to the community and reduce the likelihood of them reoffending or being rearrested. In addition, the fact that I was a retired assistant chief of police gave the students the opportunity to see law enforcement in a different light. I helped them to see people who work in law enforcement not as an adversary but as a potential advocate. Now, as to how that relates to my decision to run for Pulaski County sheriff, it has always been my desire to improve law enforcement’s relationship with the community through the way we (law enforcement) interact with members of our community. Respecting members of the community regardless of whether we are having a casual conversation, writing a traffic ticket, making an arrest or housing a person in the detention center is key to building positive relationships. The Pulaski County Sheriff Office has over 1,000 people in its detention center every day, and I think that gives us the opportunity to open the door to organizations that have a history of assisting individuals to address the issues that have led to their arrest in the hopes of them not being placed a similar situation in the future. In addition, since around 56% of people who are released from the Arkansas Department of Correction recidivate within 3 years, I think we as a community need to do more to help our returning citizens to succeed. And that is why it is my desire to establish a reentry program through the Pulaski County Sheriff Office to receive people 3-5 months before their release date who have been convicted in Pulaski County and are planning to parole back to Pulaski County. I believe if we can slow down that release process and give them the information and tools they need, they will have a greater chance to succeed and, in the process, because they are not reoffending the collateral benefit will be a reduction in crime in Pulaski County. Are there other programs around the country which are already implementing some of the programs and policies which you want to have, and what have been the results? The Davidson County Sheriff’s office in Tennessee has a “transition from jail to community” (TJC) reentry program. They appear to have a number of programs in place, including working with the courts to conduct risk assessments to ensure people are not housed in the detention center simply because they are poor. They had been approved to construct a 1,400-bed facility but the sheriff has requested that it only has 700 beds dedicated for detention, and the remaining funds dedicated to a wing for those with mental health issues, staffed with qualified doctors and personnel. Davidson County Sheriff’s office appears to have a very good working relationship with the courts, and that is key to their diversion program. I hope to visit Davidson County in the next few months What are your priorities for your first year in office?
Evaluating the organization, staff allocation and our training and recruiting to ensure that it reflects a community focus, safety-driven approach that is based on integrity and accountability.
Implement what I call “accountability training.” While the majority of officers are doing a good job serving their community, I believe at the heart of the community’s distrust of law enforcement in general is the inability of many in law enforcement to hold their coworkers accountable when they violate policy or the law. Accountability does not equate a lack of respect or appreciation of the dangerous job of a law enforcement officer. I believe by creating an environment of accountability, we develop better law enforcement personnel and create a safer environment for both officer/deputy and the community they serve.
Develop community partnerships to obtain the needed resources to establish a Sheriff’s Foundation to help fund our reentry and youth programs and identify best practices and data collection for continual evaluation and improvements.
Meet with community members throughout Pulaski County to receive input in ways we can build stronger relationships that help to improve the quality of life in all of Pulaski County.
There is a perceived divide between the detention personnel and the “enforcement” personnel that is impacting moral, so we will be working with personnel to take steps to bring more unity within the organization.
Patrol vehicles are not equipped with mobile video recorders nor are deputies provided body cameras. We will be looking for funding to obtain equipment that gives us the ability to record and store and retrieve video from patrol vehicles and body cameras.
While these are my projects to get started on in the first year, it will take over a year to fully implement those items that require significant funding. What do you anticipate will be some of your biggest challenges, and how do you plan to tackle these? Some of the biggest challenges will be getting buy-in from current staff and obtaining needed financial resources. I think the best way to get buy-in from current staff is to include them in the decision-making process. This will create a sense of ownership and let them know that they have value. Regarding obtaining the financial resources needed, we will have to review the current budget to ensure we are making the best use of available funding. We are also planning to partner with members of the community to establish a non-profit Sheriff’s Foundation to raise money for the reentry program and a youth program. It is key that we have a sound plan that includes an evaluation process to determine the program’s effectiveness. How do you re-shape the public’s image of law enforcement? How do you re-shape law enforcement’s image of parts of the public? What concrete actions are needed to change negative perceptions on both sides? If we are going to re-shape the public’s image of law enforcement and law enforcement’s image of parts of the public, we must focus on our training and recruiting. As I mentioned previously, accountability training will be key. This training will include cultural diversity and implicit bias. We must redefine the purpose of law enforcement for the current and future officers/deputies. We also have to provide opportunities for open dialog. I believe lasting positive relationships and true understanding of one another does not occur at a public forum but around a table with a meal. It is my desire to have such experiences with members of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office and members of the community. As I said during the campaign:
We must be community focused. We are a part of the community, and we are empowered by the community to serve the community.
We must be safety driven, not arrest driven. We have to work with the community to identify those issues that create an unsafe environment. Yes, we will make arrests and write tickets but that isn’t the gauge for determining how well we are doing as a law enforcement agency. Our effectiveness is determined by the absence of crime, not the number of people in the county jail.
And we must be integrity based. Everything we do must be based on doing what is right.
I believe what every member of the community wants from the law enforcement agency that is serving their community is the same. What I say they want is “just policing,” and I define that as “policing that is based on what is morally right and fair.” When our actions reflect our training and our focus, then we will improve our relationship with all members of the community. What is your view of racial bias in Pulaski County policing at this point, and what kind of actions do you intend to take to address problems? I think we all recognize that there is racial bias in the criminal justice system and in policing. While I cannot give you any specifics as it relates to the practice of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office, this is an issue that must be addressed by every law enforcement agency. The fact that everyone has biases and officers/deputies have discretion lends itself to an environment where racial bias can occur. That is why we must address this in regular training and take corrective action when it occurs. How familiar are you with the new crisis intervention centers and how do you foresee Pulaski County utilizing them? The crisis center has only been open a few months in Pulaski County. I think it is a good first step to divert people with mental health issues from the criminal justice system. The on-site treatment is only a few days, and for many that is not enough time to address the underlining issues that has led that person to have an interaction with law enforcement that has led to an arrest. There may be other draw backs to what has been set up. If my information is correct, police agencies that divert individuals to the crisis intervention center must pay a daily fee for the time the individual is at the center. This may discourage police agencies from utilizing this service. The other concern I have is that while the state provided funding for the center, future funding is uncertain. I do think it is important that we take a more aggressive step to divert people with mental health issues and drug addiction from the criminal justice system and do more to help those who are returning from prison. I believe this will reduce the number of people incarcerated. And if we use the savings to increase our treatment program, not only will we see a reduction in crime, but we will see individuals become more productive members of our community.