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From warriors to guardians

Sheriff Corey Falls sees a culture shift as an important way to improve public trust in law enforcement. 

Falls points to national signs that the country is growing more skeptical of police actions. He sees the race-focused protests in headlines across the country, he hears the public support for body cameras to ensure outside scrutiny, and he knows not all who've worn a uniform have lived up the expected standard.

In Jackson County, Falls wants his department to adapt before the public demands it.

"I don't want to lose the public trust," said Falls, who was elected in 2014.

He distilled a training series his deputies will soon undergo as a shift from a "warrior" mentality, in which people are considered potential threats to officer safety, to a "guardian" mentality that places a higher value on respecting individuals the department faces.

Falls said the shift is a balance of two priorities. The "warrior" culture stems from encouraging officers to be prepared for any situation, even if the gruff and arms-length demeanor can put off otherwise law-abiding people, such as those in need of help or involved in a traffic infraction. The challenge is keeping officers safe while treating the public respectfully.

"You want them to go home every night," Falls said of his officers, adding, "I want people treated appropriately."

Falls typically describes the "guardian" mentality using terms such as "legitimacy" and "procedural justice." The ideas behind the terms are easier to understand than the jargon.

Legitimacy focuses on building public trust, which in turn gives police more support from the public.

According to a 35-page Police Executive Research Forum report Falls recently posted on the Sheriff's Office website, police agencies are considered legitimate if the public believes police actions are morally justified and appropriate. Legitimacy means the public believes police are honest and do their jobs well, and individuals are more willing to cooperate with police when the public trusts them, the report says. 

Falls became familiar with the report after joining the Police Executive Research Forum last year, although Falls said he's followed the organization since 2009 through now-retired Ashland police Chief Terry Holderness. Falls was previously a deputy chief in Ashland. 

The term "procedural justice" touches on police procedures to move closer to achieving legitimacy. It includes allowing opportunities for people to tell their side of the story, provides resources such as training to ensure officers are making decisions on facts rather than biases and are treating people with dignity.

Falls introduced the ideas behind the culture shift to his staff a week ago, and he said he's still determining how best to train staff on the concepts. He admits there's a "rub" with many officers who see the training programs and say, "Hey, we already do this."

Falls said he sees the initiative as a redoubling of efforts that's as much for the public as for his staff.

About two months ago, Falls attended an Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training seminar that discussed ways to incorporate the report's information in officer training.

In February, Falls attended a "train the trainer" seminar for Fair & Impartial Policing, a procedural justice training program developed by Prof. Lorie Fridell with the University of South Florida. The program teaches participants to think beyond "racism" and instead to be aware of their own biases — something neither good nor bad that all people hold — and provides training to ensure officers are working within legal standards rather than from those biases.

"It's a commitment to the public, we want to be legitimate," Falls said. "This is the direction we're moving."

Falls said asking officers to understand their own biases isn't "touchy-feely," but is a tool that ensures all people are respected when they deal with his agency.

"They want to be treated with respect," Falls said.

Falls emphasizes that ensuring his staff is respectful is in no way soft on crime.

"We're still going to have to use force on someone sometimes," Falls said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

A teen driving with his mother was let go with a warning Thursday by Sheriff's Deputy Blake Cam after being stopped for a passing violation near Ashland. Sheriff Corey Falls is embarking on a training effort to develop more trust between officers and the public. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta