PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — A long-awaited review of Multnomah County’s jail system will lead to major changes, but the controversial past of the longtime Florida jail administrator who wrote the report has left some people scratching their heads.
Tim Ryan, who retired as head of the Miami-Dade jail system in January 2014, in his report repeatedly suggests Multnomah look to his old system for examples of how to do things.
But a look at his career shows a series of controversies that Chair Deborah Kafoury calls concerning. They include accusations of racial bias and that Miami-Dade was under investigation by the federal government for civil rights violations for most of Ryan’s tenure there.
Sheriff Mike Reese, however, said the report written by Ryan and the National Institute of Corrections last week does offer helpful advice, including better training for corrections officers.
“It pointed out some areas where we need improvements, and really just gave us a roadmap for the organization that I think we need to work on,” Reese said, while vowing dramatic changes to the organization he took over in August.
But Ryan’s report also sparked criticism, as it didn’t have much to say about why it was launched in the first place — a finding that use-of-force incidents in the jail system disproportionately involve African-American inmates.
These are “the questions we all want answered” about racial disparities, Kafoury said. “It talks about the ways that the sheriff can and should improve their procedures, but it really doesn’t answer the question of whether disparities exist.”
The report has its roots in the administration of Reese’s predecessor, Dan Staton, who retired in August while under investigation for allegations of mistreating employees.
The county’s elected commissioners had attacked Staton for, among other things, the findings of a September 2015 audit that found African-Americans were the subject of 39 percent of all uses of force within the jail — while constituting only 27 percent of the inmates booked. The audit was not released publicly until it was obtained by the Portland Tribune in February.
Staton publicly called the audit inaccurate and vowed that an independent look from an outside agency would show no racial disparities in use of force.
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He contacted the National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency, to do it. But rather than do full reworking of the audit, the NIC sent a retired jail administrator, Timothy Ryan, to visit for three days, review assorted documents, and make recommendations.
Ryan might seem an odd choice. In 2002, he left a job overseeing the jails in Santa Clara County, California, after county supervisors “hammered Ryan for his handling of a recent escape and riot and his subsequent spinning of those snafus to the press,” according to a local newspaper columnist.
He took a lower-paying job in Orange County, Florida, where his tenure was marked by more than a dozen discrimination complaints at the jail and concerns about low rates of minority hiring, according to the Miami New Times newspaper.
The New Times uncovered other issues after Ryan took over the massive, long troubled Miami-Dade jail system in late 2006. Among his first moves there, to issue a policy that was accused of being racist, banning “Braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, plaits, extensions, ponytail(s) or facsimile, of any length.” In 2008, an internal affairs investigation looked into whether he had “made fun” of the name Kunta Kinte, the lead character in the TV saga “Roots,” according to the New Times.
Between 2008 and 2013, the system was under constant scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice which reported “inhumane and shocking” living conditions, including excessive force and inadequate medical care.
Ryan retired in January 2014, but told local reporters he did so by choice, blaming the controversies on poor funding and overcrowding of inmates in aging facilities.
Contacted for comment on the report, Ryan declined to comment on its findings or the DOJ scrutiny he’d been under in his old job. He also dismissed local speculation that he was pressured to retire from his earlier post, calling it ridiculous.
“Full retirement, no problems,” he said.
Walter Clark, an African-American retired corrections officer who frequently criticized Ryan, called it “laughable” that Ryan was selected to review Multnomah.
Ryan did not respond to follow-up questions by press time, and nor did the National Institute of Corrections.
Kafoury, told of Ryan’s controversial tenure in Miami-Dade, said “That information concerns me.”
Reese, in an email, wrote that he was unaware of the controversies. Ryan “was selected by NIC to conduct the (review) and came highly recommended.” He noted that Ryan may have inherited the problems at the system he oversaw.
Ryan’s report recommended more study, but said that based on the information provided, “I find the information indicates no disparate treatment” in the booking area. He did not say how he come to that conclusion. He declined to explain when contacted by the Tribune.
Asked why Ryan didn’t look deeper, the sheriff said that he asked Ryan to accept the 2015 finding of racial disparities as fact, instead of debunking it as Staton had sought.
But Reese also vowed to follow up with a more in-depth look to determine the extent of any disparities.
Reese said that Ryan’s observation on training of corrections deputies mirrored his own, including the need for de-escalation and mental health training. “In his review and in my assessment, our training is woefully lacking,” he said.
More positive coverage
Other findings in the report by Timothy Ryan included:
• Multnomah County should revamp its use-of-force tracking system to distinguish between routine control holds — such as holding an inmate’s elbow while guiding them to their cell — and more serious violence by deputies.
• Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office can do a better job of managing the media to create more positive coverage. For instance, it could avoid potential negative connotations from the term “use of force” and instead use a term that is growing in popularity among jail systems — “response to resistance.”