From COVID to George Floyd, Sheriff Patten gives overview of challenges of last four years at ACSO to Natchez Rotarians

Published 9:59 pm Wednesday, May 31, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten provided Natchez Rotarians with an overview of struggles and successes over the last four years at the Adams County Sheriff’s Office.

“This is not a political speech,” Patten said. “It’s an update on what the men and women of the sheriff’s office have been through over the last four years.”

COVID-19, the ongoing manpower shortage, police reform prompted by the George Floyd incident and difficult challenges associated with operating an unsafe and inadequate jail have all taken their toll, the sheriff said.

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However, he said sheriff’s deputies and other personnel have provided leadership for the community through each crisis, even when dealing with their own.

“In the last three years, our county and country have been through some major crises, which have made the sheriff’s office more resilient in facing all types of challenges,” Patten said.

Despite working some 30 staffers short for the first six months of COVID-19, the sheriff’s office never experienced a lapse of service to the community.

“We continued to do our due diligence. We never had a break in service. We may have slacked up some on minor calls, but we never had a break in service to this community,” he said.

COVID took its toll on the community and deputies, who had to learn to take care of each other.

“The suicide rate skyrocketed. It was at an all-time high in this country,” and this community suffered its own increase in suicides, particularly among young people, he said.

“When you go in and find a young person has hung themselves in a closet, when you respond to a call like that…many people think we have an S on our chest, but we are just human beings. The average law enforcement officer sees 184 times more trauma than normal people do in their lives. We are trained to show up, but we are still human. When we see a child harm themselves, it takes a toll,” Patten said.

Suicides among law enforcement officers also increased dramatically, he said.

“We were blessed not to have any suicides at the sheriff’s office, but we certainly responded to many of them.”

Such was the impetus behind seeking crisis intervention training for officers.

“Adams County is number two in the state, just behind Hinds County, for the number of mental health committals,” the sheriff said. “In terms of per capita, Adams County is number one in the state.”

Because of that, 13 Adams County Sheriff’s deputies are now trained in mental health crisis intervention, and two ACSO deputies are trained to train the trainers.

Patten said he was a witness for the federal government in its lawsuit against the State of Mississippi to provide more and better care for those with mental illness.

“There are 82 counties in Mississippi and a whole lot of cities and only one sheriff took the state. That was not to hurt the state, but it was because of the need for someone in my position to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves,” he said. “The federal government won that case, and as a result, Adams County has the second crisis stabilization unit in the state. Jail should not be the only option, but it is the only option right now” until the crisis stabilization unit here is operating as it should.

The ACSO also now has two people who are trained in peer support and able to recognize when an officer needs help, and thanks to unique software provided to the sheriff’s office by its creator at no charge, deputies can seek help for a variety of issues, from mental help to budgeting and finances, all anonymously and from the privacy of their own home.

The sheriff also said the George Floyd incident eroded nationwide what was already shaky confidence in law enforcement.

“That was one of the worst things I have ever seen in law enforcement. Just when we were raising the bar and becoming revered again, that happened,” Patten said. “Everybody had their opinion, but the Adams County Sheriff’s Office would never condone what happened. We wanted to remind Adams County of the good men and women who are at work here and ask them to not paint us with the same brush as those people involved in the George Floyd incident. That was extremely important to us. To make sure that message resonated, our message was: What you saw up there, that’s not what we do here,” he said.

In the last eight years, Adams County Sheriff’s deputies have been in nine standoffs during which guns were pointed at them, Patten said.

“Thank God, all of those standoffs have ended with no one getting hurt. That’s a testament to the level of training deputies use every day. When you talk about all of the policy changes nationwide that came about because of the George Floyd incident, we didn’t have to change our policies here. When all this stuff about chokeholds came up, we had already changed our policy to be more inline with our community standards,” he said.

The Adams County Sheriff’s Office operates with transparency, which the community has shown it values.

“One of the best things to happen to us happened five years ago when the casino paid for those body cameras. They are one of the best tools we have. They provide an unbiased view of what happened in a situation,” he said. “They also allow officers and command staff to go back and review actions in order to learn from them. We go over calls with officers and discuss how we could have handled them better.”

The sheriff said continuing challenges of the sheriff’s office include pay for deputies, challenges with a five-year backup at the state’s crime lab and the inhumane condition of the Adams County Jail.

“We used to be one of the highest-paid agencies,” Patten said. Now, with a starting wage of $16.01 per hour for officers, the sheriff’s office is one of the lowest. Starting wage for officers at the Natchez Police Department is now $17.85 per hour.

About the jail, he said the structure is not in compliance with any guideline and poses a huge legal liability for the county.

“It does not meet any modern-day requirements. It has no sprinkler system. It has no open-air ventilation. There is no access to the outside. You can’t see out of those windows at the jail,” he said. “It’s not just a liability for me, but for everyone in the county. I want a safe environment for the people who work there and the people we house there. We are judged by how we treat the least among us…I don’t want a new jail because we need a shiny new toy. We need a facility that is safe for us and for those who are incarcerated. This is what is called inhumane treatment.”