A union leader representing Ramsey County jail staff said the county’s pick for interim sheriff dodged important questions about how he’ll fix a staffing shortage at the facility.
Union steward Chad Lydon, who has worked in the jail since 2006, wrote the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners last month warning them that assaults on jail staff have jumped 80 percent over four years, supplies such as handcuffs are running low and that a computerized locking system that controls cell doors “frequently malfunctions,” among several other concerns.
Commissioners interviewed and selected Ramsey County Sheriff Chief Deputy Jack Serier Tuesday as a replacement for former Sheriff Matt Bostrom, who left the post to lead a University of Oxford study on changing hiring practices to increase trust in police.
“The frustration is still there, because we didn’t hear it — we didn’t hear a plan of action,” said Lydon, who was among about a dozen corrections officers who attended Serier’s interview. “It’s our lives on the line.”
Commissioner Blake Huffman broached the subject, asking Serier how he would address staffing and safety issues to relieve officers’ “angst.”
“There’s no magic bullet here,” Serier said.
Serier said he would look at the jail’s staffing plan and scheduling to see if personnel members are being scheduled strategically, examine the jail’s overtime budget and look at opening more full-time positions without creating “budgetary burdens.” Serier earlier said he prided himself on staying within or under budget.
Huffman said he was satisfied with Serier’s answers about the jail. But corrections staff left the board meeting with little optimism that conditions would change. Shane Justen, a corrections officer, said he was “skeptical” of the solutions Serier outlined.
“It’s nothing they haven’t heard before,” said Joshua Loahr, a business agent with Teamsters Local 320, a union representing law enforcement employees.
Corrections officers regularly work “hundreds” of overtime hours each weekend, Lydon said, as staffing reached a “state of emergency” about two years ago. The exact number of corrections officers was not immediately available Tuesday, but the sheriff’s website said the jail has nearly 150 detention, law enforcement and medical staff.
Lydon said a study from mid-2016 noted the jail could use another 30 to 40 staffers. County spokesman John Siqveland said the study Lydon referenced was a draft that is undergoing review and has not been published, and therefore, was not available Tuesday.
“It’s getting out of hand,” Lydon said of the staffing levels. “We need this problem addressed, and we need it addressed now.”
Lydon’s letter to the board also said a broken metal detector in the booking area was never replaced, radio calls sometimes fail to transmit to central control and training for new officers is often rushed due to staff shortages.
“We’re willing to work with him on this,” Lydon said.
Serier is scheduled to be formally voted into office at a meeting next week and will serve the last two years of Bostrom’s term before an election in 2018.
The board had considered opening up the appointment process to other candidates but eventually decided to interview Serier only, with the option that if they did not agree to appoint him they would look at outside candidates.
The process drew criticism from local activists.
“The decision to not open up the process to other applicants is problematic for several reasons,” said a statement from John Mannillo, spokesman for the watchdog group, St. Paul STRONG. “The Board’s decision seems to eliminate other capable law enforcement professionals (including women and people of color) from applying and competing for the position. We have no issues with the chief deputy, and in an open and competitive process he might very well be the right person for the position.”