Sheriff Peter Koutoujian

Sheriff Koutoujian Supports Racial Justice Protests as He Continues Pioneering Programs for Inmates

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MEDFORD, Mass. — The constant discussion of COVID-19 in America has been changed in the last few weeks to an ongoing discussion of race. People in law enforcement throughout the United States are reassessing their policies and approaches as a result of the widespread protests spurred on by the death of George Floyd. Among them is Peter Koutoujian, the sheriff of Middlesex County, the most populous county in Massachusetts. His office primarily is involved in corrections, not patrols, with custody of pre-trial and sentenced detainees.

Koutoujian exclaimed in an interview on Monday, June 15, “I was stunned and I was absolutely appalled when I saw the video of George Floyd, and many of the other videos that have been brought to light on incidents that occurred both before and after George Floyd. Probably even more importantly, to me it was just an incredible sense of sadness to watch someone pleading for his life and dying in a manner that was so preventable. There is no conceivable way for me, a person in law enforcement, to understand or condone what happened. There is no excuse for what happened.”

He said the whole incident still affects him greatly now and pointed out that that a similar situation occurred in 2014 when Eric Garner was also pleading with police that he could not breathe and died. Koutoujian said, “This is a set of issues that are not just suddenly here. They have been around for many years, decades, and generations, quite honestly, so when I see the concern and outrage by communities, I can understand why they can be so upset.”

He said that there were dozens of protests throughout Middlesex County over the last few weeks and to his knowledge, none led to any incidents of violence or property damage.

“I completely support those who are peacefully protesting and support and understand what they are doing completely,” he said, but added the caveat that “using violence, looting or vandalizing is not acceptable.”

He noted that there are also those trying to take advantage of these situations to bring about violence but they are not there for the message, while the true protesters are trying to focus on the message and urge people not to commit violence.

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There has been a major shift in the US in the consideration of issues regarding race, and Koutoujian emphasized, “I think it is an important discussion to have.” He issued a public statement on June 4 as sheriff expressing his condolences to Floyd’s family, acknowledging the failures and shortcomings in law enforcement leading to injustice for people of color, and calling for the creation of “a more fair and accountable justice system — not just within policing but throughout the whole structure.”

His own office, he said to the Mirror, was ahead of the curve on these issues, but is also taking new steps internally. He said, “We have already begun to step up our training. We work very hard on de-escalation techniques and communications skills to avoid the use of force. So we have been working on this very hard. We are in the process of incorporating additional diversity and civil rights training for all employees. We are incorporating duty-to-intervene policies.”

He also pointed out that mental health providers were integrated into all that they did, which also can alleviate unnecessary problems. Strikingly, his office is the largest mental health provider in Middlesex County, just as the three largest mental health providers in the entire United States are the Los Angeles, Rikers Island and Cook County jails. Koutoujian said, “I have people that are in jail only because they have mental health issues — only because they have mental health issues. They commit crimes when they are in crisis but if their mental health issues could be resolved, they would not be in jail.”

The Middlesex Sheriff’s Office is involved in two programs which, Koutoujian said, “set Middlesex apart not just from much of the rest of Massachusetts but the rest of the country” and have turned it into a national model.

In 2016, through a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, it became one of three pilot sites for the Data-Driven Urban Justice Initiative. It consequently collects and analyzes public safety and emergency services data about people who are frequently caught in the justice system, often people with mental health issues or drug addiction problems, in order to help provide them with appropriate resources. Furthermore, this is the second year it has a Restoration Center Commission, which is planning the creation of a restoration center. This center would provide behavioral health services to help prevent people from having issues with the criminal justice system or unnecessary hospitalization.

Aside from his local efforts, Koutoujian is involved on a state and national level in the urgent discussion of race in policing. He is currently president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, president of the Major County Sheriffs of America (https://mcsheriffs.com/) and a founding member of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration (lawenforcementleaders.org), based at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York University School of Law.

The Major County Sheriffs of America is one of the two major national sheriffs’ associations and includes sheriffs from the most populous counties of the US. It issued a statement on May 29 condemning George Floyd’s death and calling for rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the communities it serves that was damaged by this tragedy.

It is very engaged in the numerous proposals being discussed in Congress right now on this issue, Koutoujian said. Daily calls are taking places to discuss what positions the sheriffs should take on the individual policies that are being considered. There are at least 30 to 50 bills, or variations of bills. The organization is dealing with the House, Senate and White House.

When asked his position on proposals to defund the police, Koutoujian pointed out that the definition of defunding has changed numerous times so that sometimes it can means refunding or reallocating.

In any case, he said, “The answer is not as easy as taking money from here and putting it there. This is a longer-term issue that we have and I totally support putting money into support services, but just taking it away from police, that is just not going to [be the] answer.”

Instead, he said, “You can take a look at their budgets and their programming and make a determination as to what is necessary and what is good for a community…a simple slogan like defunding I don’t find to be effective in a long-term way at all.”

He noted, “I have said from the very beginning when I took office as sheriff that we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of these problems – they can be mental health, homelessness, or many other things. Yet who deals with all these problems that are replete throughout society? It is law enforcement that has to do it.”

This is because communities do not provide funding for necessities like early childhood care and education or mental health support. Koutoujian said, “I think that is a failure of society to support individuals in need. And then they become justice involved, and that does not help anyone. I see a need for putting more money in some of these support services.” He said that he is proud of the services his sheriff’s office provides, “but you shouldn’t have to come to jail to get good programming. You should be able to get it so that you don’t have to come to jail.”

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