Criminal Justice Thought-Leader, Professor and Veteran Sheriff Gary Raney Discusses The State of Law Enforcement

Sheriff Gary RaneySheriff Raney joined the Ada County Sheriff's Office in 1983 and rose through the ranks until he was elected Sheriff in 2004. His agency is recognized locally and nationally for its best practices in planning and organizational leadership, and often hosts leaders from visiting agencies who look to Sheriff Raney's team for advice. Ada County is the most populated county in Idaho. His department has more than 600 employees and a 1,217-bed jail. Sheriff Raney is an adjunct professor for Boise State University and Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety, a guest speaker and trainer-consultant.

Why and how did you get into law enforcement and become a Sheriff?

By the time I was 14 I knew I wanted to be involved in the community, but I lived on a farm, so participating in traditional activities like organized sports wasn't easy. I was at an event one day and saw some kids wearing police uniforms as part of an Explorer Program. That planted a seed. Three weeks later, I joined a new Explorer Program in our community. I trace my interest in law enforcement directly to that. I then went to Boise State University where I studied Criminal Justice. While in college, I networked with local law enforcement officers and also served as a Reserve at a small department when I was 19. I found that the approach at the Sheriff's Office suited me best with its focus on service. At 21, I was able to apply to be a full-time deputy and got my first job working in the Ada County Jail as a detention deputy. Later I worked in patrol and as a detective. I solved a case that ended with a conviction for the only woman on death row in Idaho. A few years later, I was promoted to Lieutenant and worked with community policing where we contracted to provide policing services to three neighboring cities – we studied the King County model when implementing ours. In 2000, the previous Sheriff asked if I would consider running for the office after he retired. I gave it a lot of thought and talked with a number of my colleagues and decided it made sense. I became Undersheriff in 2002 and was elected Ada County Sheriff in 2004.

How important is an education in contributing to success in law enforcement?

In my case, I studied Criminal Justice as an undergrad and graduated in 1986 and got my Masters in 2005 in the same field while I was Sheriff. I think both of those degrees – and what it took for me to earn them – have been critical for me. The BA in Criminal Justice provides a baseline that I think helps anyone going into law enforcement develop the much-needed critical thinking skills. Today, a degree is pretty much required if you want to move into supervision and management. Even for those preferring a career in patrol or as a corrections officer, it has some real benefits and provides them skills and options. Going forward, a Master's degree really helps in planning and execution skills. It gives students exposure to statistics, management, planning, etc. and will become more of a requirement to move up the ranks, in my opinion. I was glad I waited to pursue my Master's until after I had moved into management and prepared for becoming Sheriff. Overall, I do value higher education greatly, as it provides better critical thinking and planning skills.

Of course, you can have a successful career in patrol or corrections without a degree, but it definitely helps. Even if these people don't aspire to management, a Bachelor's degree should still be the goal because it helps in so many ways – even with simple life skills.

What is your proudest moment in law enforcement?

It was taking the oath of office of Sheriff. As I mentioned, I had been preparing for this for several years including seeking my Master's degree and so it marked a culmination. There are other moments where I know I made a difference in someone's life – one of the great things about being in law enforcement.

What does it take to be a good deputy or police officer?

Two things stand out, though not in any order. First — you must be a good communicator, know how to relate to people, be a good listener and write effectively. Stepping back for a moment, law enforcement isn't about just arresting those doing a bad deed. It is more about prevention and fixing the system. That has to start with interactions within the community where we have opportunities to change the way people think (both about us and about crime prevention). Second — we need critical thinking. We need to be the problem-solvers in the community. This means being proactive, not always reactive. It is important to have the skills to recognize there are different ways to solve a problem. The best cops are the ones that don't think so rigidly – everything isn't black or white. The best cops stay within the boundaries of the law and ethics but can identify several options and find the right one that is the most effective solution to a problem.

I believe we need to evolve or we'll eventually be limited to performing the standard enforcement role. We are in reality a service industry and if we don't evolve our community service functions that are often perceived as mundane, they will be outsourced. We have to rethink our approach. Consider how firefighting evolved to become a more comprehensive Emergency Medical Services because they had succeeded on the initial mission of reducing fires through city codes, sprinkler requirements, fire detectors, etc. Many agencies lose sight of what a public safety agency should be. If agencies continue to draw “us/them” lines and say things like, “that's not my job,” it will become someone else's job – and you won't have one anymore.

Where will we be in 5 years and what is driving change?

Economics are driving change. It is already happening. It costs $125K a year to have a full-time patrol officer. This can be done less expensively if outsourced – just like they are doing in Oakland. We are set in a structure that will make us less effective unless we change it. There are invisible boundaries drawn that cause unnecessary separation between local law enforcement agencies, and we need to be better in working together and collocating resources. We need to change or the private sector will step in. In five years, I hope we are integrating and sharing information and resources. That is the key to success in the future.

At one level, we need to see better efficiencies – shared crime labs, narcotics teams and S.W.A.T teams, for example. Smaller jails will need to give way to larger regional facilities. Those lines between local law enforcement will be erased to make efficiency possible. I am not talking about a move to a national police force. I'm simply talking about more effective, efficient coordination at the local level. Homeland Security did provide some movement to better interoperability, but we still have a long way to go.

At another level, we need to consider our mission as a service agency and how to evolve before the private sector does it first. To do that, every agency needs to address every problem by looking at what's best for the community as a whole, not just what's best for us as an agency.

What is the biggest challenge you face today and how are you addressing it?

We are fairly flat in headcount. Crime is down but the jail population is increasing since many inmates cannot post bond. We are nearly full in the jail. So we need to perform our mission on a tightened budget. Looking into the future, voters are less and less willing to support jail construction with new taxes because evidence has shown that more jail space doesn't make a safer community. We need to manage offenders effectively from the time they are arrested until the time they are completely free of the system. To do that, we must use evidence-based practices and technology to create an effective system with a purpose – one that can actually make a difference. The purpose of a jail in the future will no longer be about “locking them up,” but will be about preventing the next crime and the next victim by using the system to reduce recidivism.

What else do you like to do?

My role as Sheriff keeps me very busy, but as time permits, my second passion is both teaching and helping other agencies improve on leadership, planning and implementation. I have done a lot of strategic planning for government. I do adjunct work as a Professor. I enjoy the speaking, educational and consulting opportunities on leadership, budgeting and strategic planning. The consulting work is mostly to help those that need direction – to help them focus, set priorities and action steps, and improve communications. I am honored to participate in a small group of leaders who have been labeled as “innovative.” As the only government organization asked to participate in this group, I'm humbled that we are recognized as being on the right track and am energized by the many lessons we can learn from the private sector.

Can you tell readers things they should know about Ada County?

The area surrounding Boise is beautiful and the people are very friendly. It is a place where people stop to allow you to cross a street. When people move here, they often tell me they made the decision to relocate after visiting friends or family in the Boise area and getting a taste of the lifestyle here. We have all the culture and opportunity of a big city, but also amazing access to the outdoors and all kinds of recreation. You really can't ask for much better.