Sheriff’s office defends its recent confidentiality agreement for employees
October 26, 2018
A recent confidentiality agreement issued by the Summit County Sheriff's Office has become a talking point in recent days as county voters consider which candidate is best suited for office ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
Earlier this month the sheriff's office asked all 78 of their employees to sign a new confidentiality agreement, spurring strong reactions from Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons' political opponents who questioned the motives of the move. In a recent letter penned by sheriff-hopeful Derek Woodman, and distributed by the Summit County Republican Committee, he asks "what is happening inside the organization that requires freedom of speech to be suppressed by the current administration?"
According to officials from the sheriff's office, as well as representatives from the Summit County Attorney's Office, the confidentiality agreement is largely the result of widespread changes to the office's policies. The policies — which include best practices on issues such as confidentiality, use of force, cooperation with other agencies and more — were last updated in 2013, according to undersheriff Joel Cochran. But this April, the sheriff's office began rolling out a new set of policies known as "Lexipol."
Lexipol — which is currently utilized by more than 3,000 law enforcement and public safety agencies in 35 states, including other agencies in Summit County — is essentially a new policy manual based on federal and state statues, case law, regulations and best practices. The point of implementing the new policies is, in part, because it is constantly being updated with the most up-to-date case law from throughout the country and state. But Lexipol also claims that the policy updates can reduce lawsuits and liability for law enforcement agencies, as well as improving access to the policies for officers in the field.
Why this is important in relation to the confidentiality agreement is that when the sheriff's office rolled out the new policies earlier this year the old policies essentially became null and void, including the section regarding confidentiality. While the Lexipol policies do include information regarding confidentiality, county officials believed those measures were insufficient, and required a supplementary document.
"Lexipol, though it talks about confidentiality and has a brief statement, it doesn't tie it all together the way we wanted," said Cochran.
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"It's vague in the Lexipol policy," added Keely Ambrose, assistant county attorney. "They assume you already have something like (a confidentiality agreement) that we weren't utilizing."
In the past, the office's new employees were required to sign a Policy Agreement & Understanding, essentially a document saying that the employee has read and understands all of the office's policies. That document pointed back to a separate "conduct and discipline" binder, which included the policies such as confidentiality. Additionally, detentions staff was required to sign an entirely separate confidentiality statement. According to staff, simplifying the process and having everyone sign a single document was part of the decision.
"I wanted to clean up the three documents it takes or more and just get a clean policy statement on confidentiality," said Cochran.
So if the new policies were implemented in April, why did it take an additional five months to issue a new confidentiality agreement? According to Ambrose, it was simply due to an emailing error on her part.
"In September (Cochran) contacted me and said 'what's going on with the confidentiality agreement?' I had made the changes months ago, and I never found an email where I sent it back to him. So I think I made the changes, got distracted by something else and never actually sent it back. And I thought I had. That's why the timing is what it is. We've finalized it and sent it back at the beginning of October."
The new agreement itself is about a two-and-a-half page document that outlines the confidentiality policy of the office. It interprets what is considered confidential information — essentially all personnel information, medical and health information and confidential and proprietary information about the Summit County Government or sheriff's office, along with prohibiting electronic recording in any capacity of people, incidents, passive/active surveillance, or recording of surveillance system recordings inside the office.
The agreement also dives into policies regarding public records requests, saying that employees are not considered proper custodians of records, and that requests must be sent to qualified superiors. The policy further prohibits sharing confidential information with anyone not authorized to receive the information, including family members, and establishes the policy as a prerequisite for employment. The agreement also states that employees will be held legally responsible for any damages that result due to a breach of confidentiality.
"The point was to protect the public and third parties from their information being disclosed from sheriff's deputies," said Ambrose. "Without that being explicit, it was just hanging out there. There's so much information that is confidential or private to individuals, we needed to make it explicit what can and can't be discussed outside the office."
But opponents still feel that the move was unnecessary. Woodman, who is familiar with Lexipol, said that the policy stands on its own.
"I absolutely agree the new policy, once they rolled it out and adopted it, nullified all the old policies," said Woodman. "But like all the rest of law enforcement agencies, I think that signing and understanding the policies would suffice. … I do believe that the policy itself speaks to what it is. I think the ancillary form is completely unnecessary because the policy itself stands on its own."
Silverthorne police chief John Minor said that Silverthorne PD also uses Lexipol, though has never asked department employees to sign a supplemental confidentiality agreement. Calls for comment to the Dillon, Frisco and Breckenridge police departments weren't immediately returned.
According to Cochran, 100 percent of employees from the operations, records and detention divisions have already signed and handed in the agreement. Additionally, he's expecting the animal control division to hand in their agreements as soon as its director returns from vacation. Similar confidentiality agreements have also already been signed by everyone in the County Manager Department, as well as the County Human Resources Department, according to Ambrose.
When asked if the agreement had anything to do with the upcoming election, Sheriff FitzSimons replied with a clear "no."
"The direction to get Lexipol launched, and to get this worked through, is all part of my desire to continue to professionally elevate this office," said FitzSimons.
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