An Interview with Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton on Holistic Approaches to Public Safety and Bias-free Policing


By Madeline Strong Diehl, Photography by Susan Ayer

After working more than thirty years in the field of law enforcement, Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton has become an international expert on such intransigent issues as bias-free policing, cultural diversity, and “subject control” arrest techniques. In 2016 Clayton represented the U.S. at a conference on community policing held in Barcelona, Spain, hosted by the Open Society Foundations. In 2017 Clayton again represented the U.S., this time at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, sponsored by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. In February of 2018, Clayton participated in a U.S.-U.K. exchange in London, focusing on building leadership for fair and effective policing.

Closer to home, Clayton was one of 12 people chosen to participate on Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Jail and Pre-Trial Incarceration Task Force this past spring. He has worked as a certified trainer for more than 16 years, and continues to consult for such clients as the United States Department of Justice, the National Sheriffs Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Now in his mid-50s, Clayton also hosts visitors from law enforcement agencies from around the U.S. and Canada who want to replicate the reforms that he has successfully put in place in the county jail. These reforms are now considered best practice, and they’re based on building an environment of mutual respect and trust between corrections officers and the people they are supervising.

When Clayton first ran for office in 2008, he promised to establish a holistic approach to public safety by providing human services for low-risk offenders who were languishing in jail, unable to receive medical treatment for the mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder that caused them to commit nonviolent crimes in the first place. 

As of this spring, Clayton’s goal has become a reality, thanks to the consistent funding that will be provided by a one-mill, eight-year “mental health and public safety services” property tax approved by voters in November 2017 by a two-to-one margin. This, along with Clayton’s stunning victory in the 2016 election, arguably makes him the most popular and influential politician in the county.

As of this coming December 2019, the tax is expected to raise $15.4 million, and roughly three-quarters of that, or about $12 million, will be split between Washtenaw Community Mental Health (CMH) and the Sheriff’s Office in order to fully roll out a new seamless, comprehensive mental health crisis response program called CARES (Crisis, Access, Resources, Engagement and Support). CARES will provide triage so that mental health workers can quickly assess the needs of individuals and families who are experiencing an emergency, and ensure that appropriate professional treatment is provided immediately—ideally within 24 hours. This program is designed to pre-empt the kinds of risks that accrue to people with untreated mental illness and their families and communities, and it is also expected to take some of the pressure off of the community’s already strained resources like the University of Michigan Hospital’s psychiatric ward and its Psychiatric Emergency Service. By the end of this year, the program is expected to establish a place where law enforcement officers and family members can take someone who is experiencing acute symptoms of mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder for professional observation and treatment. Potentially a person can be released to their own home after a short time, with follow-up medical treatment in place. After working for more than a decade to establish the program in close partnership with CMH and other stakeholders, Clayton calls the system a “model for the nation.”


What follows are excerpts from an interview I had with Sheriff Clayton in his office while he was finalizing his plans to approach the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to request that they put the eight-year levy on the ballot. The Crazy Wisdom Journal felt that this material is timely and relevant right now, in light of the millage funding that begins in December. And the content has been updated and reviewed by Sheriff Clayton.

I spent about two and a half hours with the Sheriff. His hair and moustache is dark with flecks of grey; he was wearing black pants and a gray woolen cardigan. His large frame is built like a college football player—which he was—and he sat uncomfortably behind his desk like someone who isn’t used to spending much time there. He is extremely eloquent and articulate and chooses his words carefully.

Madeline Diehl: You have argued since the very beginning of your political career that creating a holistic system of human services and law enforcement would directly improve public safety for everyone in our community. Can you please explain the rationale for that? 

Sheriff Clayton: Yes. I believe that 30 to 40 percent of the people who are currently in jail don’t belong there and don’t pose a significant risk to the County. However, there will always be some people we come across who are dangerous, who flat-out have predatory behavior, and do pose a significant risk to the public. They are the ones that need to be incarcerated. But we should not create a system for the majority based on the risk posed by the minority. My fear is that we’ve done that. Let’s look at the people who are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes—maybe they’re offenders because they were using drugs, and to fund their habit, they were carrying out home invasions, strong arm robberies, stealing from stores. Now, just imagine if we could provide them with the resources and support they need to help them confront their addiction and understand their root causes [of crime]. Suppose, instead of paying to incarcerate these people, our community invests in these people instead, and provides human services for them. Now, instead of becoming repeat offenders who are constantly cycling in and out of jail, they’re in a position to help themselves, they can overcome their challenges. They have the potential to become a productive member of society. They’re working, paying taxes, and they’re less likely to recidivate. And for every [at-risk] person we provide human services to, that’s one less crime victim down the road. So now they’re not “draining the system”—in fact, let’s have the financial argument. Add up the cost that it takes for incarceration, the cost of continuing to prosecute people for the same thing, over and over, versus providing support to them upfront to overcome their challenges, and there’s no doubt you are going to save money. So providing human services to these people is not just the right thing to do, morally—it makes the most economic sense.

Diehl: You have said many times in public forums that you believe that the current law enforcement system is “insane.” 

Clayton: Yes, I think the criminal justice system, as a whole, fits the definition of insanity. To me, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome each time. Right now, the vast majority of people in jail suffer from mental illness—and some of them suffer from both mental illness and a substance abuse disorder. When I started working in the jail, I was astounded when staff told me that when an individual was on their medications, they were fully functional, contributing members of society. But these individuals kept going off their meds, then they would have some crisis situation, then the police would get called again, and these people had to languish in jail. Then they were released into the same unsustainable situation. It’s an endless cycle—that’s what I mean when I call it “insane.” We keep seeing the same people over and over again in jail. And it’s not appropriate to take these people to jail—they need healthcare that we simply are not equipped to handle in jail. That’s why we have been building a strong partnership with Community Mental Health and other agencies, so that law enforcement officers can eventually take people [who are having a drug-related and/or mental health crisis] directly to a place where they can receive treatment without having to charge them with a crime. This idea is not unique to us—it was first developed in Seattle, and it’s called a pre-booking diversion program, or LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion). Participants in a diversion program are immediately assigned to case managers who can connect them with services like medical treatment and housing.


Diehl: Can you tell me about your efforts to close gaps in the safety net in our community?

Clayton: Integrating human services and strengthening the safety net has been one of my administrations’ long-term strategies since we first took office ten years ago. Early on, we changed our mission statement to have three parts. Number one, we’re going to create public safety. Number two, we’re going to provide quality service. And number three, we are going to build strong and sustainable communities. Our vision involves building sustainable partnerships with nonprofits and mental health and government agencies. Some of these partnerships were already in place when we took office in 2008. And since that time, we have built new relationships and strengthened existing ones. We want to sit at the table and partner with a lot of folks around a lot of issues having to do with quality of life in this community—not just law enforcement. We now say we provide services, and law enforcement is just one of these services. 

Some of it is just community engagement, helping with problem-solving. We work with our partners on what we call the “root causes” of every situation—for example, when we keep getting called to the same house over and over, we know it’s not just a law enforcement issue—something else is probably going on there. So, we look at what that individual needs to prevent him from entering the criminal justice system, because maybe he needs things like housing, education, and [mental health] treatment instead. 

Diehl: Can you give me examples of how your agency is engaged in some of these community partnerships? 

Clayton: Well, my officers are still getting called into situations where someone is having a mental health crisis, and Community Mental Health has created a two-day training program that I now require all my deputies to take. They learn how to recognize and respond when someone is having a crisis—how to handle it in a way that doesn’t escalate the situation. 

Another example is our extremely effective partnership with the University of Michigan School of Public Health. They called us because they wanted to partner with us to train our deputies so they could administer Narcan if they are the first on the scene in an incidence of opioid overdose. We started the program in August 2016 and since then we have saved many lives. That’s just one example of how law enforcement is only one piece of what we do for this community. In fact, you very rarely hear us talk about our mission in terms of law enforcement these days. 

Diehl: What are some of the other reforms you are putting in place?

Clayton: We (Clayton’s administration) have been on a ten-year journey of changing the culture of the Sheriff’s office. And we’re not doing that by legislating behavioral changes through policy. Policy’s important. But we are committed to changing our organizational culture by changing our beliefs about why we exist, what our purpose is. Washtenaw County is a unique and special place in the sense that it has made a large commitment to building an inclusive and supportive community. And that’s why it’s an ideal place for us to create a model that can be used elsewhere. 

There is no perfect community, no perfect set of values, but here in Washtenaw County, human services count. We identified early on that, if we really want to talk about human services, we want to talk about the people in this community who are the most vulnerable. We’re (law enforcement officers) the first point of contact for these people in many situations. These are the same [vulnerable] people who the caseworkers, the social workers, the mental health workers, have on their caseload. These same people who the professionals meet in their offices are the same people we meet on the street. The mental health professionals meet with them when they’re stable, and we have interactions with them when they’re not [stable]. So, some of my colleagues may argue against this, but we [law enforcement officers] are the community’s first-line social workers, and we must recognize that and embrace that. We need to think about our role a little differently in this context. And that changes our “why.” Why do we exist? We’ve got to find a better way of doing things. We need to challenge our paradigms, challenge the assumptions we’ve had in the past, and most of all, we need to think about the outcomes. We don’t think enough about outcomes.

Diehl: Can you please explain that?

Clayton: Well, one of the main problems we’re dealing with is that the mainstream system is designed to be punitive, so when someone is exposed to the system, they are made to feel they are “bad” people. They come out of jail even less able to contribute to society than when they went in. And the worst thing in the world you can do to someone is to take away their hope. That’s not the outcome we want. We are working with a vision of: “How do you create a kind of environment (in jail) where there’s hope?” What we’re doing [with our reforms] is we’re creating the kind of constructive environment in jail where people have the opportunity to feel they are a success. 


Diehl: Please tell me how you have been able to improve the environment for people in jail.

Clayton: Rather than being punitive in nature, our administration has changed the way our jail works based on a philosophy of Strategic Inmate Management, or SIM. SIM focuses on changing three things: belief, values, and behavior. This philosophy assumes that most of our inmates can behave reasonably in jail and cooperate if we use rewards instead of punishment. The traditional belief is that you are going to jail because you’re a bad person, you’ve done something wrong. But we have adopted a different belief. Our belief is that the vast majority, 90 and sometimes up to 95 percent of the people coming to jail, have the potential to follow rules and to behave well if we set the right expectations and communicate them clearly. We tell them, directly and indirectly, that our expectation is, with the right incentives, you’ll behave and follow all the rules. And we believe in acknowledging people when they meet our expectations, not just when their behavior is bad. We also believe it’s incumbent on us to meet their social needs. We try to find ways they can connect with the outside world. 

Diehl: Are you finding that SIM improves the outcomes for people coming out of jail as well?

Clayton: Yes. We have established a whole re-entry continuum that includes discharge planning and a work-release program that enables a low-risk offender to work at a job during the day and then come back to the jail after their shift is over. We also have an education program in partnership with WCC (Washtenaw Community College). We have staff from WCC coming in to work with folks on an education program that they can take right up until they get out, and once they’re out, they can keep working on the program and finish [their degrees] for free. So that, to me, is how my original vision evolved. We’re creating the kind of constructive environment where people have the opportunity to feel they are a success. 

Diehl: There are many studies that reveal that a disproportionate number of African-American men end up going to jail, and that some of that may be related to institutionalized racism. As an African-American man involved in law enforcement, can you please comment on that? 

Clayton: I’ll say it this way. As an African-American male, I think I have a duty, if I see flaws in the system, or anything that has disparate [negative] impacts on anybody—not just African-Americans—I think I have an obligation to address that. People in leadership positions like me need to have the courage to make changes. I believe that everything we’re doing right now with our reforms can restore hope for people and give them more opportunities to change their lives for the better. I feel extremely blessed that I’m in a position to change these things. 

Diehl: If a law enforcement officer has a lot of bias toward people from certain backgrounds, like race, how can you undo that?

Clayton: One of things our administration is committed to is creating an agency that models best behavior, and part of that is nondiscriminatory behavior. We need to be vigilant in terms of trying to identify and root out anybody who is making decisions from a place of bias. Now the flip side of that is not all officers are engaged in discriminatory behavior. I think very few officers are consciously discriminatory. The main problem in almost all of these cases is “unconscious” bias—that just means that someone is not cognizant of their bias. It’s important to remember we all have bias. Bias extends beyond race and includes gender, age, disability—all of these groups suffer from unconscious bias. I teach a class about what we call unconscious or persistent bias to all my officers, and I require all of them to take the IAT (the Implicit Association Test) as a prerequisite. Harvard University designed the test to help people find out what their unconscious biases are. I ask people to take the test, but I don’t require my students to report their results. I took the IAT and found out [where] I have bias.

Diehl: It seems that our country tried to get rid of bias by passing laws like the Civil Rights Act, but that didn’t change people’s hearts, and a lot of us are still going around with bias that we’re not even aware of.

Clayton: That’s because you can’t legislate belief changes. We changed the law, but the fundamental beliefs of many people in this country have not changed, about people of color being inferior, or this, or that. And I don’t think we can change [unconscious bias] unless we have dialogue with each other—the kind of real dialogue we need to have in order to move the country in a different [direction]. For the time I’m Sheriff, I’m always looking to use the leverage of the Sheriff’s Office, to use our influence to do whatever that is to move [the community] a little farther down that path to have this discussion. I’m not afraid to talk about it, and maybe that helps create the space for dialogue with other people who want to talk about it. But we’ve got to create the kind of safe space that’s necessary if we are going to ask people to talk about the kinds of distorted beliefs that are part and parcel of holding unconscious bias. To be honest with you, we haven’t been able to figure out totally how to have this discussion within the agency. So, we’ve got to figure out internally and externally how to make that dialogue happen. We’re farther along than we were, but we’re still not there yet. 

Diehl: Can you describe what things will look like when you do get there?

Clayton: The way I see it, there are three steps to acceptance of change for something like this, and you need to get a critical mass of people in order to achieve real change. The first stage is compliance—people follow the new rules and that’s it. That’s hard for a lot of people, whether or not it’s about reform like this or changes in legislation or policy. But I think we (the Sheriff’s Office) have reached critical mass with compliance. The next step is when people buy-in to the change—they “get it” intellectually. We’ve laid something out and people say, “Yeah, I get it, that makes sense, I can do that.” I think there’s critical mass here now [in the Sheriff’s Office]. The last level of change is when we reach a critical mass in commitment to the mission. You no longer just “get it” intellectually, but there’s some emotional connection with you in your heart. So, this change, this mission, resonates with you at such a deep level that now we don’t have to tell you to do something. You’re not doing something because some supervisor is looking over your shoulder, or because you have to. You’re doing it because you understand the reason for it—and you believe it’s what we should be doing. And it’s this last level of change that we’re continually trying to get to.

Diehl: Do you think you have achieved some of that critical mass for commitment to change?

Clayton: No. But I’ll tell you, every day I hear about more and more examples that indicate that my people are starting to get there. [A wry smile blooms on his face.] And you know, maybe we are there, and I’m too reluctant to say we are. Every day I get a report, a phone call, an email about a deputy doing something that she wouldn’t do unless she was committed to the mission. I hear a lot of stories about my staff going above and beyond their assigned duties in order to help someone navigate through a problem that deputies aren’t responsible for, you know? I’m learning about staff members spending their own money, their own time to help people. 

[Clayton’s pager had been ringing incessantly throughout the interview, and after two and a half hours, he tells me he’s late to an appointment, and puts on his coat.]

Clayton: I have to go meet with a student at Ypsilanti High School who is interested in joining the force. I don’t have much time to talk with him, but I figure I can pick him up and talk to him while I am driving around in the car. The real solution to resolving unconscious bias is for officers to work with other officers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. We would like to have more African-American deputies. We are currently hiring and have a lot of open positions. We encourage young men and women from diverse backgrounds to apply to work for us. We are a great agency to work for. 

Related Content: