Sheriff Gets Out of Town Often to Avoid Being ‘Bored to Death’
San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy took 16 trips during the first half of this year, frequently traveling on personal business, and was away from the county for nearly a third of the workdays during that period.
Duffy was gone from San Diego for at least 50 days--visiting such destinations as Washington, Hawaii and the Gulf Coast of Florida--and his extensive travels came at a time when his department was under fire from the San Diego County Grand Jury for being poorly managed and under-supervised.
Duffy, in a rare, 90-minute interview last week, said there was absolutely nothing wrong with his leaving the county that often.
“If I did nothing but be the sheriff of San Diego County, I’d be bored to death,” he said.
The sheriff said that he stays in close touch with the department while he travels and that his undersheriff and assistant sheriffs “do a tremendous job” in day-to-day operations.
Serves on Professional Groups
Duffy, who has held his elected post since 1971, said he has become a nationally recognized expert on law enforcement and that he frequently serves on professional organizations throughout the country that support law enforcement efforts. He said that, if his life were limited to working in his office, he would find the job very unfulfilling.
And he made light of a suggestion that his extensive trips provide few benefits to the county.
“Who cares what benefit there is?” he said. “San Diego County isn’t the end of the world. There’s a bigger world outside San Diego.”
The sheriff’s travel pace is documented in the pages of his weekly calendars, obtained by The Times after the newspaper filed a lawsuit seeking access to a series of public records Duffy had decided not to make available. The sheriff refused for a year to turn over the calendars, but finally did so on the eve of submitting to a legal deposition in connection with the suit.
The calendars, which are circulated among the Sheriff’s Department’s top commanders to inform them of his weekly schedule, do not specify whether Duffy actually took all of the scheduled trips.
But he said he “probably made” every one of the trips, adding that “there are probably some you don’t even know about” from the calendars. Three key officials in the department confirmed that the calendars truly reflect Duffy’s activities, particularly when it comes to his out-of-town travels.
The 16 trips during the first six months of this year include eight county-paid trips costing about $5,000 in taxpayers’ money, and eight trips on personal business.
Duffy’s travels in 1989 fit a pattern that he has set on his excursions the past five years.
According to county records, Duffy left San Diego on 71 county-paid trips from 1984 through 1988 and billed the county more than $32,000 in travel costs.
The sheriff said his personal calendars for earlier years have been destroyed, and it is not known how many personal trips he during the same period.
Other sheriffs in the state, as well as San Diego Police Chief Bob Burgreen, go on far fewer trips outside their jurisdictions.
Since being confirmed as police chief in September, Burgreen has taken only three trips--for three days to a conference in Portland, Ore., and twice for one day each to Sacramento.
Checks with three other sheriffs in California showed that they often shy away from extensive out-of-town trips.
‘Worry Every Time I Leave’
“I worry every time I leave,” said Sheriff Charles C. Plummer of Alameda County. “I don’t like to leave unless it’s really something important. I’m just that kind of guy. I just like being here.”
But Plummer said he understands why Duffy would have a more active travel agenda.
“I know John is one of those guys who’s president of everything there is to be a president of, or the past president,” Plummer said. “He’s a real leader in Southern California.”
Duffy’s weekly calendars show that, when the sheriff is in town, he often does not attend many management meetings or otherwise participate in the direct supervision of the department. Instead, his calendars are full of personal, political and social dates, such as haircut and dental appointments, banquets, luncheons and dinners, Irish celebrations and meetings with his politically active Honorary Deputy Sheriffs Assn.
In six months’ time, Duffy met just once with his Metropolitan Homicide Task Force, which is investigating more than 40 murders of prostitutes. When the grand jury issued its report in March sharply criticizing the Sheriff’s Department for losing control over deputy misconduct in the jails, Duffy was in Long Beach attending a four-day California State Sheriffs Assn. conference aboard the Queen Mary luxury liner.
Making Himself Scarce
In addition, the calendars indicate that Duffy attended only three of his department’s weekly Executive Management Team meetings during the first six months of the year. Three high-ranking officials inside the department said the sheriff shows up only sporadically for a weekly breakfast session with his undersheriff and assistant sheriffs. They said he is never present for a monthly meeting with the captains.
Three top-level officials in the department said in recent interviews that Duffy’s absence from headquarters has stymied some operations because these officials must wait for the sheriff to return and make routine management decisions.
“When you say he’s an absentee landlord, that’s an understatement,” said a sheriff’s commander, who, like other department officials, asked not to be named because he feared retribution from Duffy.
Indeed, two captains said that Duffy almost never visits their patrol stations and that, except for social and ceremonial functions, they go for months without ever seeing him.
“I’ve yet to see him in my building,” one captain said. “And I’m not the exception, but the rule.
“It tells me that, as an individual, he doesn’t really have any great interest with what’s going on out here. Top-level management is essentially operating in a vacuum. And there is frustration. Our opinions and our expertise are not valued. And the only time we hear from him is when something is perceived to have gone wrong, and then we’re castigated.”
Duffy acknowledged that he rarely visits the patrol stations and infrequently attends management meetings at headquarters.
He said he purposely sidesteps many management meetings because, otherwise, his top command would punt many of the tough management decisions that must be made daily.
“I avoid those meetings,” he said. “If I go, they’ll want me to make the decisions and save themselves from doing a lot of staff work.”
Instead, Duffy said, he sees his role as setting policy for the Sheriff’s Department and making sure the agency is organized and efficient.
“I set policy, and I organize the department,” he said. “I don’t do the day-to-day work. Instead, I organize the Sheriff’s Department for efficient and effective law enforcement. That’s my mandate.”
He said that, whether he’s in a sickbed or a hotel bed in another part of the world, he remains the sheriff of San Diego County.
A majority of the sheriff’s trips occurred on days leading up to or immediately after a weekend, and most of them appear to be for conferences held by private organizations made up of law enforcement officials. But he also has traveled to Washington and Sacramento to testify about pending legislation.
Of his 16 trips this year, half were paid for by the county.
The first county-paid trip occurred during the first week of the year, when Duffy spent four days in St. Petersburg, Fla., for a regional meeting of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Visit to Honolulu
The most recent county-sponsored hiatus was a six-day visit to Honolulu for a National Sheriffs Assn. conference.
Of the eight personal trips, Duffy’s calendars do not indicate who paid the travel costs.
The calendars do not give any reason for three of the trips--two to Dallas and one to Washington--that placed him out of San Diego for six days earlier this year. Duffy said he could not remember why he went to those cities.
He said the other trips, where travel reasons are indicated on the calendars, came about mostly because of his heavy involvement with professional law enforcement support groups around the nation. He said he is a committee chairman of the National Sheriffs Assn., a committee chairman and past president of the California State Sheriffs Assn., and a founding member of the Police Executive Research Forum.
He said that in past years he has attended international police chiefs’ sessions in London, West Germany and the Netherlands.
“I’m what you might call a professional volunteer,” he said. “In my profession, I’m one good cop. I’m very good at it.”
The three top Sheriff’s Department officials interviewed by The Times said they see no direct benefit to the county from Duffy’s trips.
“Indirectly, there probably is some benefit,” one captain said. “It’s necessary for a department head to maintain liaisons with other departments, so undoubtedly there is some indirect benefit.
“But the direct benefits? I can’t point out any.”
Sources within Duffy’s office said that when the sheriff is out of town the daily management machinery often locks down. They said Duffy insists on giving final approval to countless management decisions, such as the routine promotion of rank-and-file deputies, and that when he is gone the top command staff often is unable to keep the department moving smoothly.
“One of the big (complaints) down there (at headquarters) is that the top command will do the groundwork and evaluations for promotions,” said an official in the Deputy Sheriffs Assn.
“And then Duffy takes his yellow pad and reorganizes the department while he’s on airplanes. All the way down to the deputies--who’s going to be promoted and who’s going to be passed over.
“That’s what he’s always done. He has a lot of lag time on airplanes, and he won’t let anyone take his power away from him.”
A commander remembered instances in which a number of proposals collected dust for months on the sheriff’s desk--plans for design changes in the uniforms worn by deputies to more substantive projects such as upgrading deputies’ firearms and a career ladder program.
‘A Major Bottleneck’
“He has to give his stamp of approval on everything, and because of that, he’s become a major bottleneck,” the source said.
A sheriff’s captain added:
“He’s unavailable to make major policy decisions that affect the entire department, or at least major divisions of the department. Critical operational policies have to be deferred until he’s returned.
“The people need access to him, and they don’t have that. So we’re limited and can’t implement new procedures or address problems that need to be addressed.”
Duffy denied assertions that his absences leave the department stranded. He said he takes along reams of paper work to read on airplanes, has materials faxed to his hotel rooms, and is always in touch by telephone.
“Hey, this is the modern age,” he said.
As an example, he said that one night in 1978, while asleep in a Paris hotel room, he was awakened by a news reporter who wanted his comment on a Board of Supervisors’ request that he return home immediately. The five-member board wanted him back in San Diego because many of his deputies were staging a “sickout” over working conditions.
“My response was that I know what’s going on,” Duffy said. “I’m in daily contact with my office. Wherever I am in the world, I’m still the sheriff.
“So I stayed in Paris. And I’ll be damned if I’ll come home just because five politicians are getting nervous about something that doesn’t need my immediate attention.”
What Would Bring Him Back?
Asked what kind of crisis would require his immediate attention and cut short one of his trips, Duffy said it would be only if one of his deputies were killed in the line of duty. “I can’t think of anything else,” he said.
Despite his many trips away from San Diego, Duffy has kept a powerful political lock on his job for two decades. Rarely has any opposition candidate given the sheriff a real contest, and political insiders point to Duffy’s strong political base both in San Diego and statewide as the main reason for his longevity in office.
Although he has not formally announced his intentions, he said in the interview that he plans to run for a sixth term next year.
But the past year has been grueling for Duffy and his department. The grand jury, in its report in March verifying allegations of inmates being assaulted by jail deputies, sharply chastised the sheriff for not keeping closer management tabs on the situation in the crowded jails.
“Proper and vigilant supervision is the key to good management,” the panel told the sheriff.
Duffy said the grand jury’s findings have not prompted him to more closely supervise the patrol side of his department. But, he said, “I am keeping a closer eye on the jails.”
The sheriff’s calendars, which are prepared by an administrative secretary, carry many suggestions, apparently from the sheriff’s administrative staff, encouraging him to catch up on his paper work. Notations such as “CLEAR OFF PENDING PAPERWORK,” “Free day, paperwork, return phone calls, catch up, etc.,” and “Signatures/Action, A MUST!!!” are sprinkled throughout the calendars.
Duffy said he attends to many meetings and management tasks that are not listed in the calendars. He noted that often large portions of his days are set aside for “block time.”
“You probably wondered what block time was,” he said. “That’s time set aside for me to do whatever I want. It could be anything. Or it could be nothing.”
Some members of Duffy’s top command were incensed when Duffy wandered into his downtown headquarters on a recent late afternoon and became angry because the offices were empty.
The command staff, which normally works a 7 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shift, had gone home, the sources said, and the irritated sheriff fired off a memo ordering his subordinates to spend more time in the office during the workday.
“That letter bothered a lot of us,” a captain said. “We are salaried employees and people who do our jobs, and we work well beyond a 40-hour week.”
Duffy denied that he ever wrote the memo. “No such thing,” he said.
And he plans to keep on traveling. He said he leaves this week for a four-day trip to Columbus, Ohio, to attend a meeting on law enforcement accreditation.
“I don’t need to be sitting in my office all day,” he said. “I don’t need to be sitting there pushing all the buttons.”