Sheriff says character-based training decreasing crime, increasing trust

The Times and Democrat, South Carolina/January 29, 2006
By Julie Campbell Sohm

St. George -- What is "character," and why is Dorchester County Sheriff Ray Nash so intent on instilling exemplary character traits in his officers and staff?

Character is defined in Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary as "the complex mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group or nation."

Meeting monthly with his officers and staff for in-service training, Nash promotes character in his department by using 49 character qualities as outlined by the Character Training Institute, a non-profit organization based in Oklahoma City, Okla.

As stated on the organization's Web site: "The mission of the Character Training Institute is to encourage true success in businesses, schools, families, communities and other organizations.

According to the Web site, the Character Training Institute began to develop character training materials for businesses to implement with their employees in 1993. In late 1996, at the request of an Oklahoma City police officer, the Character Training Institute developed the "Character First" education series for elementary schools in the Oklahoma City public school system. During the spring of 1997, the curriculum was piloted successfully in eight Oklahoma City schools as well as some schools in Texas, Arkansas and California.

With the rise in school violence, nations began searching for solutions to the problems facing today's youth, and Character First spread around the world.

Character First education curriculum is currently used in more than 2,000 schools in at least 13 countries and is impacting hundreds of thousands of children.

As benign as character education training may sound, though, it has its critics.

An evangelist who influenced the concept of character education training, Bill Gothard, is the lightning rod that's attracting much of the criticism. Some have described Gothard's program as a religious cult.

So is the Dorchester County Sheriff's Department trying to make converts or push religion? Nash says absolutely not.

"As I understand it, Bill Gothard served as an inspiration to Tom Hill, who was the founder of the Character Training Institute. Looking at the literature we handed out today, you can see that there is no religious context. (The literature is) designed to be used in the workplace in a secular environment, so we aren't violating the constitution in any way," he said.

"We aren't forbidden from talking about religious issues. We aren't to be proselytizing or promoting any one type of religion or faith, and we don't do that," Nash added. "But occasionally we will use examples from the Bible as well as examples from the workplace and home. Chaplain Shelby Weeks gave more examples from the Bible at our program today because that is his role as chaplain for our department. A typical character briefing would not have so many biblical references."

Impressed but skeptical

What impact does training police officers to have character have on a community? Shouldn't the officers already possess high character traits?

Right after Nash won his first election in June 1996, a friend who was one of the first consultants trained by Character Training Institute introduced him to the program.

"I was impressed with it, but I was very skeptical of it. I did think character training was important. I had built my whole campaign around character and integrity, and I have tried to order my life that way," Nash said. "I am a work-in-progress. I did think character was important, but I didn't think you could teach it in this way to cops."

But Nash's friend was persistent in pushing character education for law enforcement officers.

"I finally overcame my resistance to it," Nash said. "My first day in office we went through our first character briefing on attentiveness. We were the first law enforcement agency to do full implementation of this program."

Almost 10 years later, the Dorchester County sheriff continues to promote the program.

"If I had to do it again, I would not change a thing," Nash said.

At each monthly in-service training, employees observing the anniversary of their hire date are recognized by their superior, who highlights a character quality the employee has demonstrated over the past year. Also during the training, one of the 49 character qualities is studied.

"We have had great results - measurable results. When we first started, I really hoped morale would increase and internal relations would strengthen. I hoped that internal investigations and external complaints would decrease," Nash said, noting that that's exactly what happened after the character-based training was implemented.

"When I came in as sheriff in 1997, I inherited a 50-percent annual turnover rate. Today we are in the single digits as far as percentages. A few years ago, our turnover rate for 14 months in a row was zero percent. I thought that was a significant change. Secondly, public complaints decreased," the sheriff said.

In addition, morale increased significantly in his department, he said.

Law enforcement officers see the tragedies of life day in and day out, Nash said, and deal with "the most difficult people you can imagine daily."

"They need that release, to be able to laugh and share together, building relationships within the organization. It is just win-win all the way around," he said of the character training program.

After implementing the program, complaints from the public also decreased, Nash said.

"Presently, we get more compliments than complaints," he said.

Nash said workers' compensation claims also decreased dramatically.

The most dramatic thing he saw happen, the sheriff said, was that the crime rate plummeted.

"Overall, our crime went down around 32 percent. It is all about building relationships. When you build relationships with the community, people will begin to trust you," he said. "Most crimes are solved through information. The last person they are going to tell is someone they don't trust. As we apply these character qualities in our lives, they see us as people of character and someone they can trust. We build trust, gain information and fight crime.

"Nationwide, the trust in law enforcement agencies is low because we have so many law enforcement character failures that have garnered media attention, making us all look bad. Many agencies have implemented this same program and have had similar positive results."

Spreading the word

Nash began speaking to other police departments about the success he found with the character education program and eventually created his own version of the program solely for law enforcement called "Police Dynamics."

"Police Dynamics is a program I put together a few years ago that incorporates a few of the same principles. I do use a lot of Character First materials in training, but it goes beyond it in that Police Dynamics goes into specific law enforcement applications," he said.

Police all over the world are being exposed to the character training as a result of how successful it has been in the Dorchester County Sheriff's Department, the sheriff said.

Nash said he only conducts seminars on his days off and not on the department's time. Many officers take second jobs, and Police Dynamics is his, he said.

Nash has been criticized for having to teach character instead of hiring those who are of good character already.

"If we had a character meter to hook them up to at interviews, we would do that," he said, "but people are very, very good at putting up a good front when coming for interviews ... We firmly believe we should hire persons of good character and train for skills. We have a tendency in America to hire for skills and the character problems come later on."

Police Dynamics "is about shifting the position and focusing more on character and less on competency," Nash said.

Nash displays a sense of humor when addressing critics who say his character-based seminars are connected with some sort of cult.

"We aren't some cult. I've heard people say, 'Don't drink the Kool-Aid,'" he said, laughing and shaking his head.

"Anyone overcritical of the character training doesn't understand it fully," he said. "A lot of people have reacted to it ... think it is religion in disguise. They think you can't teach character. They think it is inappropriate to teach character. They have all these objections, but they really don't know what we are trying to accomplish here. All of us are works in progress. We need to build character in our lives. It improves relationships internally and externally. That is the key."

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