Theodore Decker: Sheriff's office still hasn't learned that silence is not always golden

  • In US
  • 2022-01-11 11:30:59Z
  • By The Columbus Dispatch

At this point in the tenure of Franklin County Sheriff Dallas Baldwin, we know this for sure: He is not a showboat.

That is a good thing, because the last person you want leading a major law enforcement agency is one who thinks the most-important part of the job involves hobnobbing at political lunches or grandstanding in front of the television cameras.

But the Baldwin administration proved again last week that it takes its code of silence too far, instead persisting in its bad habit of sitting on information that might reflect poorly on the department.

Franklin County Sheriff Dallas Baldwin
Franklin County Sheriff Dallas Baldwin  

In a Franklin County Common Pleas court filing last week, it was revealed that a Coshocton man died by apparent suicide in the Franklin County jail while awaiting trial on charges that he killed two Greater Columbus men in late May.

Talent A. Bradley, 19, died on Dec. 27.

The sheriff's office confirmed this to The Dispatch 10 days later, on Jan. 6, only after reporters came calling about it.

In the case of Bradley, this omission was particularly egregious.

Bradley was believed to have met his victims on a dating app primarily used by gay men. Columbus police determined that he was the suspect behind the separate stabbing deaths of Randy Gwirtz and Robert Goodrich, who were both 63.

News of the homicides ignited a wave of anxiety in the LGBTQ+ community and questions about whether the crimes had been driven by hate or a motive such as robbery.

A glimpse at Bradley's case file indicates that public interest had not waned; a television station had petitioned the court as recently as this fall to cover the trial, which ultimately was delayed.

The trial was expected to have answered some of the lingering questions about the homicides, and yet the unexpected resolution - that the suspect had died in custody and there would be no trial - was not confirmed by the sheriff's office until the media found out about it.

Columbus Dispatch metro columnist Theodore Decker
Columbus Dispatch metro columnist Theodore Decker  

Setting aside the particulars of the Bradley case, the sheriff's office should be willingly and quickly disclosing all jail suicides. It routinely does the opposite.

The silence surrounding Bradley's death might have been excused as an oversight, coming as it did in the week between Christmas and the new year.

But this silence is standard operating procedure with Baldwin's office.

Dispatch courts reporter John Futty dug into the department's secrecy on the matter in 2019, in a story headlined, "Sheriff tight-lipped on jail suicides."

Futty reported that 13 suicides had occurred at the county's two jails in the 10 years from 2009 to 2019. Ten had occurred at the Downtown jail, where Bradley died last month.

Baldwin released a broad and unenlightening statement in response to the 2019 findings, which stated that all suicides are reviewed and policies are regularly revisited.

But his office did not respond to requests for specifics about the suicides, how they are reported, suicide-prevention efforts or the jail's mental-health program.

Not only was this a brush-off, it was a missed opportunity for the sheriff's department. Futty reported that the jail's mental health program had received recent praise, and a criminal justice expert said the number of suicides in a jail system that supervises more than 2,000 inmates a day, as Franklin County's does, was not unusually high.

The sheriff's office missed a chance to expound on both those fronts.

No law requires jail suicides to be disclosed to the public, though it certainly seems that there should be as a basic matter of governmental accountability. Regardless, such disclosures are demanded of an agency that pledges its commitment to protect not only the public, but the inmates under its supervision.

Last week, Baldwin announced that jail visitation was being suspended due to COVID.

"Our top priority must be the health and welfare of the inmates, your family, and our staff members, including our health care providers," he said in a prepared statement.

That commitment shouldn't be exclusive to COVID. The sheriff's assertion that his office cares about inmate welfare must be questioned when his unwritten policy regarding inmate suicides clearly is to keep them, for as long as possible, out of the public eye.

How to seek help

If you or someone you know is experiencing a behavioral health crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can reach Ohio's 24/7 Crisis Text Line by texting 4HOPE to 741741, or call the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-221-5445; the Teen Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-294-3300; or the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255/TALK (1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers).


This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Jail suicide: Franklin County sheriff's silence violates public trust


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