July 7, 2020


For this edition of PERF’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Middlesex, Massachusetts Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. Sheriff Koutoujian has led the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office since 2011 and is President of the Major County Sheriffs of America. He was a member the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1997-2011.

Sheriff Koutoujian spoke about a range of topics, including his agency’s response to COVID-19 and the national debate about law enforcement reform measures.

Chuck Wexler: Sheriff, what are the key issues you’re hearing about from sheriffs across the country in the midst of all these crises?

Sheriff Koutoujian: There’s a lot of concern about what the future of law enforcement will look like. I think there’s an understanding that things will change, but there’s concern about what those changes will be and how much change there will be.  We’re facing legislative proposals on the federal, state, and local levels, as well as discussions about funding or “defunding.”

What I’m hearing most from sheriffs across the country is that there is angst and pain. Law enforcement are tough people, but these individuals spent their careers vowing to serve and protect. They feel strongly about their contribution to the safety and betterment of the public. To be questioned at every turn now is painful.

Wexler:  Do you think that sheriffs and police being regarded similarly in the national discussion?

Sheriff Koutoujian:  Absolutely. The Major County Sheriffs of America have been at the table with the House, the Senate, and the White House trying to craft legislation and make sure our views are considered. As a former legislator myself, I know it’s often the case that legislators decide what they think is best for a profession without consulting or considering the expertise of that profession.

So sheriffs are in lockstep with police chiefs around the country in regard to what our concerns are.

Wexler:  You’ve reduced your jail population in Middlesex County due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you go about doing that?

Sheriff Koutoujian:  When COVID was first rearing its head, we aggressively began to work with our district attorney and other organizations, like the Massachusetts Bail Fund, to identify those who were on low cash bail who might be appropriate for release, sometimes with conditions. There was a judicial order about this, but before that case came to fruition, we had already reduced our population by 115, which is about 20%. We were already at historic lows when we began this response to COVID. We’re at almost absurdly low numbers now.

For many, the issue of reducing incarceration is a social justice issue or a jurisprudential issue, but for us, the focus was on making our facility safer. In order to create space for social distancing, we were able to empty out 3 of our 4 dormitory units and put people in individual cells in our pods and in some of our old tiers. The one unit we kept as a dormitory unit is for those who had mental health and self-harm concerns. In corrections, we prefer to have those inmates in a dorm setting, instead of individual cells. We were able to reduce our dorm population significantly and create social distancing.

By limiting movement of inmates, we were able to manage a quick rise in COVID cases and bring that count back down. We were the first sheriff’s office in the state with COVID-positive inmates. We’ve now been COVID-free for five weeks.

This will change. Jails still take people in. It’s not a more static population, like a prison. We are constantly being asked to take in new arrestees, sometimes 50 to 70 per week. So there are constantly new people coming in, which is a difference between a jail and a prison.

Wexler:  What protocols have you put in place in the jail?

Sheriff Koutoujian:  An infectious disease doctor has counseled us through this process. Even before we had any positive cases, we were asking the questions that every medical facility was asking. Have you been out of state? Have you traveled?  Have you been symptomatic?

We also started taking other steps, like temperature checks for staff. And we maintained a quarantine period for each individual coming into our facility for two weeks or until they were tested.

We also had to shut down our visitations, which isn’t something you do lightly. Instead of visitations, we allowed four free 20-minute phone calls per week to help people maintain contact with their families.

As we started having outbreaks in some units, we started limiting movement.  In a correctional facility, a public health issue can easily become a public safety issue. So you have to be very careful about how you manage this.

Now we are slowly stepping up movement. We’re increasing the number of individuals who can be out of a cell at any time, the amount of time they can be out of their cells, and we have small groups meeting for religious services and counseling services.

Wexler:  How has the pandemic impacted your ability to offer drug treatment, counseling, and other services?

Sheriff Koutoujian:  We have had to try to do things in different ways. We’ve provided more opportunities for video services and consultations.

When this hit, we had to scale down. We only brought in people who were full-time employees of the sheriff’s office. We had to scale down on visitors, programmatic staff, and outside vendors coming in. Now we’re in the process of scaling back up, modestly and thoughtfully.

Every single decision we’ve made was in consultation with our infectious disease specialist. At every stage, we would develop a medical recommendation, and then we would operationalize and securitize it.

Wexler:   I understand your agency gathered more than 300 pounds of food to donate to local food banks?

Sheriff Koutoujian:  That’s correct. Public sentiment has gone from law enforcement being heroes to law enforcement not being thought so highly of.  Yet during this entire time, our men and women have been on the streets and in correctional facilities, working every day at their own peril. It was especially frightening at the beginning, because so much about COVID was unknown. It was like a dark cloud at our facility when we had our first cases. You could see the worries and concerns of our staff, both for themselves and their families. But they kept showing up to work.

Our staff decided they would put together a food drive, because food banks are helping a lot of families get through the crisis. They brought in hundreds of pounds of food for local food banks.

We had a number of staff members who tested positive for COVID, and we put together a program and have had over a dozen officers donate their plasma. That allows those who are in dire physical condition from COVID the chance at new life.

Wexler:  What impact will COVID and the demonstrations have on recruiting?

Sheriff Koutoujian:  I think it’s devastating. It was hard to recruit and retain prior to COVID and George Floyd, and it’s going to be much more difficult now. We used to have well over 1,000 apply for our classes, and those numbers have gotten smaller and smaller. The recruitment and retention of talented, dedicated staff members is one of my biggest concerns as we go through this.

Wexler:  Final thoughts?

Sheriff Koutoujian:  I spoke about the pain that sheriffs around the country are feeling as they watch this debate, and for me personally it’s been difficult. I feel so strongly about what we do here in Middlesex and what sheriffs and police chiefs do across the country, and it hurts to see it diminished and demeaned and have us not be considered the public servants that we are. My entire professional life has been about public service. It’s hurtful when people don’t see what you’re doing every day to make our communities better and stronger. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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