April 16, 2022

PERF Trending: Howard Buffett: Why a philanthropist chose to support better policing


PERF members,

As PERF’s Executive Director, I get to meet a lot of interesting people both inside and outside the policing profession. And then there are people who straddle both worlds. One of those people is Howard Buffett, who is a big supporter of PERF and policing.

This week, I’m sharing a recent conversation I had with Howard about why he has directed his foundation’s resources to supporting public safety initiatives.

First, a little background ….

I first met Howard in 2013 after my good friend Gil Kerlikowske suggested he call me. Howard had recently joined the Macon County, Illinois Sheriff’s Office as an auxiliary deputy, and he wanted to talk to me about public safety in the United States. In 2014, he became the undersheriff of the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, and in 2017 he was appointed to serve the remaining 15 months of retiring Macon County Sheriff Tom Schneider’s term.

His foundation, The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, awards more than $200 million in grants per year, and public safety is one of its four focus areas. The foundation has been extremely supportive of PERF’s work since 2014, including a project on the police response to the opioid crisis, our daily reports on the pandemic and other critical issues, managing mental illness in jails, and, in particular, our Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) training. The foundation is building a new training facility in Macon County specifically designed with ICAT in mind.

I spoke with Howard about his recent trip to Ukraine, his philanthropy, and why he got involved in law enforcement and supporting public safety.


Chuck Wexler: You just got back from Ukraine – what were you doing there and what should our readers know about the situation there?

Howard Buffett:I went there to see the situation for myself and how we might direct our foundation’s resources to help, which is how I tend to operate. We have already decided to support their food and agriculture needs because so many people depend on Ukraine’s food production, but in terms of what we heard about the conflict everywhere we went: citizens who are now soldiers are desperate for two things: body armor and ammunition. The situation is much more difficult than I’ve read in news accounts in the U.S.

Wexler: How does your foundation approach its work?

Buffett: We have four focus areas: food security, conflict mitigation, combatting human trafficking, and public safety. We view our money as risk capital. We fund activities others probably won’t in order to change or improve longstanding problems that affect people’s quality of life. They’re big bets, and sometimes we fail but if the solutions were obvious, the problems would have already been solved.

Wexler: How did you become interested in law enforcement?

Buffett: We primarily work in countries that experience high rates of conflict or violence in Africa and Central America because many other foundations won’t invest in these areas until it is “safe” or “stable” – which can’t happen without investment in development. In these places, there’s either no rule of law or very minimal rule of law.

When you work in a place with no rule of law, you quickly realize how foundational it is to development. Then I had an experience in Arizona where a deputy pulled me over with no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop me. That prompted me to start thinking about the rule of law here at home.

I went to the sheriff [in Macon County, Illinois], Tom Schneider, in 2012 and asked what I could do to learn more about the sheriff’s office and our own law enforcement system.

Wexler: How did you get more involved with the sheriff’s office?

Buffett: The first thing I had to do to qualify as an auxiliary officer was to complete the state-required course. I then had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with other officers.

I’m someone who learns best by doing – it’s how I learn about issues we fund outside the U.S. and it’s how I wanted to learn about public safety issues in the U.S. I realized that every night I went out with other officers, I learned something.

I continued training and working alongside other officers. As I heard more about their challenges and met people in crisis, I developed ideas about how our foundation might be able to help.

Buffett on the job in Macon County (photo by Jim Bowling, Herald & Review)

I’m really grateful for the experience of working with so many committed individuals who serve in law enforcement in this country. Having spent so much time in places outside the U.S., I can tell you that our system may not be perfect, we have things we need to work on, but it’s sure better than many alternatives.

Wexler: What are you most proud of accomplishing during your 15 months as sheriff?

Buffett: We probably made the most significant changes in the jail. We established a classification system, made a lot of IT upgrades, and put in tele-psych. We established a program called Restore, which supports inmates with substance abuse. And we increased the medical care available to the inmates.

We also made changes in how we handled drug addiction, veterans, and others we repeatedly ran into on the streets.

As sheriff, I was exposed to things I previously had not been exposed to. Talking to someone dealing with PTSD who is prepared to take his or her life is different than reading about it or hearing about it.

I started to realize that we could send people to treatment programs elsewhere, but there was nowhere for them to get what they need when they came home. That led the foundation to build a facility in Decatur to support vets and first responders with PTSD. We still may send people off for treatment, but they’ll also have support when they come home.

We had a program where people could walk into the front door of the sheriff’s office and hand in needles or drugs. If they didn’t have a felony warrant, they weren’t arrested. They were immediately given an evaluation and we found a way to get them help.

I talked to every single person we sent to substance abuse treatment. When you talk to 150 people who have had their lives destroyed and may have had their children taken away from them, you can’t help but be affected by it.

We provided the funding to build a facility that offers drug rehabilitation, detox, outpatient care, short-term housing, and long-term housing dedicated to serving people, mostly women, who regained custody of their children. We tried to cover everything from the beginning of the process to the end for people dealing with drug addiction.

And I learned how important police training was. So, after learning about PTSD, drug addiction, and training, the foundation is focused on those three areas. When we finish our current building projects, we will have spent about $185 million on those categories. Those are permanent investments in the community and permanent investments in individuals, to try to help change their lives.

Wexler: How have you changed your thinking about training and use of force? And what did you learn when you came to observe Police Scotland’s training with a PERF group in 2015?

Buffett: The visit to Police Scotland was a great opportunity, though I was initially skeptical. One of my biggest takeaways is how I view officers saying, “No matter what happens, I’m going home tonight.” I think of that differently because of Scotland and ICAT. If I hear that, I say, “Why don’t you try to get through your day so everyone goes home tonight.”

Buffett listening to a Police Scotland trainer with a group of U.S. police executives

When we were hiring deputies, the first question I asked them was, “Are you a warrior or a guardian?” It was really interesting to see how people answered that, because obviously you have to be both. But are you walking out on the street as a warrior first, or as a guardian first? You should always start as a guardian. If a situation turns and you have to be a warrior, that’s fine, because you’re trained for that. But you don’t turn to that until it’s needed.

I think that’s one of the things that’s changing in policing, and ICAT training is a significant part of this change. Having been a sheriff, I think ICAT training is something every officer should go through, and not just initially. Just as qualifying with your service weapon or Taser is required every year, I think an ICAT refresher course is necessary every year.

Wexler: Tell me about the training facility you’re building in Decatur.

Buffett: You and I spoke about the importance of ICAT, and we’ve had the opportunity to build this facility, which will hopefully be done by the end of the year. The facility will be used for ICAT and other police training, and it’ll be a venue for PERF to conduct ICAT training for agencies across the country.

Through ICAT, I’ve learned about the importance of scenario training. You can sit and watch scenarios on a video, but there’s nothing like actually having to do them and deal with the unexpected.

One of my goals with this building is to provide the most diverse scenario training possible – you will see that reflected in the facilities and training equipment we are offering. Outdoors, the facility will have an 85-foot Amtrak car, a “container city” with 14 shipping containers, a large Navy helicopter, a Greyhound bus, a grain storage bin, a fire tower, and we’re trying to get a small cargo airplane. Inside, we have 12 different scenario rooms, including a Dairy Queen, a church, a school, a trailer house, and a park area. We’ll also have a 180-degree VirTra simulator, with 35 seats behind it. I don’t think there will be anything like it regionally, and I think there are few, if any, facilities like it anywhere. And we have about another 40 acres, so if we forgot something, we’ll build it.

Buffett in the new training facility


Thank you to Howard for taking the time to talk to me, and for your continued support of PERF. I’m continually impressed by Howard’s enthusiasm for improving the world around him. And I hope many of you will have the opportunity to visit the new training facility, which is scheduled to open early next year.

Have a good weekend, as many of you celebrate Easter and Passover.