Denver Sheriff’s Department is flailing, despite reform efforts
Union president: “We’re basically not even doing our jobs any more.”
Fifteen months after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock appointed Sheriff Patrick Firman as a “change agent” to reform the city’s jails, deputies see conditions as unchanged or even deteriorating.
Overwhelmingly, they feel the Sheriff’s Department lacks leadership, trains them inadequately, and keeps its jails dangerously overcrowded, according to an internal report obtained by The Colorado Independent.
In a survey conducted by the University of Colorado-Denver on behalf of the city, half of department staffers, most of them deputies, said they’re either thinking about or actively looking for jobs outside the department. Some 242 employees, mostly sworn deputies, out of a workforce of about 900 completed the questionnaire anonymously in August.
Firman and his boss, Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley, wouldn’t comment on the report. Nor would Sheriff’s Department spokesman Simon Crittle answer questions about the survey results. Instead, he emailed this statement:
“The safety and wellbeing of our officers is of utmost concern. That’s why we recently hired a wellness coordinator; last year added some 200 new deputies to our workforce and recently introduced a new, fair system to promote officers that focuses on leadership skills.”
Critics say the administration’s much-touted reform efforts are failing.
“Conditions are worsening. They’re bleeding out people. And assault numbers are increasing,” said Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum Denver chapter and a member of a committee that commissioned the survey. “The Sheriff’s Department is in free fall.”
Mike Jackson, president of the union local representing Denver’s deputies, called Hancock’s reform efforts “just window dressing by an administration unwilling to make meaningful changes.”
“We have a sheriff who has no power reporting to a safety manager who flat out doesn’t make decisions. Nobody’s accountable and none of them seem to care what happens at the facilities until something bad happens,” he said.
“And something bad is going to happen. Mark my words.”
Denver’s Sheriff Department runs the city and county jails and guards courtrooms. It has a long history of mismanagement and violence.
About a decade ago, a string of mistaken identity blunders led the city to jail the wrong people. Among other snafus, it threw people of color behind bars for crimes committed by whites, imprisoned innocent people with the same name as suspects who were half their age, hauled a living man in on a warrant meant for a dead man, and refused to provide interpreters to deaf and foreign language speaking inmates who kept trying to say they weren’t who deputies insisted they were. Those blunders prompted a series of court cases and costly payouts.
Overcrowding in Denver’s old downtown jail led city officials to ask taxpayers to approve building the new $160 million Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center on West Colfax and a $25 million expansion of the county jail on Smith Road. Those projects brought a net gain of 864 beds, enough, officials said, to meet needs until 2035.
But the jails have grown increasingly overcrowded and are operating dangerously close to capacity – an average of 95 percent in 2016. Given the lack of beds, inmates regularly are forced to sleep on the floor. And deputies are required to work overtime that they say leaves them emotionally drained and physically exhausted.
Inmates, meanwhile, have been hurt and killed because of deputies’ negligence and violence. Among them was 24-year-old Emily Rice, who bled to death in the old city jail in 2006, her cries for help ignored. Her family won a $7 million settlement in their suit against the city and Denver Health Medical Center. Shortly after the new downtown jail opened in 2010, five sheriff’s deputies choked and Tasered 137-lb. street preacher Marvin Booker on the booking room floor, even though he posed no physical threat. His family won a $6 million verdict from a jury that found the deputies and their bosses covered up and lied about facts in Booker’s killing.
In November 2015, deputies fatally restrained a mentally ill inmate named Michael Marshall during an acute psychotic episode. Fourteen months later, Marshall’s family is still waiting for the city to complete its investigation.
Hancock stayed mum while a string of videos went public showing deputies brutalizing inmates. The best known was footage, leaked to The Independent, of Deputy Brady Lovingier slamming a fully shackled inmate, Anthony Waller, against a courtroom wall in an unprovoked attack. After suspending Lovingier, the department assigned him to train other officers on how to handle volatile situations and how to write official reports about use-of-force incidents. Lovingier, as it happens, is the son of the former sheriff.
Hancock’s response to the controversies was to replace longtime Sheriff Gary Wilson with an interim sheriff, then Division Chief Elias Diggins. But controversy continued, including allegations that both Wilson and Diggins had given preferential treatment to department employees housed in the jail.
Hancock commissioned a sweeping outside review of the violence- and scandal-ridden department and launched a search for a new sheriff.
The results were scathing. The review found the department had engaged in racial profiling; jailed the wrong people – some long-term – because of mistaken identity; released inmates unknowingly; improperly run down escapees on unauthorized manhunts; given preferential treatment to certain inmates, including department staff brought in on criminal charges; not reported or investigated incidents of wrongdoing; created a culture in which both deputies and managers lied – even in court, under oath – about force incidents; and failed to discipline staffers even in cases of death and injury.
In 2015, Hancock pledged massive reforms. “I’m one of those folks that if we’re going to fix the problem, we’re really going to fix the problem,” he said at a news conference.
His search for a permanent sheriff took 13 months, when at least one potential hire backed out of consideration upon learning that the position has limited power. The sheriff reports not just to the mayor, but also to Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley, daughter of former Mayor Wellington Webb. The job, the candidate told The Independent, was “much too political than makes sense when you’ve got jails to run safely.”
Hancock passed over candidates who had run big city jails in favor of Firman, a career corrections officer from a Chicago suburb who had never run a jail system. Firman, the mayor promised, would enact meaningful change.
“Leadership. That’s number one,” Hancock said when announcing Firman’s appointment in October, 2015. “He knows this is a challenging situation.”
As part of Hancock’s reform efforts, he created a Use of Force Task Force out of which came a subcommittee on training and transparency. The deputies, managers and community members who made up that group decided that the experience of deputies working directly with inmates needed to be considered when making reforms. They wanted a survey gauging deputies’ feelings about the department and its culture in order to have a baseline from which to measure improvement. The group partnered with the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development to conduct the survey.
Firman received the 72-page final report in early December, but delayed sharing the results for more than a month until, facing internal pressure, he agreed to do so last week. The Independent obtained a copy of the report through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The results show:
- 79 percent of deputies say they’re “bothered a great deal” by the extent to which inmates use physical force against staff.
- 68 percent say they’re “bothered a great deal” by the extent to which inmates have weapons.
- 62 percent say they don’t have the authority they need to accomplish their work .
- 65 percent say it’s unclear who has the formal authority to make a decision in the department.
- Nearly 53 percent said training in the last 12 months didn’t improve their job skills.
- 69 percent don’t think the jails are very well run.
- An equal number of employees said they’ve been looking or considering another job outside the department as those who said they hadn’t.
- Respondents said they were distressed by negative media portrayals of their department.
- And they said they’re physically and emotionally drained by their work hours and duties.
In written comments, some staffers expressed satisfaction with their jobs and optimism about the department.
“I have been employed with the DSD for 25 years and I love my career!”
“I believe I am meant for this job, I think it is a calling.”
But many more pointed to serious cracks in the system.
About deputy training, which was supposed to be a cornerstone of the reforms, came the following responses:
“Much of our training is geared towards the political hot topic of the moment more than the actual needs of our job.”
“Bare minimum.” “For checklist purposes only.”
To the question “What would reduce use of force incidents?”, respondents wrote:
“If our leadership would stop playing politics and start Playing Jail 101 so officers had control, not inmates have more say then officer do (sic).”
“I believe that if we have better backing from our leaders that we would be able to stand united and not worry about being reprimanded for actions that require use of force.”
Some comments questioned Firman’s involvement in the department he runs.
“Lack of leadership,” wrote one respondent. “Upper management being disconnected.”
“New Sheriff stated jails are his passion, (but) he doesn’t come into see or lead,” wrote another.
Several took aim at O’Malley and the power structure in the department.
“Good luck fixing this issue – the key decision makers for our department are civilians with no experience working in a jail who are sensitive to the political issues instead of the safety issues. The Executive Director of Safety has been called out publicly by the DA and City Auditor, not to mention the police and sheriff unions – yet there has been no changes. The Mayor spent a lot of money for a much publicized audit of our operation, and the result was a document that contained a large amount of factually incorrect items… The biggest thing: All of the people in leadership positions that led to the problem in the department are STILL in those positions. How can you effect change when nothing has changed?”
“In the DSD the Sheriff, although he appears to be a man who could manage this agency very well if given the authority, has not been afforded the opportunity to do so. The Executive Director of Safety [Stephanie] O’Malley is the only one that has any authority (by her own direction) and she has absolutely NO law enforcement experience and knows nothing of the job of law enforcement or what officers (DSD or DPD) go thru in our daily operations. If Denver wants to have a police department or Sheriff’s Office that operates with the public best interest in mind, they need to remove her from office and give the Sheriff and Police Chief, his authority to manage his agency.”
Alarms rang throughout the comments.
“With new changes, deputies are no longer in control of the jail.”
“THIS JOB IS LIKE A PENCIL SHARPENER. EVERY DAY IT SHAVES A LITTLE OFF YOUR SOUL!”
“Nobody makes decisions”
Under former Sheriff Wilson, the city had a practice of keeping its jails at or under 85 percent capacity. Anything over that level was considered overcrowded, making it difficult to safely house inmates based on their gender, mental health status, gang affiliation and level of violence.
Under Firman in 2016, jails ran at an average of 95 percent capacity, spiking to 99 percent in October. In the first six months of the year, there were at least 65 assaults on staff by inmates and at least 85 inmate-on-inmate assaults, according to data obtained by The Independent. But Deputy Mike Britton, vice president of the sheriff’s union, said those numbers are way too low.
“On an everyday basis we have inmate-on-inmate assaults. Inmate-on-staff assaults have quadrupled since the new use of force policies have come out. Nurses are being assaulted physically, having feces thrown on them. We have a shortage of nurses because they say this jail is unsafe. Nobody wants to work here.”
Robert Jessup, who’s 50, mentally ill and homeless, says he has done three or four stints in the city jail, most recently in October after an arrest for a parole warrant. He calls it a “powder keg.”
“That place is about to blow,” he said.
Jessup says he becomes homicidal and suicidal without his medication, yet was forced to wait in the city jail’s booking area for 12 hours before officials could find space for him. He said he spent another day wearing his “Bamm-Bamm” – anti-suicide – suit in a holding cell that’s designed to transfer inmates to court, not to house them, before being admitted to the psych ward.
“There’s a reason some people get arrested, including me. But they’ve got no place to put ‘em,” he said. “They want to make the public think they have control, but they have no control in there. Too many people. You’ve got people stepping over people on the floors in an uncontrolled environment. It’s a madhouse. It’s total chaos.”
Jessup described frequent fighting between inmates that officials would either delay or avoid responding to.
“A fight gets going and by the time they get backup there and get help, everyone’s already tired and worn out (from) fighting. It’s like ‘God damn, it took you 20 minutes to get here’.”
The city hasn’t provided answers to questions about staffing levels. But union president Jackson said a record number of people are leaving. About 30 new deputies out of the 70-something member recruit class trained last year under Hancock’s new reforms have quit, including seven in the last month, he said.
“I think they weren’t told the truth of how difficult things would be. And now they’re looking for a way out.”
Jackson has worked as a Denver deputy for 23 years and is assigned to a building at the county jail complex that’s designed to hold 64 people and currently holds 63. He’s alone in managing them.
“I can easily handle 40 to 50 people really well. But we run over 60 all the time. People get frustrated. They fight over the phone, the shower, the TV, the computer, everything. It’s impossible to manage at 99 percent capacity and give them level service,” he said.
When weapons or drugs are found, violence breaks out, or an inmate needs to be extracted from a cell for behavior or medical reasons, deputies say they’re required to defer decisions to captains who defer decisions to majors or Firman or above. Answers in crisis situations, they say, can take hours, even a day.
“It’s like anarchy. Nobody makes decisions. Firman doesn’t decide things. O’Malley does and is doing a terrible job,” Jackson said. “So we let the inmates get away with things they’d never get away with in a safe facility. We’re severely outnumbered. And we’re basically not even doing our jobs anymore.”
Calderon, of the Latino Forum, has a day job in which she teaches in the jail. She says the administration struggles even with relatively minor decisions about class schedules and enrollment.
“People at the top don’t seem to have the authority to make basic decisions.”
Deputy Britton said department staffers have come to refer to Firman as “Sasquatch”: “We think he exists, but can’t be sure because nobody ever sees him in the facility.”
An unlikely alliance between the deputies’ union, civil rights activists and the libertarian Independence Institute has been eyeing a ballot initiative that would make Denver’s sheriff an elected rather than appointed position.
“That way, you only have one person to go to for answers and decisions instead of all these layers,” Jackson said. “The people we deal with are inmates, but they’re still the community. They shouldn’t have to be in a facility that’s not safe. An elected sheriff would get control of it, keep things more accountable, or lose the job. That’s what happens in other counties.”
Calderon said the survey results build a case for decisive leadership.
“Without a strong leader, that department is just stuck.”
Deputies say the wellness coordinator the administration touted in its prepared statement is powerless to improve conditions. They say the new hires it mentioned are offset by deputies quitting in droves. And, they add, officials’ silent treatment about the survey is deafening.
The results look terrible for the city, Jackson said, “which is why they’re not answering questions.”
Photos of Sheriff Patrick Firman and Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley courtesy of the City and County of Denver
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