Denver’s safety oversight board blasts Hancock administration’s decision in jail killing case

Denver’s safety oversight board blasts Hancock administration’s decision in jail killing case

The board that reviews disciplinary decisions in Denver’s Safety Department says it’s “extremely troubled” by Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration’s handling of the officers involved in the 2015 death of a mentally ill homeless man in Denver’s jail.

Michael Marshall was having a psychotic episode when he was fatally restrained by deputies in November 2015.

In a letter last week, members of Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board (COB) expressed their strong “disappointment” with Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley and her department’s decision to suspend without pay a deputy and watch commander for 10 days, and a second deputy for 16 days rather than taking harsher disciplinary action.

“The community expects that when deputies engage in misconduct, the Department of Safety will impose discipline that matches the seriousness of that misconduct. The facts of Mr. Marshall’s death are very alarming,” it reads. “We believe, based on prior documented discipline, that the relatively short suspensions imposed on three deputies last week by your office do not match the seriousness of the wrongdoing in this case.”

The Hancock administration long has been criticized for its management of Denver’s Sheriff’s Department, which runs the city’s increasingly crowded city and county jails. Upon losing a $6.5 million jury verdict in deputies’ 2010 killing of homeless street preacher Marvin Booker, Hancock promised sweeping reforms in the department and appointed a new sheriff, Patrick Firman, as a “change agent.”  Yet, 15 months after Firman took over, Marshall was killed in an incident strikingly similar to Booker’s.

The Colorado Independent sued the city for videotapes of the Marshall incident, which showed officers piling around him in a sallyport of the jail, and later restraining his lifeless body and standing around several minutes after he had choked on his vomit.

After taking nearly a year and a half to investigate, Hancock’s administration announced last month that it’s suspending Deputy Carlos Hernandez and Capt. James Johnson without pay for 10 days. Deputy Bret Garegnani faces a 16-day suspension after the probe found he pressed on “various vital, sensitive areas of inmate Marshall’s body, on and off, for approximately 11 minutes after inmate Marshall was heavily restrained, in the prone position and had already gone unconscious and vomited.”

Marshall’s family and civil rights advocates slammed the disciplinary decisions as “mere slaps on the wrist” that were “shockingly light” and “spineless.”

The Citizen Oversight Board seemed to agree.

“To make a lasting impact on the culture of the DSD, the Department of Safety must also be willing to hold deputies accountable for serious wrongdoing,” reads the letter to O’Malley from board chairwoman Mary Davis, vice-chairman Francisco “Cisco” Gallardo, secretary Mark Brown and members Katrina Banks and Pastor Paul Burleson.

The two newest members, Molly Gonzales and Nikki Braziel, were confirmed by the city council last week, after the letter was written.

All were appointed by Hancock.

Davis said the board wrote the letter after having asked several questions of O’Malley and the Safety Department, but having not heard back. “Even since we wrote it, we’ve heard nothing from her, either,” Davis added.

Oversight board members have no authority over personnel decisions and serve only in an advisory capacity. When it comes to the Marshall case, those close to the inquiry say it’s unlikely that O’Malley and Hancock will carry out board members’ advice.

Marshall’s family is expected to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Photo of Michael Marshall provided by Natalia Marshall

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About the Author

Susan Greene

A recovering newspaper journalist and Pulitzer finalist. Her criminal justice reporting includes “Trashing the Truth,” with Miles Moffeit, and “The Gray Box.”
susan@coloradoindependent.com | 720-295-8006 | @greeneindenver

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