Report: Grievances overlooked in Denver jails

Denver’s sheriffs department is ignoring incidents of staff misconduct, according to a report written by the official tasked with watchdogging the city’s safety agencies.

The 78-page study by Nicholas Mitchell, Denver’s independent monitor, signals changes in how that office is meeting its responsibility under the city charter “to ensure accountability, effectiveness and transparency in the Denver police and Sheriff disciplinary processes.”

Failing to investigate misconduct “only allows others to follow this misconduct without fear of being held accountable,” said Butch Montoya, Denver’s former safety manager who lauds Mitchell for digging deep into the sheriffs department’s practices.

Mitchell was appointed last year by Mayor Michael Hancock. He and his staff analyzed two-and-a-half years of data tied to grievances filed against members of the safety department. His report, made public this morning, focuses far less on police than on the sheriffs department, which runs the city jails.

It admonishes the department for:

– Failing to launch internal affairs investigations on allegations of serious misconduct, including “inappropriate force, non-consensual sexual touching and biased behavior by deputies.”

– Ignoring a spate of grievances against a small group of rogue staffers at the county jail. Out of a force of more than 700 officers, four deputies were the subject of 16 percent of all inmate complaints.

– And hindering inmates’ ability to lodge grievances. A system in which Latino inmates – including many non-English speakers — make up about 35 percent of the population offers no grievance forms in Spanish. Forms also aren’t available in other languages spoken by an increasing number of inmates, including, for example, recent Vietnamese and Russian immigrants.

Montoya, who now directs a Latino faith initiative, called the lack of Spanish-language grievance forms “a travesty.”

“There is simply no excuse in the year 2013,” he said.

Mitchell’s report shines light on city jail grievances by tallying and categorizing them. Of the 54 inappropriate force complaints filed, he wrote:

– “Seven inmates alleged that they were inappropriately struck by officers with hands, elbows, knees or legs.”

– “Six inmates alleged that deputies slammed them into objects (e.g., walls or doors), while five inmates alleged that deputies inappropriately took them to the ground.”

– “Five inmates alleged that Tasers or pepper spray had been inappropriately used against them” and “two inmates alleged that they had been choked by officers.”

Mitchell found that internal affairs cases were opened on about only 9 of the 54 complaints, despite a city policy requiring investigations of all serious grievances.

His report also exposes patterns of alleged biased conduct that officials didn’t act upon. Among those, the report found:

– “Five inmates alleged that deputies targeted them with slurs or insulting language related to the inmates’ sexual orientation.”

– “Eleven inmates alleged that deputies engaged in acts of sexual misconduct,” including five who claimed to have been inappropriately touched and “six inmates alleged that deputies used racial/ethnic slurs or insults against them.”

Gary Wilson, the city’s director of corrections, responded to the report by noting that 99 percent of the grievances reviewed by his office “were handled properly.”

“We will consider his recommendations as well as conduct a second investigation through our Internal Affairs Unit of the less than 1 percent of grievances that he has highlighted in his report,” Wilson said in a prepared statement.

Mitchell’s job requires a tricky balance. While he watchdogs the safety department, he also needs to maintain a working relationship with Wilson and other commanders who are in a position to put in place his recommendations. His report makes a point of noting that his office does not assume all allegations made by inmates are true.

“To the contrary, some or all could be partially or wholly false. However, each was serious enough to merit an IAB investigation,” he wrote.

In interviews with the independent monitor’s staff, three officers spoke of a policy memo instructing them – against safety department rules – not to relay misconduct allegations to the Internal Affairs Bureau without their bosses’ consent.

“We have attempted to obtain a copy of the memo that was described to us, or to confirm or refute its existence, without success,” Mitchell wrote. “Regardless of whether the memo was ever issued, sworn employees have indicated that they have chosen not to report serious allegations of misconduct to IAB because of this memo. Thus, we it believe that officer perceptions have contributed to the problem…”

When he took office in the summer of 2012, Mitchell replaced the city’s first independent monitor, Richard Rosenthal, who accepted a similar job in Vancouver. Rosenthal at first had a reputation for rubber-stamping safety department decisions, and then for failing to persuade the department when he thought its discipline on misconduct was too light. Rosenthal had used the office mainly to watchdog specific cases, not the kind of sweeping problems outlined in Mitchell’s report.

“Sometimes when you have someone new in a job they become aware of things that have not been brought to the forefront before,” said Mary Davis, chairwoman of Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board, which oversees Mitchell’s office.

“I think the report underscores two important items: 1) the importance and unique value of independent civilian oversight of law enforcement at all levels; and 2) that DSD has a long way to go in addressing some significant and serious issues in the jails,” added Denise Maes, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “I’m thankful to the [independent monitor] for taking up this important project and I hope the [independent monitor] will diligently follow up to determine whether DSD makes progress on these issues.”

In addition to drawing out data patterns and compiling statistics, Mitchell’s report also contains one chapter that highlights his objections to the department’s handling of a specific incident in September 2012. In response to an inmate refusing to get out of bed to appear in court, a sheriff’s deputy immobilized him into handcuffs by shocking him with a Taser.

“DSD policy is clear that Tasers ‘will not be used . . . to effect compliance with verbal commands where there is no physical threat.’ Utilizing a Taser to force compliance with non-emergency orders is not authorized. Moreover, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has also been clear that Tasers are to be used only against subjects who are exhibiting active aggression, and should not be used to enforce non-emergency orders,” Mitchell wrote.

He criticized the safety manager for bucking his recommendation to discipline the deputy in the case.

In the small part of the report focusing on the Denver Police Department, Mitchell wrote that he concurred with decisions by Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and the police department’s Use of Force Review Board justifying four police shootings from January through June of this year.

The report does not address longstanding controversies involving the Civil Service Commission reinstating officers who have been fired for misconduct.