DENVER — For Bruce Mitchell, the trouble started on a Monday evening while he was shopping on Craigslist and eating a bowl of Corn Flakes.
That’s when the sheriff’s deputy — who was on duty at the time as the Denver jail’s release officer — let an inmate who was supposed to be transferred to custody of the Colorado State Patrol walk out into the streets, free.
The blunders continued.
When he realized his mistake, Mitchell hopped in his own car, scrambling to find the missing inmate, Elvie Bellamy. Mitchell drove to the corner of Colfax Avenue and Logan Street because he figured “it was a drug infested area” where he had heard new releases often go, according to his disciplinary report.
Unsurprisingly, Bellamy wasn’t there and Mitchell returned to the jail alone.
Instead of calling for help from Denver police, who are trained to handle manhunts, sheriffs officials apparently chose to keep the snafu in-house. Mitchell then was dispatched to drive in a sheriff’s vehicle to Bellamy’s last known address. En route, the report shows, Mitchell decided that checking former addresses was “a waste of time.” So he headed back to Colfax, picked out a man he thought might have looked like Bellamy — even though he was dressed differently — and hauled him to the jail.
That man, like Bellamy, is black. So is Deputy Mitchell.
As if to justify the apprehension of a random, innocent citizen, officials noted in Mitchell’s disciplinary report that the man – whose name they redacted — had “previously been incarcerated” at the city jail. The implication: that he kind of deserved it.
The surrogate who wasn’t Bellamy was set free.
Somehow, the real Bellamy returned to the jail the next day and was transferred, as planned, to custody of the State Patrol the day after that.
Deputy Mitchell had worked in the jail’s release area for about seven years before the October 2012 incident. He admitted it wasn’t the first time he had screwed up.
“You further stated you had one other escape/erroneous release in your career,” the report reads. The document later shows that before mistakenly releasing Bellamy in 2012, Mitchell had been disciplined for two other “erroneous releases” in 2010 and 2011. For those, he was penalized with written reprimands. He also had been disciplined four other times for what the department deemed misconduct.
Sheriff’s deputies have one main responsibility – not to let inmates saunter out of custody before they’ve done their time. As mistakes go, a so-called “erroneous release” slash “escape” — especially of a prisoner being transferred to another law enforcement agency — is a whopper. In case that’s not obvious to staffers, there’s even a department rule, number 400.4.4, spelling it out: “Deputy Sheriffs and employees shall not release a prisoner who is not eligible for release.”
The fact that Mitchell has, according to his disciplinary report, mistakenly freed as many as three prisoners and managed to still keep his job raises questions about how seriously jail management takes it own rules. Mitchell was disciplined with a 28-day suspension, which he is appealing at a hearing scheduled for this morning.
Former Denver Safety Manager Butch Montoya calls the case “deplorable.” “This was a monumental and total disregard for following jail policy and lack of sufficient supervision of inmates prior to release,” he said.
The current safety manager, Stephanie O’Malley said in a statement to The Independent that “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on this specific disciplinary matter while Deputy Mitchell’s appeal is pending.”
Mitchell’s account to investigators was that on the evening of October 29, 2012 he had taken over the release area of the jail from another deputy and was distracted by an inmate who asked to use the phone. That, he said, was about when he let Bellamy out of the jail’s sally port.
According to the report, Mitchell was at a computer at the time shopping for auto parts on Craigslist while snacking on a bowl of cereal. Internet history from that computer showed he had “excessive non-work related Internet usage on the day of the incident.”
The department has been admonished by the city’s independent safety monitor for ignoring staff misconduct. It took 367 days to discipline Mitchell for neglect of duty, carelessness, unauthorized use of city equipment (surfing the web for personal reasons) and “failure to observe written department or agency regulations, policies or rules.”
“Allowing the erroneous release of an inmate could have had dire consequences. The risk of harm to you and to the image of the Department cannot be understated,” read the disciplinary report, which fails to mention possible risk of harm to the public.
“You violated your duty, were careless in the performance of your duties and engaged in conduct prejudicial to the good order and effectiveness of the DSD. Your actions brought disrepute on and compromised the integrity of the Department and the City.”
Despite having told his bosses that he hadn’t been paying attention and that he takes responsibility for his actions, Mitchell is appealing his 28-day suspension to Denver’s Career Service Authority.
His hearing today follows the appeal of another high-profile misconduct case by a sheriff’s deputy who is son of the department’s former chief, Bill Lovingier. Six weeks before Deputy Mitchell’s “erroneous release” in 2012, fellow Deputy Brady Lovingier slammed a fully shackled prisoner into a window of a courtroom without provocation. For that attack — and for having been found to have been untruthful with internal affairs investigators — Lovingier was suspended for 30 days.
Safety Director O’Malley, Sheriff Gary Wilson, Independent Safety Monitor Nicholas Mitchell and Mayor Michael Hancock have been criticized by clergy members and community watchdogs for staying silent about the Lovingier attack, which was caught on videotape. The safety department also is under fire for having kept Lovingier on staff not only handling the most difficult prisoners, but also training fellow deputies on use of force and how to write truthful reports about using force on inmates.
“It looks like they’re all asleep at City Hall,” said Carole Oyler, a Denverite who watchdogs safety issues in the city.
“The numerous deputy violations and the serious issues raised in the Independent Monitor’s report reflect a lack of authority by the Sheriff and his command staff,” Montoya said. “One has to wonder if Mayor Michael Hancock is even concerned about the absence of control in our jails.”
O’Malley is less than three months into her appointment by Hancock as head of the safety department. She faces the challenge of trying to untangle a knotty string of misconduct she inherited from the six people who had held her job over the past four years.
In her statement about the Mitchell case, she said her “inability to comment on some of those matters should not be interpreted as apathy.”
“I am deeply concerned about the serious instances of misconduct by deputy sheriffs that have surfaced over the past several months,” she said. “I am committed to taking a hard look at the Denver Sheriff Department’s training, disciplinary procedures and internal policies over the next several months, and to implementing any and all necessary improvements.”