Division Chief Elias Diggins, the man Mayor Michael Hancock has picked to temporarily head the Denver Sheriff’s Department, was once charged with a felony of bribing a public official.
Diggins pleaded the 1996 case to a misdemeanor conviction of “false reporting.”
News of Diggins’ criminal record comes hours after Hancock announced that Diggins would replace Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson, who was demoted after a long string of excessive force and misconduct cases – including sheriff’s deputies falsely reporting and glossing over wrongdoing by their colleagues.
The specific details of Diggins’ case remain unclear as The Colorado Independent is continuing its reporting.
“This is certainly something we’re looking into right now,” safety department spokeswoman Daelene Mix told The Independent this evening.
Top officials in the Hancock administration were apprised of Diggins’ record almost immediately after the mayor announced Wilson’s ouster and Diggins’ appointment as a temporary replacement while the city searches nationally for a new sheriff.
Calling Sheriff Gary Wilson “one of the best sheriffs in the nation,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock demoted Wilson earlier Monday.
This morning’s announcement marks the first time Hancock has spoken publicly and somewhat forcefully about his discontent with a department whose deputies have been caught on videotape attacking inmates without provocation. Two of the most high-profile cases involved Deputy Brady Lovingier – son of the department’s former head – slamming a handcuffed inmate into a wall in a courtroom and an incident last week in which Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Ford walked over to an inmate in the jail’s booking area, belted him in the face and then apparently kicked him. Ford is under investigation, as is his colleague, Officer William Lewis, for, as city officials tell it, writing an inaccurate report of the attack.
Denver Safety officials – who claim to be working toward more transparency in their department — refused to release both those videotapes, which were obtained by The Independent. They spent a large part of last week investigating the source of the Ford videotape.
Because both the Lovingier and Ford videos were leaked, those cases drew the most attention from the public and, therefore, from the administration. Meanwhile, several other excessive force and misconduct cases have gone unscrutinized by the public because Hancock’s administration refuses to release records about them.
For months, Wilson has tried to explain excessive force cases as a result of his staff facing too much stress. Among the measures he implemented to stop the violence within his ranks is a holistic wellness program focusing in part on deputies’ spiritual well-being.
Hancock tried to justify the months – and, in some cases, up to a year – it has taken his administration to mete out discipline to rogue sheriff’s deputies. “The public doesn’t understand why when you have officers. . .who have stepped over the line, why it takes so long,” he said.
The Mayor has stayed mostly silent as problems in the Sheriff’s Department have escalated during his administration, and sent mixed messages Monday morning. In the same news conference in which he announced Wilson’s demotion, he said, “I quite frankly believe that he is a leader, and unfortunately the department let him down.”
The “culture change” Hancock is seeking in the Sheriff’s Department looks, at least for the time being, less like serious reform than a game of musical chairs, several community leaders are saying.
Diggins is a longtime close friend and mentee of Wilson – both part of a tight-knit group of top sheriff’s officials who have managed the day-to-day operations of the city and county jails and circled the wagons when their colleagues and their colleagues’ relatives in the force have been accused time and again of misconduct.
Given Hancock’s interim appointment of Wilson’s buddy and protégé, some groups question the mayor’s commitment to meaningful reform.
“…We are concerned about the appearance of reshuffling the deck by appointing a replacement from within who is viewed as part of the problem, rather than an external reformer who will take an objective approach to leadership and structural changes,“ the Colorado Latino Forum Denver Chapter wrote in a letter to Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley shortly after Hancock’s news conference this morning.
Diggins was appointed acting sheriff while the city searches nationally for a permanent hire. The 2011 appointment of Denver Police Chief Robert White – the first police chief in memory hired from outside the department – took far longer than a few months, as city officials hoped at the beginning of that search process.
“What they need, urgently, is some new blood and new leadership who’s not tied to any agenda or coalition in the department. They need someone who’s not beholden to anyone,” said former city Safety Manager Butch Montoya.
Until today, Diggins has been managing the county jail on Smith Road — a far smaller facility than the downtown city jail, but with proportionately more complaints by inmates. Out of the department’s total force of more than 700 officers, four deputies – all at the county jail – were the subject of 16 percent of all inmate complaints, according to a December report by the office of the independent monitor. Diggins reportedly was unable to control the rogue staffers.
The county jail houses convicts sentenced for misdemeanors and female inmates who are awaiting trial or have been sentenced. Under Diggins’ tenure, community groups have struggled to convince Diggins to give women prisoners programs to prepare them for re-entry into the community. Social workers deployed under state and federal contracts to provide drug-treatment and other programs to prisoners say they’ve been harassed by deputies there, literally booted out of the building and blocked from returning.
Diggins’ appointment came as a “shock” to Carol Lease, executive director of the Empowerment Project, which provides services to inmates at the county jail.
“I think the mayor is being very short-sighted,” Lease said. “What this shows me a bit is how deep the problems are in the sheriff’s department, how entrenched they are throughout.”
It is widely known among city staffers that earlier this year, Lisa Calderon, director of the non-profit Community Re-Entry Project, bitterly fought with Diggins about access to the jail. Neither was available for comment Monday. Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley told The Independent that the feud has been quelled.
“My understanding is that they were able to resolve the issues between the two of them,” she said.
In its letter to O’Malley today, the Latino Forum said it was “making progress under (Wilson’s) leadership of addressing the daily issues faced by the incarcerated community that the media never sees.”
“We fear that his successor does not have that authentic relationship with the Latino community, nor a track record of providing the same level of genuine engagement, responsiveness and access to address issues of concerns.”
It’s a testament to how much controversy plagues the department that Sheriff’s Chief Frank Gale, head of the city jail, was put on investigative leave last month for allegedly giving preferential treatment to a colleague who was booked in the facility. Police are investigating that case.
Last month, in federal court, U.S. District Judge John Kane said a police investigation into a city jail inmate’s torture “smacks of a scam.”
Several of the longest and loudest critics of the Sheriff’s Department said Monday that Wilson’s ouster and Diggins’ interim promotions won’t cure what ails a department whose uniformed staffers have been caught attacking inmates without provocation, writing misleading incident reports and releasing inmates that shouldn’t have been released. For years, the department had a pattern of confusing the identity of people it booked in its jails, incarcerating women it mistook for men, black people it mistook for white people and living folks for dead ones. The department has incarcerated deaf inmates for long periods without offering sign language interpreters. Community bitterness escalated with the 2010 death of street preacher Marvin Booker at the hands of several sheriff’s deputies who forcefully restrained him.
“It doesn’t matter who they put in that interim position right now. They have deep, systemic problems. They have a cancer in their system. Until there’s a Department of Justice investigation into that department, I could care less who the chief is,” said Rev. Terrence Hughes, a pastor at New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha Omega Ministries and vice president of community affairs for the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance.
As Hughes tells it, the problem lies largely with the department’s disciplinary matrix – a system that, for example, gave a 30-day suspension to a deputy attacking a handcuffed prisoner in a courtroom without provocation. The few officers who are suspended for misconduct typically appeal to the city’s Career Service Authority, whose judges don’t take Sheriff’s Department policies into account in making their rulings. As a result, disciplinary actions often are reversed.
Other watchdogs following this morning’s announcement question Hancock’s judgment in calling Wilson “One of the best sheriffs in the nation.”
“That comment is evidence of the denial that continues around this problem. If you have one of the best sheriffs in the nation, logic says the problems in the department do not get resolved by relieving that person of his duty,” said Rev. Reginald Holmes, pastor of Denver’s New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha Omega Ministries and an outspoken critic of the city’s failure to fix what’s broken in the Sheriff’s Department.
“How many sheriffs and safety managers must this administration go through to realize that the problem lies elsewhere? No matter the changes in personnel the brutality continues, lawsuits are filed, and judgments are paid. This administration will continue to go through good people in its safety division because the goal of the division is to protect the system and not our citizens. Until the focus of the safety division changes the city will continue to sacrifice the ‘best’ while protecting the ‘worst’ division within our city government.”
Hancock said he is indignant about the brutality and misconduct cases that have taken place under Wilson’s – and his – watch.
“I’m a citizen of this city and every one of them takes a little bit more out of my heart and soul.”
[This post has been updated.]
[Photo of Elias Diggins from Denvergov.org]