The city of Denver regularly checks the backgrounds of people it arrests and incarcerates. Why, then, did Michael Hancock’s administration apparently not know about the criminal history of the man the mayor appointed as sheriff Monday?
The fact that Elias Diggins has a record — particularly a record of falsely reporting information to law enforcement authorities — marks the latest in a mind-boggling series of missteps by the Hancock administration and its response to misconduct in its sheriff’s department.
Hours after Hancock demoted Sheriff Gary Wilson and announced that his interim replacement would be Diggins, Wilson’s close friend and commander of the long-troubled county jail, people both within and outside the department pointed out that Diggins has a criminal past. The administration also reportedly had received an email about Diggins’ conviction about two hours before Hancock formally made the appointment.
“We have to question the process that the city and the mayor went through selecting someone with this kind of record,” said Mike Roque, executive director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition and a former city political appointee under the Hickenlooper administration. “I know that every inch of my body and history was searched before I got hired. I wonder why this wasn’t the case here.”
In a statement released late Monday, Diggins, 41, played down his conviction.
“The misdemeanor on my record is a result of a car accident I got into 18 years ago when I was 23. I was belated to respond to the traffic ticket and was called the (sic) court. When in court, I made the foolish decision to tell the judge I had insurance when I did not. Because of that decision, I was charged with influencing a public official and that has stayed on my record since. I deeply regret that decision and have learned from the mistake.”
Court records show there was more to Diggins’ story.
After a car crash in 1996, about two years into his job with the sheriff’s department, Diggins was arrested on two felony charges of attempting to influence two public servants — Denver Police Officer Dave Warren and Magistrate Molly Moul, who was hearing the case. More than a year later, Diggins pleaded the case down to two misdemeanor convictions for breaking the state’s auto insurance law and “false reporting to authorities.” He was sentenced to 80 hours of community service and a $600 fine.
Diggins’ statement Monday didn’t mention the arrest for attempting to influence the cop.
One former safety official said focusing on Diggins’ record would be misguided.
“Everybody needs to wait and slow down. The guy has been appointed for one day. He’s the guy the mayor has put in. The mayor didn’t have a lot of other people to chose from,” former Denver Safety Manager Butch Montoya said Monday. “I think it is unfortunate the media is talking about something that happened almost 20 years ago. The issue should be can the jail be brought under control and be made safe for all?” Montoya added Tuesday.
A “false reporting” conviction is a disqualifier in Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training rules. Sources in the sheriff’s department say it should have disqualified Diggins from keeping his job. We do not know whether he reported his arrest and conviction to his superiors and whether they appear on his personnel file.
Also still in question is whether the false reporting conviction should disqualify Diggins from managing nearly 900 uniformed and non-uniformed staff members in Colorado largest sheriff’s department — an agency whose misconduct problems include a pattern of officials misreporting excessive force and other misconduct cases, and even falsifying documents.
Diggins’ “young-and-stupid” excuse only goes so far. He was old enough and apparently qualified enough to have been working in the sheriff’s department at the time of his felony arrest and misdemeanor conviction. His casual response raises questions about whether anyone in the current generation of 20-somethings on his staff has similar records and whether Diggins — or Hancock — thinks it’s important enough to know, or even ask.
Administration officials have blamed a rash of excessive force and misconduct cases on stress and fatigue among a department staff trying to manage dangerous and often unruly inmates. One 18-year veteran sheriff’s deputy said Monday, “Quite frankly, it’s not the inmates that give us fatigue, it’s the administration and their inability to guide the ship in the right direction.”
Diggins has been appointed temporarily while the city searches nationally for someone to replace Sheriff Wilson. A press release Monday reads, “Mayor Hancock Sets New Leadership and Top-to-Bottom Review of Sheriff Department.” The review, top to bottom, apparently didn’t start with Diggins’ own record about which his direct supervisor, Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley, apparently was unaware.
“This is certainly something we’re looking into right now,” safety department spokeswoman Daelene Mix told The Independent Monday evening.
O’Malley faces several questions. Did her office vet the man it was appointing as sheriff? Will she and Hancock follow Diggins’ lead in trying to minimize his record, or will they decide that a sheriff with a false reporting record doesn’t jibe with their efforts to, as Hancock has put it, “change the culture” of the department?
False reporting is a tender button for the sheriff’s department, which is responsible for running Denver’s city and county jails.
Last week, sheriff’s officer William Lewis, a 12-year veteran of the department, was put on investigative leave after allegedly writing an inaccurate report about a July 13 incident in which his colleague, Deputy Thomas Ford, punched and kicked an inmate who posed no apparent threat in the booking area at the city jail. A videotape of the attack obtained and posted by The Independent increased public outcry against the department and partly led to Sheriff Wilson’s ouster.
Last month, U.S. District Judge John Kane asked for a federal investigation into allegations that two Denver Police internal affairs sergeants tried to intimidate a key witness in a federal case brought by Jamal Hunter, who was beaten by fellow inmates at the Denver jail while sheriff’s deputies at best ignored the attack and at worst planned and encouraged it. Kane lambasted the city for conducting an internal affairs probe he called a “sham.”
An agreement was reached by the city attorney’s office and Jamal Hunter’s attorney, Rathod Mohamedbhai, to settle his case for $3.25 million, according to a press release from the mayor’s office Wednesday. The agreement must be approved by the city council and U.S. District Court.
“The parties agree this settlement would allow the city to address these allegations as well as permit all sides to move forward and look toward the future of the sincere reform necessary to restore the public trust,” the release states.
Assistant City Attorney Stuart Shapiro, who handled the case, has been placed on investigatory leave while the city reviews his conduct and “policies and procedures” in the city attorney’s office, according to the release.
Kane told the Denver Post Tuesday that problems in the jail need to be resolved. “There needs to be corrective steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Kane told the Post. “It doesn’t do any good to have one scandal after another.”
Last year, after Brady Lovingier — son of former department head Bill Lovingier — slammed a handcuffed inmate into a courtroom wall, unprovoked, internal affairs investigators dismissed Lovinger’s long series of statements to be “unreasonable” and not factual.
In the city’s press release Monday, O’Malley said, “We have a responsibility to conduct the business of the city under the highest ethical standards. …We need to hold those individuals accountable for behavior that is an embarrassment to the hundreds of men and women who serve the department honorably every day.”
The safety manager has told The Independent that more transparency is a top priority in the department.
[This post has been updated.]
[Image of shoulder patch from denvergov.org]