Will Hancock’s reform strategy fix Denver’s broken sheriff’s department?

Mayor Michael Hancock addresses the public about corruption in the Denver Sheriff's Department.

Mayor Michael Hancock is responding to a scathing report about the city’s dysfunctional sheriff’s department by relying on the same people responsible for years of mismanagement to turn things around in Denver’s wayward jails.

Hancock called today’s release of a $295,000 independent review a “turning point for the city.”

“I’m one of those folks that if we’re going to fix the problem, we’re really going to fix the problem,” he said at a news conference this morning.

Hancock’s fix? To appoint a reform “implementation team” consisting of the same safety manager and sheriff – Stephanie O’Malley and Elias Diggins – under whose watch reviewers found patterns of evasion and inaction.

[pullquote]“Everyone in the community – including inmates who’d call us, their mothers who would call us – could have told you long ago what this report recommends. This isn’t exactly an ‘aha’ moment and it doesn’t exactly regain the trust of the citizens to be catching on so late.”[/pullquote]

Also on the team are Scott Martinez, the city attorney whose office has defended the department in excessive force cases, and Nick Mitchell, the independent safety monitor who – although he has lodged some criticism about the department – has stayed publicly mum about a long string of excessive force cases and wrongdoing.

City watchdogs question Hancock’s commitment to reforms that are supposed to be implemented by the same appointees who were assuring the public to trust the department, even as it went woefully astray.

“We’re supposed to believe that those people can go in and correct a problem only now that some guys in fancy suits come along and said there’s a problem. As though they didn’t know? They’re going to change a culture they’ve created? He’s putting these same people in charge? Oh, come on. No. Hell no. It’s just not going to work,” said the Rev. Reginald Holmes, pastor of Denver’s New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha Omega Ministries and an outspoken critic of Denver’s safety department.

Denver’s sheriff’s department for years has been plagued by a string of excessive force cases in which deputies have attacked inmates at both the downtown and Smith Road jails with little or no provocation. Over the past year, Denver has paid at least $10 million in settlements or jury awards for wrongdoing in its jails.

Under Hancock’s tenure in office, sheriff’s department problems have included:

• Jailing the wrong people – some long-term – because of mistaken identity
• Releasing inmates unknowingly
• Improperly running down escapees on unauthorized manhunts
• Racial profiling
• Giving preferential treatment to certain inmates, including department staff brought in on criminal charges
• Not reporting or investigating incidents of wrongdoing
• Deputies and managers lying – even in court, under oath – about force incidents
• And failing to discipline staffers even in cases of death and injury

“What went on after most force incidents really can hardly be called an investigation at all,” one of the consultants who conducted the independent review said this morning.

The 70-page report by the Chicago-based Hilliard Heinz LLC blasted the nearly 1,000-member department for its “leadership vacuum” and for lack of “supervisory accountability.” It found widely held perceptions that “decisions are made more of political priorities than sound law enforcement and correction management principles.”

Among the report’s 270 findings, “In general, DSD does not conduct training in areas that could lower the risk or frequency in use of force events.”

“Force should not be used just because it can be,” one of the consultants added. When it is, officials need to do a “better job in investigating,” he said.

After suspending a deputy for slamming an inmate into a window and misleading investigators about the attack, the department assigned that same officer to train his colleagues on how to handle volatile situations and how to write official reports about use-of-force incidents. That deputy, Brady Lovingier, is the son of the department’s former head, Bill Lovingier.

Gary Wilson, the sheriff at the time, said he was unaware of Lovingier’s training duties.

Hancock, for his part, long refused to comment on Lovingier’s unprovoked, videotaped attack on inmate Anthony Waller – as well as several other cases.

The Mayor asserted this morning that he knew the independent report “wasn’t going to be pretty” and pointed out that “self-reflection takes leadership.” Then he hotly denied having long said nothing publicly about several excessive force cases reported by The Independent.

“I may not have said anything to you,” he snapped.

Michael Hancock’s press conference from Kyle Harris on Vimeo.

Hancock stood at this morning’s news conference at times staring at the floor, the ceiling and into space as the consultants rattled off the sheriffs department’s failures and shortcomings. Safety Manager O’Malley looked sad and embarrassed. And Sheriff Diggins closed his eyes as consultants listed fault after fault in his agency.

Diggins has been in office since Hancock demoted longtime Sheriff Gary Wilson – Diggins’ close friend and mentor – after a long string of news stories about wrongdoing and mismanagement. Diggins was supposed to be interim sheriff until a permanent replacement is recruited from a national search. Ten months later, the administration launched that search today.

Hancock – who was re-elected earlier this month — said he is looking for a “change agent” to help turn things around.

Critics question how much change there can be from an administration that only now is taking stock of problems that have long persisted.

“Everyone in the community – including inmates who’d call us, their mothers who would call us – could have told you long ago what this report recommends,” Holmes said. “This isn’t exactly an ‘aha’ moment and it doesn’t exactly regain the trust of the citizens to be catching on so late. So I’m not impressed – and I don’t know who is — that Hancock is suddenly committed to take care of it, especially when they’re saying the recommendations will take three to five years to address.”

Several leaders in metro Denver’s black and Latino spiritual and activist communities told The Independent they generally laud the report and its findings. Still, they’re struck by what they say is a major oversight – its failure to address the fact that the majority of inmates victimized by excessive force in Denver are black and brown.

“The report doesn’t list those demographics,” Holmes said. “People are going to be skeptical of any report – and any administration – that overlooks the cultural and systemic problems that underlies those statistics.”


Photo credit: Susan Greene