Community wants more say in Denver Sheriff’s Department reform

Activists calling for the complete overhaul of the Denver Sheriff’s Department are not impressed by Mayor Michael Hancock’s decision not to include any community members on an eight-person leadership team tasked with implementing the 277 recommendations made in a $300,000 contracted civil-rights review.  Those recommendations include giving community members a say in reforming the department, which runs the Denver jail from which a string of excessive force complaints have emerged in recent years.

City officials from Hancock to Stephanie O’Malley, the executive director of the Department of Public Safety, have countered that they do plan to include community voices, just not on the main committee where sensitive personnel information will be discussed.

At a rally at police headquarters on Monday, activists said the city’s proposal to create three seats for community members – one black, one Latino and one Native American – across several reform subcommittees just won’t cut it.

“I don’t think that’s substantive. I don’t think that will necessarily ensure the critical reforms to protect people in jail,” said Alex Landau, who became an organizer for the Colorado Progressive Coalition after Denver cops beat him unconscious in 2009.

Landau said this is not the first time he’s seen community voices shuffled away from the real decision-making process when it comes to reforming law enforcement in Denver.

“I just don’t know what the strength of these subcommittees will look like,” worried Landau. “Is this just to make it look like community is actually being included? Is it just a deterrent to avoid a larger investigation?”

Landau is one of many calling for that larger investigation, which would be done by the Department of Justice. That review, says Landau, would take a comprehensive look at all forms of law enforcement in Denver — from the Sheriff’s deputies who run the jails to the on-the-street police force. Most importantly, the DOJ would come with its own implementation team in-hand, which would stick around after the review to ensure the changes are made.

Even so, Landau said the outside review the city contracted for still contains critical information for reformers. That’s because it sheds light on the day to day internal operations of the jail, which are far less visible to the community than the interactions between police and the public.

“It’s clear that when things are structured the way they’re structured, it’s easy to abuse inmates and get away with it, and it’s easy to distribute contraband around the jail,” said Landau of the report, which found that employees are not screened for prohibited items before they go to work at the jails each day.

The review also found that deputies at the jail were routinely resorting to force in situations where it wasn’t against policy but it also wasn’t absolutely necessary — such as when an inmate refused to leave his cell.

“In that case, where you have a controlled environment and you don’t have any concern for other people getting hurt, there’s nothing wrong with waiting that inmate out, with finding other rescues, with just letting time be on your side,” investigator Michael Gennaco told the seven-person Citizen Oversight Board, which provides community oversight and policy suggestions to the city’s law-enforcement monitor. 

“Try to handle the situation so you don’t go into the cell and have to have a force situation unfold,” Gennaco concluded.

The review also found that inmates are rarely interviewed after a use-of-force incident and that most use-of-force investigations comprise of deputies’ written reports to their direct superiors.

Perhaps most critical of all, according to the report, is a lack of leadership in the department, which has been under Interim Sheriff Elias Diggins since former Sheriff Gary Wilson stepped down almost a year ago. The review even goes so far as to suggest that it might be time for the Denver sheriff position to be filled by popular election.

Landau said the Sheriff’s Department review process has been in-depth and transparent, but he noted that the true test is whether the city can successfully adopt the changes.

“Now it’s up to current administration and the community to implement these reforms,” he said. “But there’s nobody to hold them accountable if they don’t.”


Juston Cooper of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition speaks at Monday’s rally. Image courtesy of Alex Landau.