Libertarians, Latino activists, sheriffs union members unite: Elect Denver’s sheriff

The Denver Sheriff Department has long been a mess.

Some of its deputies have kicked and clobbered inmates without provocation. Other deputies have booked the wrong people – confusing black people for white and old folks for young, and even hauling in a man on a warrant in place of a guy who was long dead.

Department staffers have locked up non-English speakers without translators and deaf people without interpreters. They’ve released some prisoners too early, and others too late. And some have incited inmates to attack each other.

Jail workers let a young woman bleed to death behind bars, untreated for her injuries. Five of them piled on top of a frail street preacher, tasered him and choked him to death, then lost key evidence. When they took the witness stand in that case, they raised their right hands and – as the federal jury found — lied through their teeth about the man they unjustifiably killed without pocks on their careers.

Mayor Michael Hancock’s solution has been to say mostly nothing about the long litany of snafus, and then to throw money at the problem. After commissioning a $295,000 review of what’s wrong with the sheriff’s department, Hancock is now budgeting $24 million to address the list of 270 concerns the study found plague the agency from its lowest ranks to the top.

But some critics say those reforms don’t reach high enough.

An unlikely chorus including sheriff’s watchdogs and the sheriff’s union, pacifist civil rights activists and gun-loving civil libertarians is calling for a massive overhaul of the department. They have little faith in a new sheriff Hancock is searching the nation to appoint. Instead of the Mayor making a new political pick, they argue, it’s time for Denverites to elect their sheriff.

“The fixes aren’t being made because the person leading the department isn’t allowed to lead,” said Frank Gale, a rep for the Fraternal Order of Police, the sheriffs union in Denver. “We need a person who’s directly accountable to voters over how the agency is run.”

The idea of electing a sheriff isn’t revolutionary. Nor is it new. Denver and Broomfield are the only two of Colorado’s 64 counties with a political appointee rather than an elected official serving as sheriff.

Denver’s is the state’s largest sheriff’s department, with about 900 staff members who run the city and county jails and secure Denver’s district and county court systems. Denver has a separate police department run by an appointed police chief, so, unlike other sheriff’s departments, the sheriff isn’t responsible for keeping the general community safe.

For most of the city’s history, the person holding that office was called the undersheriff. Even though the job title became “sheriff” after a 2013 voter-approved charter change, the position remained a mayoral appointment and the duties have stayed the same.

After taking office in 2011, Hancock stayed mostly mum about a long string of videotapes showing wrongdoing in the department, and about a pattern of civil rights lawsuits, cover-ups and repeated failures to control – let alone discipline – wayward deputies.

Questions arose: Was anybody in city government even paying attention?

Months after sheriff’s deputy Brady Lovingier – son of the former department head – slammed an inmate against a courtroom wall without provocation and then lied about the incident to investigators, for example, Sheriff Gary Wilson and his staff seemed unaware and unconcerned that Lovingier was still assigned to train fellow deputies about how to handle “use of force” and accurately report those incidents to supervisors.

In the summer of 2014, when embarrassing headlines started coming at a faster clip, Hancock finally took action by demoting Wilson and appointing Wilson’s friend and protégée, Elias Diggins, as interim sheriff while Hancock pledged a national search to find a replacement.

Diggins’ appointment came with its own embarrassments. The administration claimed not to know about his criminal record. In 1996, two years into his career with the department, Diggins had been charged with a felony of bribing a public official after a traffic stop. He pleaded to a misdemeanor conviction of “false reporting” information to law enforcement authorities. A “false reporting” conviction is a disqualifier in Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training rules, and sources in the department long have said it should have disqualified Diggins from keeping his job.

Yet, nearly fifteen months after his appointment as interim sheriff, Diggins still holds the sheriff position while the administration is still searching nationally for a permanent replacement. In the meantime, Hancock’s office has angered community watchdogs by refusing to disclose not only who it’s interviewing, but also what kind of candidates it’s seeking.

“Transparency is always better than secrecy in a democracy, and right now we don’t have that with the sheriff,” said Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Denver Metro Chapter of the Colorado Latino Forum, one of several groups concerned about the department’s record mistreating black and brown inmates.

The Latino Forum held a community meeting Saturday during which members discussed the prospect of reforming the way Denver’s sheriff comes to office. A supermajority of those in attendances voted “yes” in a straw poll on the question of whether the sheriff should be elected rather than appointed.

Supporters say the mayor’s office and its safety department have far too much concentrated power. Hancock and Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley are making key decisions – or non-decisions, as the case may be – even though neither has a background in law enforcement.

“We have a sheriff who isn’t actually running the sheriff’s department. The staff is working for someone who’s not able to pick their own leadership or do their own hiring and firing,” Calderon said. “Fundamentally, the breakdown in the sheriff’s department is a leadership issue.

“I don’t think we’re going to get a real sheriff. We’re going to get another figurehead.”

The Latino Forum – whose members have been vocal critics of the department and its staff — has found an unlikely ally in the sheriff’s union, which long has backed the idea of electing Denver’s sheriff. The switch in structuring the department would require a charter change. Supporters are discussing floating a ballot initiative in 2016.

“There’s a lot of support for the idea from lots of groups throughout the city,” Gale said. “I’m at a loss to tell you who would oppose it.”

The administration – which did not respond to inquiries for this story, at least on the record – is one source of likely opposition.

For one thing, electing a sheriff would dilute power from Denver’s strong mayor form of government. It also would open the possibility that sheriff’s deputies would become POST-certified, with full law enforcement powers – capable, critics in the administration warn, of becoming even more dangerous and uncontrollable than they are now.

Gale counters that electing a sheriff would create a check and balance against the influence of the mayor and build more direct accountability to the public. If an elected sheriff wasn’t succeeding in fixing the department’s problems, he said, he or she would be much easier to unseat than the mayor.

The power dynamics underlying the discussion run deep. Nothing illustrates that better than the firing early this year of Gale, a former division chief and longtime veteran of the department whom, the administration says, gave preferential treatment last year to a colleague who was locked up after being charged in a domestic violence case. That colleague, former Sheriff Gary Wilson’s ex-wife, was allowed to wear civil clothes to her court appearance and then escorted home by two deputies. The administration says that, with Gale’s nod, she was released without the proper paperwork.

Gale counters that his firing was purely political – an assertion that carries some weight given that department staffers who’ve killed and maimed inmates haven’t, in comparison, been docked even a day’s pay.

“There’s no question that the administration wanted me out,” he told The Independent.

Gale is appealing his firing as he has twice before. The longtime union activist lost his job in 1991 and 2000, and then regained it. Such is the revolving door of the city’s disciplinary system.

David Kopel, a public policy and law scholar at the University of Denver and the Independence Institute, says the public is growing tired of the persistent controversies plaguing the sheriff’s department.

“When problems last this long, people expect some leadership and, clearly, that leadership isn’t happening under the current structure,” he said.

Kopel points out that the office of a local sheriff, next to the reign of a king or queen, “Is the oldest office that exists in the Anglo-American system.” If electing a sheriff works in 62 other Colorado counties, the argument goes, it should also work in Denver.

“As things stand, the city sheriff has only one voter – the mayor,” Kopel said.

“The people of Denver should have the same power that people in most other counties here have – to choose who serve in that office.”

Adding to the strangeness of the strange bedfellows who are eyeing a push to elect Denver’s sheriff, the libertarian Independence Institute is expected to join the sheriff’s union and Latino Forum in backing a charter change.

Photo credit: clement127, Creative Commons, Flickr.