Michael Hancock had hoped that finding a new sheriff would cure what ails Denver’s violence-plagued, scandal-ridden and otherwise dysfunctional sheriff’s department.
But, for the second time in fifteen months, the Mayor’s appointment to that job is backfiring.
In a rushed announcement Thursday, Hancock named Patrick Firman, a career corrections officer from the Chicago suburbs, to lead Colorado’s biggest and most urban sheriff’s department. The agency is responsible for securing Denver’s courthouses and running the city’s jails where, in recent years, inmates have been punched, kicked, Tasered, slammed against walls and even killed by rogue deputies.
Hancock praises Firman as a “change agent.”
Although civil rights activists agree that an outsider is much needed to reform the all-too-incestuous department, they say Hancock’s didn’t, as promised, give them the chance to vet finalists. Watchdogs are blasting Hancock for falling far short of the “full transparency” and “unprecedented community involvement” he and his staff have talked so much about over the past year.
“It was lip service. Just lip service,” says Carol Oyler, a criminal justice watchdog in Denver.
“In a city that has paid out millions of dollars in excessive force cases, we would have liked to have been able to know – before the decision was made – who they were interviewing. But only when it’s a done deal do we find out who this Firman even is,” Oyler added.
“I’m pretty sure the Mayor has a very different definition of transparency than the rest of us.”
Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum’s Denver Chapter, told The Colorado Independent, “We were assured we’d be able to meet the finalists and have a chance to ask questions – hard questions – that need to be asked of the person being chosen to turn that department around.”
“But the process was nothing like what we were promised – no transparency at all,” she said. “It shows a disregard for the residents of Denver and a mishandling of how one of the most important positions in our criminal justice system is hired.”
Hancock isn’t discussing his broken promises. During his press conference Thursday, the Mayor’s non-answer about why he didn’t deliver on his transparency pledge went something like this: Firman’s our guy, and he’ll meet everyone eventually — end of discussion.
In July 2014, after a long, embarrassing string of excessive force cases about which Hancock stayed mostly silent, he demoted then-Sheriff Gary Wilson and appointed Elias Diggins as his interim replacement.
At the time, the administration claimed not to know that Diggins had a 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, let alone leading the department.
Hancock’s 13-month search process for a permanent sheriff had sources both in and out of City Hall wondering what was taking so long. That’s why the haste around Firman’s quick hiring is raising eyebrows.
His swearing-in today comes as Sheriff Diggins this week is facing an internal affairs investigation for releasing an assault suspect who was in custody at City Hall on an active police warrant. Diggins also came under fire after a personnel hearing last week in it came to light that he told former Sheriff’s Chief Frank Gale that the Hancock administration was firing Gale so “they can have a trophy they can hang on their wall.”
Controversy also is swirling around Firman’s new direct boss – Denver Safety Manager Stephanie O’Malley, the daughter of former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. She’s facing an ethics complaint filed by the head of the police union president for tipping off a fire captain she had once dated that his job with the city was in jeopardy.
“Watch your back,” read O’Malley’s text to Captain Harold Johnson, who was fired last month for alleged sexually inappropriate conduct on the job.
The ethics complaint by Police Protective Association Nick Rogers accuses O’Malley of breaching city confidentiality policies to protect her friend.
Neither Diggins nor O’Malley are commenting about the investigations into their conduct.
Hancock denied that Firman’s quick – and unexpected, to some city officials – hiring had anything to do with the probes into the outgoing sheriff’s and the safety manager.
Still, watchdogs have their suspicions.
“They said Firman was interviewed in September and now, suddenly, he’s getting sworn in. If you know anything about the way the city works, nothing happens that fast. You try to get a deputy hired and it takes at least eight months,” Calderon said. “So you have to wonder if hiring a sheriff so quickly is their way of trying to change the story away from the scrutiny around those under investigation.”
Firman will make $170,000 annually to run the 900-employee department, whose budget is $130 million. Some $24 million of that is earmarked to instituting massive reforms, including changes to the policies on using force against inmates.
Firman’s resume shows his appointment to run Colorado’s biggest sheriffs department is a leap from his last position as deputy chief of corrections in McHenry County in northern Illinois.
The two jails he’ll oversee in Denver house at least twice as many inmates – with far more ethnic diversity and for far more violent crimes – than the jail he has experience running.
“Leadership. That’s number one,” Hancock said. “He knows this is a challenging situation.”
“It’s a challenge, for sure,” Firman added.
Among Firman’s challenges is the question of whether his position – a political appointment made by the Mayor – will survive growing public distrust. A movement is under way to elect Denver’s sheriff, just as sheriffs are put in office in 62 of Colorado’s 64 counties.
An unlikely coalition of civil rights activists, the sheriff’s union and gun-loving civil libertarians is eyeing a charter change to let voters pick Denver’s sheriff. The effort would require a ballot initiative, which come as soon as November 2016.
“The effort’s rising. It’s gaining speed,” Oyler said. “People want a change, a big change, not just another secret appointment.
Photo credit: Susan Greene