Stephanie O’Malley made headlines Monday when her boss, Mayor Michael Hancock, announced she’ll no longer be running Denver’s safety department and that he’s reassigning her as a special advisor on business issues.
But news coverage long has overlooked why the Mayor named O’Malley as Denver’s top safety official in the first place, what kind of impact she had, and what her four years in that position say about how this administration leads.
Denver isn’t just a city, but also a county. Unlike almost all counties in Colorado, its top law enforcers are politically appointed rather than elected. Denver’s sheriff and police chief (as well as its fire chief) report to the safety manager who, in turn, answers to the mayor.
Hancock raised eyebrows in 2013 when naming O’Malley – the daughter of former Mayor Wellington Webb – to oversee Denver’s three safety agencies. She did, in fairness, come with experience in city government, having run Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses and then its Clerk and Recorder’s Office from 2003 to 2011. But she lacked expertise in law enforcement and public safety. Hancock spun his way around that shortcoming by touting O’Malley’s law degree and her work, during her brief stint as his deputy chief of staff, negotiating contracts with public safety unions and “engaging with the community” on matters of law and order. With that, he put her in charge of overseeing public safety in one of the largest cities in the time zone and management of 4,500 employees – many with Tasers and guns, and some with extremely short fuses.
Shortly into her four-year tenure as safety manager (a position she reminded me more than once had been renamed “executive director of safety”), I noticed that O’Malley managed to duck criticism for the missteps, crises and tragedies under her watch. Those include cronyism in the fire, police and sheriff’s departments; racial profiling by police; not reporting or investigating policy violations in all three departments; excessive force by police and sheriff’s deputies; officers and managers lying – even in court, under oath – about force incidents; and failing to discipline officers even in cases of serious wrongdoing, injury and death.
O’Malley herself came under investigation when her niece, Jaime Webb, was given preferential treatment while being booked into the jail in September 2016. She also was probed for tipping off a fire captain she had once dated that he was the subject of an internal affairs investigation. “Watch your back,” read O’Malley’s 2014 text to Capt. Harold Johnson, who was fired for alleged sexually inappropriate conduct on the job. Nothing came of those inquiries. Besides, that’s just the small stuff.
Under her watch, a string of excessive force cases came to light – many videotaped – that led to virtually no discipline for the officers seen hauling off on suspects and arrestees. In the few cases that did result in discipline or firings, some officers managed to reverse those decisions.
O’Malley’s main focus was reforming Denver’s wayward Sheriff’s Department, which has a long history of incarcerating people whose identities it had mistaken, policy violations by staffers and managers, violence, and excessive force.
But records show that assaults among inmates and on staffers at Denver’s jails more than quadrupled under her watch. An internal report shows deputies see conditions as unchanged or deteriorating even after she and Hancock appointed a new sheriff, Patrick Firman, whom they touted as a “change agent,” and infused the department with an extra $24 million to make reforms. Sheriff’s deputies express serious concerns about overcrowding and violence in Denver’s city and county jails, saying decisions are made more out of political and budget concerns than for safety reasons and that the Safety Department lacks leadership.
That leadership style turned fatal in 2015 when officers killed Michael Marshall, a mentally ill homeless man who was having a psychotic episode in the downtown jail. His homicide was strikingly similar to deputies’ killing of Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher, in the same facility five years earlier.
O’Malley pledged that her department was “committed to transparency” about Marshall’s death, yet turned over videos of the incident only after being sued by The Independent. She promised “urgency” and “expediency” in the internal investigation, which ultimately took 17 months to release. She committed to doing a better job communicating with Marshall’s family than the city had with Booker’s, yet wrote a series of rote letters, each worded only a bit differently than the last, offering them false hope of expediency. The family called her “say-nothing letters” “meaningless” and were infuriated when O’Malley decided to briefly suspend without pay three officers responsible for Marshall’s killing rather than firing them.
The city ultimately paid the Marshalls $4.65 million to drop its civil rights lawsuit. As part of that deal, the family insisted that the city do a far better job training officers – policies that, stunningly, O’Malley hadn’t put in place even after a federal jury handed the same amount to Booker’s family in a civil rights trial three years earlier.
There was under O’Malley’s watch an almost willful inclination to avoid rather than fix problems. When it became clear, seven years after Booker’s killing at the hands of deputies, that the Taser they used on him wasn’t the Taser produced as evidence in the city’s internal investigation, she said nothing. The Taser the Safety Department had entered into evidence was deployed more than a half-hour after deputies killed Booker, and for what, videotape and witness testimony indicate, seems to be a small fraction of the time. It took a decision by Denver District Attorney Beth McCann to call for a grand jury investigation into the Safety Department’s curious handling of the Taser to assure Booker’s family and the public that the apparent fabrication of evidence in a homicide case is, in fact, worth a closer look. O’Malley couldn’t be counted on to clean up the mess in her department.
In an interview in 2014, she told me she inherited some “bad apples” in the Sheriff’s command staff and that she was “trying to turn the ship around.”
She’d respond to community groups’ concerns about racial profiling and excessive force with knowing looks and mentions of her roots in Denver’s West City Park neighborhood. “I know your concerns,” she assured a crowd of mostly black community members in 2015. “Now, you know that I know what bothers you.”
In meetings with relatives of excessive force victims and clergy members who support them in their quest to see excessively violent officers lose their jobs, she has evaded responsibility by blaming unions and their efforts to wiggle out of disciplinary measures. Yet, in meetings with safety officers and commanders frustrated by what they say is their increasing lack of authority to control crises as they happen, she has cited Hancock’s directives to avoid costly lawsuits and bad press.
The extent to which controversy in the departments she has overseen never seemed to stick to Denver’s safety manager earned her the nickname “STeflon O’Malley” within the department she manages.
But why? What accounts for the way she has avoided blame? Patronage, pure and simple.
Hancock won office with the help of O’Malley’s powerful father whose own three terms as mayor were marked by a pattern of sweetheart deals and cronyism. Although Hancock himself isn’t particularly close with O’Malley, his administration has taken care to shield her from criticism should she someday want to follow her father’s famous sneaker-steps into the mayor’s office.
Hancock has allowed his top safety official to avoid answering even the most basic questions about accountability in the departments she runs. A video showing excessive force would come to light, or a story would break about cronyism under her watch, and O’Malley would be missing in action. Her office responds to media inquires with extremely brief, prepared statements that typically don’t come close to answering reporters’ questions. And the Mayor’s office, when approached about such cases, lobs questions back to O’Malley, only to result in more no-comments, she’s-not-availables, and non-answers. The “public information” component of O’Malley’s public information efforts has been mainly an artful dodge, with an occasional reliance on Hancock’s proxies to scoff at questions they deem as unfair, mean-spirited or too tough.
O’Malley has been hunting for another job for almost two years. She reportedly applied for a judgeship that she didn’t get and sought a job at the DIA that apparently never came through. She made no secret that she wanted out of the safety department and that the ship she said she was turning around wasn’t budging.
Now, Hancock is creating a new position for her as his “special assistant” on women- and minority-owned businesses – a role that will cut her pay from about $170,000 to $145,000 a year. Given that the city’s Office of Economic Development is already tasked with promoting diversity in business ownership, the appointment renews grumblings about political patronage.
In the meantime, Hancock has picked a veteran law enforcer as his new safety manager. Troy Riggs served as police chief and public safety director in Indianapolis after having spent most of his career as a police officer. The mayor expects his new appointee to continue to put in place reform efforts and to build trust with community.
But, when it comes to trust, Riggs’ appointment already is raising questions.
He will manage Police Chief Robert White, whom it turns out he worked under as chief of staff in Louisville, KY. Riggs’ department will lead the probe into allegations of misconduct against White and Deputy Chief Matt Murray over their handling of an internal affairs investigation that led to the arrest on sex assault charges – which ultimately were dropped – against a Denver cop. The administration is saying there’s no conflict of interest.
Other questions also are percolating over a news story published Monday – the day of Riggs’ appointment – by The Indianapolis Star showing that the police department he ran in that city failed to review 19 police shootings, some of which took place under his watch. “At worst, it raises questions over whether… officers were not held accountable for policy violations that might have warranted suspension or even termination,” the Star reported.
More than a few city watchdogs fear that Riggs’ oversight will be as blind as O’Malley’s.
As the story made its way into Tweets and Facebook feeds throughout Denver, Hancock’s people scrambled to figure out why they hadn’t been made aware of an article for which Riggs clearly had been interviewed.
“Mission number one = Figuring out who dropped the ball re: optics for today’s announcement,” reads a text, with a link to the Star’s story, sent to me from a city official who requests anonymity for fear of being fired. “New manager. Same story. C. Y. A.”