Late last August, Mayor Michael Hancock and his top safety officials held a news conference to celebrate what they called “a major milestone” in Denver’s long troubled Sheriff Department.
They were releasing a report that listed nearly 400 organizational changes the agency had made after several years of violence, understaffing and mismanagement in two Denver jails it runs. Someone presumably aimed to convey progress by titling the report “Beyond Reform,” but failed to realize the term also can mean “hopeless” and “unfixable.”
The administration’s nearly $31 million in reform efforts since 2015 range from significant shifts such as a new use-of-force policy centered on de-escalation techniques to tweaks such as changing the style of male inmates’ underwear to reduce the smuggling of contraband.
“As a community, the Sheriff Department and the residents of this city embarked on significant reformation that has set this department on a transformational path, and I am proud of the progress we have made together,” Hancock said at the time.
But the mayor’s handling of the department has become a campaign issue as he seeks a third term in next week’s election, and his critics – especially the union that represents most of the city’s 700 sheriff’s deputies – see the progress as minimal in a department they say still faces much of the same dysfunction.
“This mayor has shown no real leadership,” says Deputy Mike Britton, vice president of the Denver Sheriff Fraternal Order of Police union local who has been a fierce and longstanding Hancock critic. “He can give all the lip service he wants about these so-called ‘reforms,’ but without a willingness to really make meaningful changes, we’re no better off than when we started.”
The Marvin Booker case
Understanding Hancock’s oversight of the Sheriff Department requires familiarity with a case he inherited when he took office in July 2011, a year after the city opened its $158 million Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center downtown.
Hailed as a national model for an improved justice system, the 1,500-bed jail was supposed to solve a litany of problems, including overcrowding and an inability to provide special housing to inmates with mental health issues. It was designed to serve the city’s needs at least until 2035.
Bill Lovingier, Denver’s corrections chief under former Mayor John Hickenlooper, had pushed the city to build the new jail. Upon its opening in April 2010, he told The Denver Post that “The creation of this facility was critical to the Denver Sheriff Department, as it will enable us to efficiently serve the people of Denver and operate the jails in a safe, humane and secure environment.”
Three months after the jail opened, a man named Marvin Booker was hauled in on an outstanding warrant for drug possession. The homeless street preacher took off his shoes in the crowded booking area while waiting for his name to be called. When it was, he walked sock-footed to the booking desk, then turned back to retrieve the shoes he’d left behind. A sheriff’s deputy ordered him to return to the booking desk, and when he failed to obey, she grabbed him. Booker – who was 56 and weighed 135 pounds – resisted, swinging his elbow toward her twice after she restrained his arm. Three other officers wrestled him to the ground, piled on, cuffed his hands behind his back, and put what’s called a sleeper hold on his neck. Booker died after Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez, the on-duty supervisor that morning, shocked him with a Taser.
The attack, which the coroner ruled a homicide, was captured on surveillance cameras.
Hickenlooper, the mayor at the time, phoned Booker‘s family expressing his condolences and promising a swift investigation and justice once the investigation was complete. Hancock, who was running to replace Hickenlooper, echoed those promises on the campaign trail.
But under Hancock’s watch, the officers involved in Booker’s killing, as well as the police detectives and internal affairs officials who investigated it, lied about the case, including while testifying in the federal civil rights lawsuit Booker’s family filed.
It came to light at trial, for example, that in the evidence room, a detective had swapped out the Taser used to kill Booker with a different Taser. Officials used that substitute Taser in their autopsy report, the internal investigation of Rodriguez and the four deputies involved in Booker’s death, the Denver District Attorney’s decision not to press charges against them, and the Hancock administration’s decision not to discipline or fire them. Hancock’s Safety Department made no effort to explain why the timestamp on the substitute Taser handed in as evidence showed it was deployed more than a half-hour after Booker was killed and for a far shorter time than witnesses say Rodriguez shocked him.
The federal jury found Rodriguez, the four deputies and city government culpable for Booker’s homicide, liable for excessive force, and to blame for, among other things, having overexaggerated the threat Booker posed. The jury also found they destroyed evidence, including officers’ text messages to each other right after he died. It ordered the administration to pay his family and their lawyers $6 million.
Hancock never reached out to the family to express regret about Booker’s killing. Nor, after such a big loss in federal court, did he ask his Safety Department to account for the disappearance of the homicide weapon and his officers’ role in it. His administration meted out no punishment to the officers. And Hancock repeatedly has declined to comment about the case.
“This case is an open wound nine years later because this mayor, who claims to be a champion of civil rights, showed no compassion for the victim,” says Booker’s brother, the Rev. Spencer Booker. “Denver deserves better than Michael Hancock.”
The Michael Marshall case
The $6 million jury award for Booker’s death was, at the time, the most the city had ever paid in an excessive force case. The community looked to the administration for reform.
Hancock’s safety manager then was Stephanie O’Malley, the daughter of former Mayor Wellington Webb, who had no experience in criminal justice when he appointed her. The duo hired a new sheriff, Patrick Firman, from a Chicago suburb, as what Hancock called a “change agent.”
But change didn’t come nearly fast enough.
A month after Firman’s hiring, sheriff’s deputies killed another homeless African American man, Michael Marshall, in the jail in much the same way as their colleagues had killed Booker.
Marshall was a 50-year-old, 112-pound paranoid schizophrenic who had been arrested on a trespassing charge at a Colfax Avenue motel where he sometimes stayed. He was being held on a $100 bond.
Videos of his killing – which The Colorado Independent sued to make public – show Marshall in the jail’s 4th floor sally port, shirtless and pacing nervously back and forth in what experts agreed was an acute psychotic episode. Two deputies stood for a while watching him, and when Marshall tried to walk between one of them and a wall, the deputies surrounded him. The deputy nearest him reached out, pinned Marshall to the cement block, then swung him back toward a bench. Two more deputies approached and yanked Marshall to the floor, where the three officers seemed to easily restrain him for about four minutes.
Another deputy brought a “spit hood” that was placed over Marshall’s mouth to prevent him from spitting or biting. He choked on his vomit, and his body went limp. A crew of deputies did nothing for about 20 minutes, then called a medic, who found no pulse, and Marshall was taken, lifeless, to Denver Health Medical Center.
The administration didn’t notify his family until a few days later that he was in a coma. They were given no details about the incident and had to post his bond before they were allowed to visit him. They ended life support several days later when doctors told them Marshall was brain dead.
As in the Booker case, nobody in the Sheriff Department was criminally charged or fired for Marshall’s killing.
Nick Mitchell, the city’s independent safety monitor tasked with holding Hancock’s Safety Department accountable, noted in a 2018 report that the department had let one of the deputies involved, Thanarat Phuvapaisalkij, transfer to the Denver Police Department while he was still under investigation for Marshall’s homocide. Mitchell questioned whether the administration had learned anything from the tragedy. He also questioned the sensitivity of a sheriff’s sergeant who nominated Deputy Bret Garegnani for a department lifesaving award for having initiated CPR on Marshall, despite the fact that Garegnani was the first deputy to pin Marshall to the floor, resulting in injuries that led to Marshall’s death nine days later. That sergeant’s nomination letter read, in part: “Deputy Garegnani is ultimately responsible for prolonging the life of Michael Marshall which allowed for those valuable moments that the Marshall family ultimately had with Michael and will be forever grateful.”
Hancock’s administration paid Marshall’s family and lawyers $6 million – the same as it paid in Booker’s case – to keep their civil rights suit from going to trial.
The family says the mayor didn’t reach out to them personally until their lawsuit was settled two years after Marshall’s killing. Even then, niece Natalia Marshall says, the main thing the mayor told them was that his sister had been killed, “so he knows what it feels like to lose” a loved one.
“But he never expressed his condolences,” she added.
Hancock’s handling of the Booker and Marshall cases has, at least in part, caused several high-profile leaders in Denver’s African American clergy and civil rights communities to endorse his opponent, political newcomer Jamie Giellis, in next week’s mayoral election.
“These were not the first times we’ve had people harmed in these jails. But this was the first time we had a mayor not even bothering to say, ‘We’re sorry that your loved one is gone, is dead.’ The mayor has been loathe to do that. I don’t know what his reason is, but he will not own the fact that his Sheriff Department was wrong,” says the Rev. Terrence Hughes, a pastor at Denver’s New Covenant Christian Church Alpha Omega Ministries and former president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance.
Like Hughes, Superintendent Patrick L. Demmer, pastor of the Graham Memorial Community Church of God in Christ, stood by the Booker and Marshall families through years of what he calls “fighting the city for justice.” He said he is “no cheerleader for the mayor,” but is supporting Hancock because he feels he’s more qualified than Giellis.
“I suppose that I give him a mulligan on the Booker and Marshall situations in the same way that evangelicals gave Donald Trump a mulligan on disrespect for family and women,” Demmer said. “But every time he uses the terminology ‘protecting civil rights’ as part of his campaign, I have to scratch my head. It is no secret that he stood in the way of civil rights when it came to those men’s killings.”
The mayor repeatedly has declined to answer questions about those cases and declined to comment on perceptions that, in his administration’s handling of them, he betrayed the civil rights community from which he often says he sprung.
“Falling through the cracks”
In addition to the $6 million payout to the Marshalls, Hancock’s administration agreed to the family’s demands for new policies to protect inmates with mental illness. Among those were requirements that two mental health providers be available round-the-clock in both of Denver’s jails and that protocols be put in place to ensure better communication among jail personnel regarding inmates with mental illness.
As several deputies tell it, Hancock’s administration has been skirting those commitments.
The police union’s Britton calls the quality of the “quote-unquote psych nurses” hired by the city “questionable.” “Nobody seems to have checked their credentials or capability to actually deal with mental health issues,” he said. Rather than relying on those nurses to help inmates in crisis, he said he and other deputies have learned that it’s most effective to “respond to the mentals by bribing them with food.”
“We divert their attention away from what is disrupting them. This is how we make deals on a continual basis.”
As part of its reform efforts, the department has been experimenting with several new ways to classify inmates when they’re booked into its jails. Britton says that due to confusion and miscommunication about those categories it has become difficult for deputies, their supervisors and the mental health professional on duty to discern the needs of mentally ill inmates – especially those in crisis.
He says a jail that was built to accommodate inmates with mental health problems is not serving that purpose. As an example, he cites Pod 2B where he says the department is currently housing 61 female inmates – mixing those with chronic mental health conditions, addictions and suicidal tendencies with the general female inmate population. On certain shifts, he says the pod is monitored by a single deputy, far exceeding the 1:45 ratio the union says should be the maximum.
The result, he says, is that inmates are “stuffed in there like sardines,” causing “regular pandemonium” – assaults between inmates, inmates assaulting staff, and inmates going through withdrawal and experiencing psychological breakdowns and even delusions without the monitoring and support they need.
“It’s a tinderbox,” Britton said. “They’re definitely violating the terms of the Marshall agreement by masking the fact that these inmates have psychological issues so it looks like we’re abiding by the settlement when we’re not. And these women, well, they’re falling through the cracks.”
Britton points out there’s an empty pod that could alleviate crowding, but he says the administration won’t open it for that purpose to avoid having to pay overtime to staff it.
The Sheriff Department’s spokeswoman, Daria Serna, says the department “utilizes overtime where appropriate.”
She says Pod 2B is a short-term pod and that inmates can be transferred to other units or to the county jail on Smith Road if necessary.
For its part, Denver Health, which provides the psychiatric nurses on contract to the jails, says all are specially certified to treat mental illness.
“Denver Health’s psychiatric nurses who work in Denver jails are hardworking professionals who provide high quality, compassionate care to Denver’s inmate population,” said the hospital’s spokesman, Simon Crittle.
Things seem to have calmed since the height of chaos in the department in 2014 and 2015 when, almost monthly, a new story would break about one SNAFU or another.
One story exposed a deputy grabbing an inmate and slamming him into a wall for what his bosses deemed to be “no legitimate reason.” They also found that he lied in his account of the incident. Hancock’s administration was criticized for waiting a year to discipline Deputy Brady Lovingier, son of the former corrections chief Bill Lovingier. The department then assigned Brady Lovingier to train his colleagues on how to handle volatile situations and how to write official reports about use-of-force incidents.
Another story exposed a deputy booking a man into Denver’s downtown detention center, walking over to him, belting him in the face and then apparently kicking him, after which the deputy’s colleague wrote an inaccurate report about the incident.
There were revelations in court that a deputy planned and encouraged a violent attack on an inmate in an incident about which the department released an internal affairs report that a federal judge called a “sham.” Then it came to light that the chief of the jail was put on a leave of absence for giving preferential treatment to a sheriff’s captain (who happened to be the ex-wife of then-Sheriff Gary Wilson) after she was booked in the jail on a domestic violence charge. There were also revelations that security was so lax at the jail that two inmates sauntered out without being noticed.
The department has been relatively embarrassment-free for a few years now. And, more importantly, deputies have not killed anyone in their custody.
Hancock acknowledged during his news conference last summer that “the work is not over” in remaking the Sheriff Department, and that his appointees will need to be vigilant overseeing what he called “continuous improvement efforts.”
The administration said it had put in place what the Sheriff Department claimed was 99% of nearly 400 recommendations by consultants, Mitchell’s office and others. “Beyond Reform,” as the report’s authors intended, signaled that the administration felt it had achieved its goal of turning around the wayward department. Mission Accomplished.
But critics, especially sheriff’s union members, some of whom are working to unseat Hancock next Tuesday, read the title differently – as in “things are so bad… under this administration that they’re beyond reform,” Britton says.
In listing its reform efforts, Hancock’s office points out that the Safety Department has hired 103 new deputies since 2016. Serna, the spokeswoman, says the department “actively recruits to fill vacancies year around.” But those assertions don’t jibe with the fact that the department is currently 98 deputies under full-staffing levels or with the fact that attrition is at its highest in memory. A report released since the mayor’s news conference last summer shows that 29% of new employees left the Sheriff Department in 2018, compared to 10% and 15% in the fire and police departments, respectively.
Data obtained by The Colorado Independent in 2017 sheds light on possible reasons why.
An internal report based on a survey conducted by the University of Colorado-Denver showed staffers overwhelmingly said they felt the Sheriff Department lacked leadership, trained them inadequately, and kept its jails dangerously overcrowded. Half of them said they were either thinking about or actively looking for jobs outside the department.
Another 2017 report showed that assaults among inmates in Denver’s jails had increased 784% since 2011, when Hancock took office, and spiked dramatically two years after Firman was appointed in 2015. The data also showed that inmate-on-staff assaults had jumped 620% since 2011 – again, with significant increases since 2015.
There is no updated data – at least that’s publicly available – about morale in the department. If it were, Britton said, “it would show that things are even worse now and that there’s no trust in the front line, in the majors, in the sheriff.”
He and six deputies interviewed for this story say Firman is so disengaged that he rarely “walks the floor” – meaning the halls of Denver’s jails.
To that allegation, the administration responded in an email Tuesday, “The suggestion that Sheriff Firman does not regularly engage with his employees is patently false and being propagated by those who oppose his reform efforts.”
Union brass admit their members are miffed by some of the reforms, including one requiring Safety Department managers to put more stock in inmates’ grievances about deputies and to investigate them more thoroughly. Britton says that 63% of deputies are the subjects of internal affairs investigations and that, of those, 85% are the subjects of two or more cases. He grumbles that many of his members feel they’re under siege.
Deputies have snickered at the creation of what the administration is calling its Public Integrity Division and its hiring of David Walcher, a charismatic Republican who was voted out of office as the Arapahoe County sheriff in November. Walcher is seen as a likely replacement for Firman should Hancock win a third term and decide that he needs a new “change agent.” He will lead a team that will investigate claims of misconduct and ethics violations in the department.
When it comes to ethics, Walcher got off to a bumpy start in his new position. Within a week of his hiring in April, CBS4 Denver reported that on his way out of office in Arapahoe County, he charged the county more than $3,000 for four customized, engraved rifles – one for himself and three for his commanders – as retirement gifts.