Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman has lost the confidence of city leaders and his own employees, and his departure from the position is imminent.
A half-dozen people who either work for or with Firman describe him as absent, in over his head and ill-equipped to either improve his department’s performance or rehabilitate its severely wounded image.
Sources said he’ll either resign or be fired soon.
These sources spoke to The Colorado Independent on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to speak about Firman’s status.
Firman did not respond to an interview request. His boss, Director of Safety Troy Riggs, declined to comment. Mayor Michael Hancock also declined to be interviewed about the sheriff he appointed in 2015 to be a “change agent.”
“We are not going to comment on unconfirmed rumors from unnamed sources regarding city personnel,” said his spokeswoman, Theresa Marchetta.
The 1,100-employee Sheriff Department oversees Denver’s two jails and protects city and county courtrooms and courthouses. It also carries out evictions.
Denver is one of just two Colorado counties without an elected sheriff.
Firman, previously a career corrections official in Illinois, started in Denver in the wake of several highly publicized excessive force cases, including sheriff’s deputies killing of a homeless black man named Marvin Booker at the downtown jail. A month into Firman’s tenure, deputies killed another homeless black man, Michael Marshall, also at the jail.
The Booker and Marshall cases resulted in $6 million jury award and civil settlement, respectively. Other civil rights cases filed on behalf of prisoners who were killed or injured at the jails cost city taxpayers many millions more.
The city has spent about $31 million on reform efforts since 2015, and last summer touted its progress in a report titled “Beyond Reform.”
“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 when the report came out.
Behind the scenes, Hancock has been displeased with Firman and his ability to enact meaningful reform, sources said.
Firman has also been unable to build public trust since his tumultuous beginning, and, increasingly, his own employees are speaking out about their own lack of trust in him and in the department’s direction.
“I haven’t met or talked to anybody in our department that thinks he’s doing a spectacular job. It’s the opposite: that he’s ineffective,” said a sheriff’s captain with more than 20 years in the department. “Everybody feels this way.”
“Morale is in the gutter,” said another 20-plus-year department veteran, adding, of the staff perception of Firman: “What’s the word I’m looking for? Absent. That’s one word. Totally oblivious. Has no pulse of what’s going on. He believes things are going great, but they’re crumbling around him.”
Firman has become notorious among the ranks for how little time he spends in the jails and for avoiding staffers and prisoners.
“His nickname is ‘the sasquatch,” one employee said. “He doesn’t come around, he doesn’t show his face. The only time is when there’s a major incident.”
From the start, Firman’s public appearances have been few and far between compared to Safety Director Riggs and Police Chief Paul Pazen and their predecessors, Stephanie O’Malley and Robert White. Firman occasionally attends press conferences, but rarely has given interviews.
Meanwhile, the department he oversees has been embroiled in regular controversy since before he arrived and during his tenure. In addition to the Booker and Marshall killings, violence has persisted.
A 2017 survey showed that despite the millions spent on reform efforts, deputies overwhelmingly felt problems remained unchanged under Firman’s watch and that the department lacks leadership, trains them inadequately, and keeps its jails dangerously overcrowded.
The month after Firman started, more than a dozen jail deputies filed a federal lawsuit claiming that department leaders hadn’t protected women employees from “vile, damaging and degrading” remarks and behavior from male inmates.
“When supervising and guarding male prisoners” — 30-60 at a time, their lawsuit read — “a female deputy is often assigned as the lone deputy in a pod where she is surrounded and outnumbered (by) male prisoners. Sexual remarks are often tinged with threats of violence.”
The suit also asserted that the women are physically isolated from their male colleagues and, as a result of that and other factors, are subjected to “increased levels of job stress, job burnout and emotional harm when compared to male deputies.”
Sources said a settlement in that case could go before the City Council in a matter of days or weeks, and that the total could approach or exceed $1 million. (Update: The council approved the settlement on Monday, Sept. 9, in the total amount of $1.55 million.)
Two former jail deputies told The Independent in May that their bosses in the Sheriff Department denied them bathroom breaks during work shifts and that they were forced to urinate in plastic bags and on the floor.
On Wednesday, Mike Britton, vice president of the sheriff’s union local and a frequent critic of Firman, said the problem persists.
“We have female officers that are not getting relieved off their post” to breastfeed, he said. “We had one officer who lactated all the way through her uniform.”
Sources said Riggs and Mayor Hancock have long been displeased with Firman’s performance, but that no party was keen to shake up the Sheriff Department ahead of Hancock’s June re-election.
With the election over but the concerns about Firman unchanged — intensified, if anything, among the rank-and-file — city leadership is now bracing for his resignation, sources said, adding that Firman has looked at potential new work opportunities back in Illinois.
City leaders are already planning for a resignation or ouster, and have identified several city employees who could step into the role should Firman depart as expected.
That’s not the only sheriff’s personnel problem for Hancock and Riggs.
“What I just heard is that we’re 110 deputies short. We’re supposed to have about 800,” a longtime captain said. “They are leaving faster than we are hiring them. It’s across the board, different reasons why they’re leaving. Retirements, people who don’t want to be here, people who don’t have any trust in the upper administration. There’s a lot of reasons.”
Critics slammed Hancock in 2015 for hiring Firman without a public vetting process. The administration is likely to face further criticism if it appoints his replacement without soliciting pubic input.
It’s unclear whether Firman’s performance will inspire critics of the city’s appointed-sheriff system to float a referendum seeking to change Denver’s charter to elect rather than appoint the next sheriff.