Report: Denver sheriff's problems endanger deputies, inmates
Deputies' safety is at risk because the department cannot account for the whereabouts of every inmate in the system
By Steven K. Paulson
DENVER — The safety of inmates and deputies in Denver jails is at risk because of problems at nearly every level of the Sheriff's Department, according to a report that the mayor ordered after several deaths and beatings.
Thursday's review comes amid a nationwide debate over police practices following the high-profile deaths, by shooting and other means, of black men at the hands of police.
Among its recommendations, the Denver report urged the city to look outside the department to hire new leadership, including a new sheriff.
The current sheriff, Elias Diggins, however, was named to a panel to act on the report's recommendations. "Our department takes the assessment findings and recommendations very seriously, and we stand ready to further participate in the reform implementation process," he said.
Mayor Michael Hancock called for the investigation last year after a series of misconduct cases cost the city more than $9 million in legal settlements and lawyers' fees. In October, a federal jury found five Denver sheriff's deputies used excessive force against a homeless street preacher who died in the city's downtown jail and awarded his family a record $4.65 million in damages.
That verdict came amid calls for a federal investigation of the department over other abuse cases. Former Sheriff Gary Wilson resigned in July as the city agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle another federal jail-abuse lawsuit by a former inmate over a beating.
The report by Chicago-based Hillard Heintze and Los Angeles-based OIR Group revealed deficiencies throughout the department.
Several inmates have been severely beaten in jail in recent years. And deputies' safety is at risk because the department cannot account for the whereabouts of every inmate in the system. Inmates are assigned cells without regard to gang affiliation.
Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU in Colorado, said Denver's abuses have largely taken place outside public view. She also noted that lower-ranking deputies are allowed to conduct their own investigations of alleged misconduct with no outside contribution.
— The sheriff's department needs new leadership to end mismanagement and mistrust.
— The city needs a plan to address questionable use of force and regain public trust.
— The department needs better training for deputies on how to limit the use of force.
— The city needs a better inmate grievance process, including independent interviews of inmates and witnesses who allege abuse.
— The department needs a Code of Conduct for employees and require them to sign it.
Some community leaders view the report as an admission of guilt by the city that it has failed to protect inmates, especially inmates of color. The Rev. Reginald Holmes, who is in charge of social justice for a local alliance of ministers that have complained of police brutality, said jail abuses are only half the problem. The city police department, a separate agency, also needs investigation, he said.
Public Safety Director Stephanie O'Malley will work on recommendations, along with Sheriff Diggins, city attorney Scott Martinez, budget director Brendan Hanlon and City Councilman Paul Lopez. Holmes criticized Diggins' inclusion on the panel, saying, "What you are doing is putting the people who caused the problems in charge of correcting the problem."
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press