Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is seeking input from the community as he looks to appoint the city’s new sheriff, despite City Council currently weighing a proposal to make the post an elected position.
The feedback-gathering process follows the October resignation of Patrick Firman, who headed the state's largest sheriff department, including the Denver jail system, for four years before abruptly stepping down after losing the confidence of city leaders, some of his own employees and community activists.
The third of four community input meetings was held Thursday at the Denver Indian Center, where less than a dozen people — including City Councilwoman Jamie Torres, whose district includes the center — gathered to give feedback on what they want in a new sheriff and the future of Denver’s sheriff department, which has been long beset by problems, including another slip-up announced earlier this week.
Guiding the discussions — which are taking place at community meeting places in the districts of City Council members Candi CdeBaca, Kendra Black, Torres and Stacie Gilmore — was a printout with three questions: “What qualities/characteristics do you want to see in the next sheriff? What work do you think the sheriff department should focus on under the next sheriff’s leadership? And what would you like to see from the sheriff’s department in the next three to five years as it relates to community engagement?”
One of the resounding themes Thursday night was the importance of recognizing cultural distinctions when it comes to Denver’s diverse populations and investing in relationship- and trust-building with those groups.
“If you don’t understand the community, they’re not going to understand you,” said Rick Waters, the executive director of the Denver Indian Center, who stressed the importance of cultural training, which his organization has hosted once before for the sheriff’s department.
The new sheriff should also be focused on high-level issues, Torres said, such as how to reduce Denver’s jail population and how to make the city’s criminal justice system more equitable.
“We need a sheriff at the table for those conversations,” she said, “not one who’s just concerned about processing standards and internal operations.”
A candidate’s qualifications — rather than their “qualities” or “characteristics” — also were highly important to those in attendance, such as former law enforcement official Deborah Burgess. Many in attendance said they saw value in a candidate with experience working their way up within the system.
“Just because somebody has degrees or plaques on their wall” doesn’t mean they will be “the most effective leader,” said Doug Krug, a former police officer in Miami-Dade County, Florida.
Savviness to know the difference between leading and managing – and when to switch roles – was also emphasized during the discussion, a point that city leaders said was also brought up in community meetings earlier in the week. The group stressed the importance of incorporating questions during the interview process that test candidates’ knowledge of the distinction.
“Having a title after your name does not make you a leader,” Krug said. “It just makes you somebody with a title after your name.”
Community members also discussed the necessity of respecting one’s constitutional rights as well as building on past successes, including the gender equity program, which Torres called “monumental.”
Since 2015, at least 20 women who work or worked within the Denver Safety Department have spoken up about gender discrimination in the workplace, the Colorado Independent reported. Complaints and lawsuits have ranged from lack of support for female employees to sexual harassment and retaliation.
Torres served on the gender equity commission for the sheriff’s department, which helped weigh in and gather input to establish policies in 2018 for the first time around maternity leave in the department, as well as lactation policies for deputies and inmates.
“There’s still a lot to do, and I want to see [the commission] brought back and put into action,” she said. “I think it would be massively underserved if the next sheriff was not paying attention to gender equity among its ranks and among its inmates.”
Concern also was expressed, namely by Burgess, around the mayor having total authority on appointing the new head of the sheriff’s department.
“I think if [Hancock] is saying, ‘This is going to be a community thing,’ it should be community groups having a say,” she said. “When it’s just one person making that decision — about a top position like this — I think it needs to be more towards the community.”
Burgess said she’s “leery” that the final decision will be made based on Hancock’s own determination, “even though we’re doing all of this.”
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca shares those same concerns and wants to put the decision in the community’s hands, which is why she’s leading the proposal to amend the city charter and allow voters to elect the county’s sheriff – a policy widespread elsewhere throughout the state.
“Right now, we’re getting a new sheriff and we have no idea what’s happening,” CdeBaca said in an October City Council special charter committee meeting. “The community has no role, no input in who’s being selected, how they’re being selected, what the qualifications are, what level of experience or reforms they’ve had, and that’s incredibly problematic.”
But a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office previously told Colorado Politics that CdeBaca’s proposal “will not in any way interfere with that process.”
“The mayor fully intends to appoint a new sheriff as soon as possible following a thorough search for the right candidate for the job,” Hancock spokesman Michael Strott said in an email.
During public comment in the October meeting, Deputy Sheriff and President of Denver Sheriff Lodge 27 Michael Jackson said he and the 700 deputies he represents side with CdeBaca.
“We believe that if the position was elected, you would get the top-notch people,” he said. But once qualified candidates “realize they have no control over the sheriff’s department,” they drop out of the running — a pattern he’s witnessed “pretty much [his] whole career.”
“That’s when you end up with the Firmans," he said. "That’s how you end up with the new appointee person."
Firman has since been replaced in the interim by Fran Gomez, the city’s first female sheriff. She is currently overseeing the city’s two jails: the Denver Detention Center and the Denver County Jail, both of which have been ridden with controversy over the last decade.
Two of those incidents were acknowledged at the end of Thursday’s community input meeting, when a moment of silence was held for Marvin Booker and Michael Marshall, former inmates who were determined by juries to have been wrongfully killed in the custody of sheriff’s deputies. The city was forced to pay $6 million in both cases for the use of excessive force.
Community input will continue to be gathered through community meetings, as well as anonymous ballot boxes in the sheriff’s department and emails. Feedback will be collected and given to the mayor in January, city officials said.
The last scheduled community input meeting will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 18 at the Montbello Recreation Center.
Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds also will host his own meeting the day before, Dec. 17, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Denver Central Library.