Becoming a major city's public safety director after being another major city's police chief is pretty much like leaping from the frying pan into the fire. Troy Riggs has served in both capacities.
The law enforcement veteran was recruited to Denver's Department of Public Safety in 2017 and was named its executive director early last year. He took up the responsibility of overseeing multiple departments including, most notably, the city's 1,500-officer police department as well as its sheriff's department, which runs Denver's jails. Meaning he also took on the periodic debates and occasional controversies that involve those departments and inevitably pop up in the news.
Riggs is thus no stranger to media coverage and is already a familiar figure to many in the city. His take on media coverage is one thing we don't ask him about in this week's Q&A, but we do cover a lot of other ground. Up for discussion: whether law enforcement is still as male-dominated as it once was; whether running a big city's jail ever can go smoothly, and the impact of marijuana legalization on police work.
Colorado Politics: To a lot of Denverites, your department’s relationship with the city’s police and fire departments — the jails, too — may be unclear. Particularly when it comes to the extent of your authority over those entities. The city's “dot-org” version puts it like this: “…DOS provides management, discipline, human resources, administrative support and policy direction for Police, Fire and Sheriff Departments, the 9-1-1 Combined Communications Center, Public Safety Youth Programs, Community Corrections and the Gang Reduction Initiative (GRID)…” Try to nail that down for us: What are some of the basic powers you do — and don’t — have over Denver’s police? And over the city's jail keeper, the sheriff’s office?
Troy Riggs: In July of 2017, I had the opportunity to meet with Mayor Hancock. He had heard about my work making data operational in two different governments and my view that emergency agencies should be more of a team than silo agencies. During our conversation, we spoke about the future of public safety — greater collaboration on numerous issues. A couple of months after our initial meeting, I was asked by the mayor to join the Department of Public Safety and to begin the process of leading the department in a philosophical shift, both administratively and operationally.
As the executive director of public safety, I am tasked with overseeing multiple public safety agencies, including the three sworn agencies, the Denver Police, Denver Fire and Denver Sheriff departments, as well as the four civilian-based agencies, Denver 9-1-1, Community Corrections, Public Safety Youth Programs and the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver (GRID).
This responsibility includes overseeing their operations, ensuring goals and objectives are being met, and fiduciary responsibilities. My office oversees a workforce of over 4,400 employees and a combined budget of nearly $600 million.
As with any large organization, the chiefs, sheriff and directors are responsible for day-to-day operations. Mayor Hancock’s direction to me is to ensure that each agency is effective and efficient in operations, while leading a philosophical shift in the way we operate together to ensure we address quality-of-life issues of the residents and guests we serve.
The philosophical shift is manifesting itself through the development of the Denver Opportunity Index (DOI). Data has been collected on all 141 census tracts within our 100-square-mile community. The data focuses on three pillars — financial security, behavior health (mental health and drug dependency), and those left behind. By understanding what Denver residents face and how quality-of-life issues are different from block to block, public safety professionals can help address the underlying issues that lead to unsafe conditions, ultimately manifesting as crime.
Thanks to the development of the DOI, our first responders have a greater understanding of difficulties facing so many. Data can ultimately be utilized on a daily basis as public safety employees work with nonprofits, faith-based organization and others to ensure that all our citizens have the opportunity to succeed in a safer Denver. More information can be found on our website – www.denvergov.org/opportunityindex
- Denver's director of public safety, since 2018.
- Chief of police, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, January 2016 to December 2016.
- Indianapolis director of public safety, 2012-2015.
- Assistant city manager, city of Corpus Christi, Texas, 2011-2012.
- Chief of police in Corpus Christ, 2009-2011.
- Holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Louisville and an EMBA from Sullivan University in Louisville.
CP: Law enforcement veteran Fran Gomez will take charge shortly as interim Denver sheriff following Sheriff Patrick Firman’s recent announcement he’s stepping down. As noted in media accounts of the transition, Gomez is the first woman to head the department — maybe a pointed reminder of a lawsuit by female deputies who say that they were harassed by male inmates, as well as lawsuit by a female inmate because she had to give birth alone in a jail cell. Even if those incidents can’t fairly characterize the department overall, what do you believe are the unique challenges faced by women in the ranks of Denver law enforcement along with those facing women civilians who are arrested or otherwise engaged by the system? Is law enforcement still to some extent a man’s world, and how do we move beyond that?
Riggs: There is no doubt that agencies like police, fire and sheriff departments have traditionally been male dominated, but as with other traditionally male industries, we are starting to see a shift as more young women choose public safety careers.
All Denver Public Safety departments are working to recruit and retain more women in these traditionally male-dominated roles. For our departments to be successful, each needs diversity of thought, culture, and gender to provide safety for our city. Denver Police is hosting a women’s community academy this fall to give women the opportunity to explore a career in law enforcement. Denver Fire hosts a weeklong camp geared towards young women, allowing them to explore a career as a first responder. The Public Safety cadet program is geared toward young men and women who are interested in public safety and right now, is made up of 21 women and 31 men.
All three of our sworn agencies have women in key leadership roles, including Denver Police Deputy Chief Barb Archer, Denver Fire Division Chief Wendi Moeder, Denver Sheriff Division Chief Connie Coyle and, as of Oct. 14, interim Sheriff Fran Gomez. In addition, Denver 9-1-1’s director is Athena Butler and I have three female deputy directors in my office.
Regarding interim Sheriff Gomez, while it is important to note that she is the first woman to serve in this capacity, she was selected due to her professionalism, vision, and abilities. As the mayor and I discussed the interim position, we never thought about her as being the first woman to serve in this position.
Interim Sheriff Gomez will oversee a department that is now housing more women than at any time in our city’s history. To address the unique needs of this growing inmate population the Denver Sheriff’s Department has invested in a gender equity committee that reviews and addresses the needs of female inmates and staff members.
A renovation is currently underway at the Denver County Jail to build the first women’s jail facility. This space has been designed to ensure a gender-responsive and trauma-informed design for women spending time in jail. The department is also introducing additional inmate programs geared toward women, like a partnership with Work Options for Women, a nonprofit that works with inmates transitioning from jail to train them in the culinary industry. These efforts have one common goal: To empower and prepare young ladies to reenter society as productive citizens.
CP: Is running a jail a thankless task in a city the size of Denver? Will there always be allegations of misconduct and abuse — inmate on inmate; detentions officers on inmates — and accompanying litigation regardless of who runs a lockup or how well it’s run?
Riggs: The simple, truthful answer is yes, our Sheriff Department is tasked daily with an incredibly difficult job that is often thankless. To make working conditions even more challenging, we as citizens have allowed our jails to be used as the main provider of mental health services in the city.
This problem is not unique to Denver. It is similar across other major cities, as well as state and federal institutions and is grossly unfair to those who are incarcerated and our deputies who are tasked with caring for them.
Each night in our Denver jails, approximately 50% of all inmates have some form of mental health issue, and that puts additional strain on our deputies and the medical staff. Almost 75% of assaults on our deputies are from those suffering from a mental health issue.
There have been some difficult, troubling incidents, but Public Safety and the Sheriff Department are committed to moving forward and providing the best care possible for the inmates.
Late last year, Public Safety waived booking and electronic monitoring fees for inmates who are transitioning back into the community. These fees were creating a tremendous financial burden on a population who was already struggling. Approximately 40,000 individuals will benefit from this change in 2019.
The Sheriff Department is also expanding programing to help individuals transition from jail to the community as productive citizens. Their work will result in lives being renewed and possibly saved thanks to the staff’s commitment in ensuring the jail is not just a place for punishment, but a place to begin restoration.
CP: For years now, voices at both ends of the political spectrum have bemoaned what they see as the “militarization” of law enforcement — by which the critics are referring to everything from an us-vs.-them mind-set they say they detect among police, to more formidable weaponry. They attribute the perceived evolution first and foremost to the drug war and the enhanced powers it brings law enforcement. Critics also contend the ever-more-lethal firepower and tech gadgetry on both sides of the law further deepens the divide between the police and the policed.
You are a former big-city police chief — is there any merit to that critique? Does any of it apply to Denver?
Riggs: As with most contentious topics, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, police departments have been equipped with new technologies and equipment due to the increasing Homeland Security threats against our major cities. It is also correct, unfortunately, that this equipment has been used in the past to police and arrest individuals during major drug sweeps that resulted in far too many people being arrested and incarcerated.
To overcome past mistakes and misconceptions, there has to be a strengthening of communications between the police and citizens they serve across this nation. There are times, when due to significant public safety issues, law enforcement must actively engage and police. This, however, should not be done without input from citizens, articulation of why it is necessary, and public inclusion during such law enforcement activity. Policing must be a community approach.
While I cannot speak specifically about past Denver policing, I can assure you that current and future policing in this city begins with understanding the situation our citizens are facing. It is why Mayor Hancock directed the Department of Safety to develop the Denver Opportunity Index and why Chief Paul Pazen was selected to lead the police department into the future.
I hope citizens realize the accomplishment of the Denver Police Department in 2019. Overall arrests are trending significantly lower due to a focus on more serious crimes against individuals. While overall arrests are down, felony arrests are up 9.9% over the previous three-year average. Mental health calls have increased by 16% and DPD has confiscated 1,194 guns this year. In addition, use-of-force complaints are significantly trending down by 17%.
CP: Rate Denver’s law enforcement culture in terms of race relations — both within the ranks and in engaging with the community — compared with other places you have worked. What progress still needs to be made?
Riggs: Denver is doing well compared to most of the places I have worked and those I have studied across the nation.
Is there still work that needs to be accomplished? Absolutely. To address, each agency within Public Safety is focused on ensuring all our citizens have an opportunity to succeed. As previously mentioned, that is a vision of the Denver Opportunity Index, which is part of Mayor Hancock’s overall equity plan.
To ultimately be successful, our city will need to continue community conversations to address systemic and emerging issues. This is our city and we must work together. When citizens are engaged, nonprofit communities focused, faith-based institutions providing services, and the police being willing to listen and work with partners, we will become the safest city in the nation. Public Safety really is everyone’s responsibility.
CP: How has police work changed in Colorado as a result of the legalization of recreational marijuana use and possession? Anything that even a veteran like you may not have anticipated?
Riggs: I am actually surprised I am saying this, but the debate about marijuana is over. It will become legal in more and more states and I expect the federal government to legalize it over the next few years. When this occurs, the business will grow exponentially due to easy access to banking and new markets. As a law enforcement professional, I must mention my belief that society cannot legalize marijuana without consequences. It will take a few years to review data, but I am concerned about traffic fatalities and potential addiction that will occur as the business expands.
As a law enforcement professional, I did not realize how fast and expansive this legalization would become. In response, law enforcement must be focused on the new challenges of dealing with those under the influence of marijuana. With the alterations in THC levels and the expansion into food and beverage markets, there are many more questions than answers at this time.
With future legalization, how do we in public safety deal with potential employee use of a legal substance (marijuana)? I never anticipated discussing this during my career and this will be something departments will need to address through policy and most likely litigation in the near future.
CP: Law enforcement never has been an easy job and, some would say, has never been harder. What inspired you to embark on a career in public safety in the first place?
Riggs: Growing up, I never really thought about a career in law enforcement. In fact, I lived in an area that had negative opinions of law enforcement. As I was preparing to graduate from college, I saw an advertisement for police officer. Due to my family’s love of their country and my Christian faith, I thought serving as an officer was a natural career path.
As with any career, there have been ups and downs. Those in public safety will see the best and worst of human nature. I have seen and witnessed some incidents I will never discuss, would rather not remember, but it has been the most rewarding career I could have chosen. I have been greatly blessed through serving others.
I just celebrated 30 years of public service — 24 of those years in uniform. As I enter the twilight of my career, I can assure you that the job is more difficult than ever. Denver residents should rest well knowing that today’s diverse, committed, and compassionate workforce is ready for the challenges of the future.