Denver’s Sheriff Patrick Firman participates in the Denver Sheriff Department Fallen Officer Memorial ceremony on Monday, May 16, 2016 in front of
Denver's Sheriff Patrick Firman participates in the Denver Sheriff Department Fallen Officer Memorial ceremony on Monday, May 16, 2016 in front of the Denver County Jail. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

A new sheriff.

A restructured command staff.

Schedule changes at the county jail.

Eighty new deputies.

These are things that can be checked off the to-do list for reforming the Denver Sheriff Department.

But a key piece is missing.

After 12 months and 10 drafts, a new use-of-force policy remains in the works.

While experts say it is not an unreasonable pace for such an extensive and important document, they said the more difficult work on use of force is yet to come. Deputies must be trained on it, and they must embrace it.

As the process drags on, the department is at risk of more cases that jeopardize inmates' lives and put the city at risk for lawsuits. Already, one inmate, Michael Marshall, has died at the hands of deputies as the reform takes place.

The Denver County Jail at 0500 E Smith Road in Denver, Colorado on March 16, 2016.
The Denver County Jail at 0500 E Smith Road in Denver, Colorado on March 16, 2016. (Katie Wood, The Denver Post)

"If it takes a year to get policies in place, it's going to take much longer beyond that to see change," said Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and a member of the use-of-force and internal affairs action team. "The community gets antsy when things take too long, and if there are more incidents like Michael Marshall, it becomes too problematic."

The new policy should become official within weeks. Sheriff Patrick Firman is not sure when deputies will be held accountable for it because the more than 900 deputies will have to spend 10 hours in training first. That will take time.

"We're not waiting for the policy to be written to start changing," he said. "We're already talking to them about de-escalation."


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One year ago, two independent consulting firms handed city officials a 300-page report that found problems within the Denver Sheriff Department so deep that the safety of deputies and inmates was at risk.

The report gave 277 recommendations for change that involved thousands of steps. And many problems were so intertwined it has been challenging to figure out what to do first.

"We have to consider incremental progress as progress," said Stephanie O'Malley, executive director of the Denver Department of Safety and the reform leader.

Some progress has been made, including Firman's hiring and his selection of a new command staff.

The department is on the verge of rolling out a new system for promoting sergeants and captains after the consultants said a good ol' boy system was in effect. The tests will be conducted by the outside company, Ergometrics, and the tests should better identify leadership qualities among candidates, Firman said.

Pretty soon, dogs will be patrolling the jails, searching for contraband such as drugs and cellphones. Not only will they sniff through inmate areas, but they also will nose around deputies after consultants found pornography, food, drugs and other contraband during their assessment, Firman said. Deputies previously have not been screened when they come to work, and that was a problem, the consultants' report said.

Still, the department has a long way to go, especially when it comes to changing the culture from the inside.

Denver Sheriff Department Deputy Thomas Ford was fired for punching an inmate, who had been insulting the deputy while being booked at the jail. The
Denver Sheriff Department Deputy Thomas Ford was fired for punching an inmate, who had been insulting the deputy while being booked at the jail. The incident was captured on video. (Denver Department of Safety)

"It didn't grow overnight, and it's not going to be solved overnight," said Mayor Michael Hancock. "I believe we are moving in the right direction."

Metering mentality

Time and time again, leaders involved in the reform said the new use-of-force policy will support the goal of changing the mentality among the sheriff's staff.

It has been described as instilling a "guardian" culture rather than a "warrior" image. When discussing the change, officials use words such as "de-escalation" and "verbal judo."

"It stresses trying to avoid the use of force where possible," said Al LaCabe, a former Denver safety manager who is co-chairman of the use-of-force team. "It's where law enforcement should be in this day and age. There's a lot of push-back on these principles, but we have very much embraced those principles."

The team responsible for writing the new use-of-force policy includes 44 people from sheriff's deputies to Denver pastors to criminal defense attorneys, community advocates and the independent monitor.

The team has met almost weekly for nearly a year, and it took a trip to Los Angeles to see how that county sheriff's department manages its jails. Los Angeles is working under U.S. Department of Justice oversight, so its management is seen as progressive.

The team has written at least 10 drafts, with each version being sent to the executive committee overseeing the reform and to the OIR Group, which analyzed the department's use-of-force policy and internal affairs unit. Revisions are suggested, rewrites are made and reviews are repeated.

The inclusiveness, the research and the revisions have made for a better policy, Maes said.

On Monday night, the team met for five hours to hash out minor details in the policy. It is undergoing one more review.

Already, the team has presented the new policy to select deputies and made changes based on their responses to it. A second group of deputies will get a test presentation on May 31, Firman said.

The training will be critical, LaCabe said, because deputies will need to think about their tactics in order to follow the new policy. And it will take time for them to change their thinking.

Still, he is not concerned about the pace.

"You have to make sure you're doing things in a way that are not going to overwhelm the deputies and the deputies shut down because it's too much at one time," LaCabe said.

Before the consultants' report was released, the city had warnings that the sheriff's department was in trouble following reports from the independent monitor, the city auditor and various internal committees and task forces. But the delivery of the report by Hillard Heintze of Chicago and OIR Group of Los Angeles meant the city had no more excuses when it came to making changes.

After the report, the city dedicated millions in its 2016 budget for sheriff's reform. The budget included more than $4 million for a new computerized jail management system, and $6.8 million to recruit, train and equip nearly 200 new deputies.

For City Councilman Paul Lopez, who is on the reform implementation team and the council's safety and well-being committee, the two most important steps are getting the staff levels where they need to be and putting the use-of-force policy in place.

The jails have been short-staffed for years, forcing deputies to work overtime and causing sergeants to spend more time trying to fill gaps in schedules than supervising their deputies. Plus, the overtime cost millions each year that wasn't in the budget.

"These are folks who spend every day behind bars, and it wears down people," Lopez said. "I absolutely believe staffing levels have a direct impact on performance on duty."

The consultants reported that sheriff's department leaders didn't know exactly how many full-time positions they had or needed.

The department has worked with the city budget office to develop a formula for how many deputies it needs to fill each post for 24 hours, seven days a week. The formula considers vacation, sick leave and training time, O'Malley said.

Now that staffing is getting corrected, it's time to put the use-of-force policy in place, Lopez said.

"We're asking folks to do the job and do it the right way, but we're going to have to have the people power to get it done," he said.

He expects the new policy to focus on discipline within the ranks and to provide the training necessary to instill it.

The use-of-force policy is of special interest because multiple, high-profile cases of in-custody death and injury captured the public's attention and cost the city millions in legal settlements. All of that led to a demand for reform.

In the summer of 2014 alone, the city paid out more than $9 million to settle two cases. Jamal Hunter was given a $3.25 million settlement after he was choked by a deputy and suffered burns at the hands of other inmates. And the family of former inmate Marvin Booker received $6 million after a federal jury found the department responsible for his death. He died after being restrained by multiple deputies and shocked with a Taser.

In the year since the report was released, Marshall, who suffered from schizophrenia, died while being restrained by deputies during the throes of a psychotic episode. His death led to community protests and questions about whether reform is working.

Under the new policy, deputies will be allowed to use force, but it will be extremely clear it is not their first option, O'Malley said. The new policy will give specific instances for when force is appropriate and what level should be used.

This year, the department also will send every deputy to a 40-hour crisis intervention training program.

"We want to change from 'what can I do' to 'what should I do,' " Firman said.

Policy, protocol, practice

Michael Gennaco, president of the OIR Group, said the back-and-forth has been time-consuming but worth the effort for Denver.

"Obviously, the first thing, and the easiest thing, is to get the policy and protocols right," Gennaco said. "It requires a lot of work, but that's nothing compared to the next two steps."

Those steps are training deputies and making sure they follow it.

A solid use-of-force policy is intertwined with internal affairs. Sergeants and captains must know the policy, ask the right questions when a deputy strikes, shocks or restrains an inmate, and write detailed reports.

In the past, that did not always happen, according to multiple reports and investigations into the department.

It also will be impossible to improve without strong leadership to make sure protocols are followed and without modern technology to track incidents and the deputies involved.

Meanwhile, the public is watching.

"It's important for the public to continue to ask questions about how we're doing and how long it's going to take," Gennaco said.

And, if the department thinks its work is done when a new policy is written, its leaders will be wrong, Gennaco said. Best practices always evolve, and it's important for Denver to stay on top of trends and community expectations.

"These things are never really fixed," he said.

Noelle Phillips: 303-954-1661, nphillips@denverpost.com or @Noelle_Phillips

Measuring progress

Consultants reported 14 major findings in their 2015 reform report on the Denver Sheriff Department. Here is what those findings are and what has been done to address them.

1. Reform needed across DSD operations1. Reform needed across DSD operations

Five teams were created to study and suggest changes. They have met regularly for the past year. All changes are reviewed by an executive team before being put in place.

2. There are a few areas of strength

Consultants praised the commitment to change and the openness about the problems as well as progressive programs.

3. Address the leadership deficit

Sheriff Patrick Firman was appointed in October. He has named new division chiefs.

4. Rewrite the strategic plan

The plan is simple — focus on people and relationships with them.

5. Improve organizational alignment

The sheriff has appointed one person to oversee both jails with majors in charge of each facility. Created inmate management division.

6. Change use of force training and culture

The entire use of force policy is being rewritten and should be finalized soon. Training will follow but has not been detailed.

7. Improve internal affairs

Boosted staffing, including senior investigators. Required more training for the staff.

8. Reform jail management and operational practices

Updating policies and processes on things such as inmate classification, strip searches and items deputies are allowed to bring to work. Improving rounds checking system.

9. Change staffing

Put all deputies at both jails on 10-hour shifts. Approved money to hire 200 new deputies in 2016.

10. Improve deputy training

All deputies will attend a 40-hour crisis intervention training course.

11. Human resources issues abound

Rewrote promotions and transfers rules. Hired an independent company to test for promotions. Changed evaluation process. Hiring a wellness coordinator. Spent $400,000 to hire five new HR professionals.

12. Technology deficits are significant

Approved a $4.3 million budget to buy a new jail management system. Contracting process is underway. Appointed a chief over data and analytics to track trends.

13. Emergency preparedness needs attention

Hiring security director. Conducting regular fire and medical drills.

14. Strengthen community engagement

An emphasis has been placed on the sheriff and deputies attending community events.