The unusual late-night announcement that Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman will be stepping down effective October 14, after almost exactly four years on the job, begs the creation of a new adage: Live by the PR disaster, die by the PR disaster.
When Firman was introduced as the new sheriff at an October 15, 2015, press event, he clearly understood that a big part of his job was to stabilize the Denver Sheriff Department after what we described at the time as "numerous ugly incidents in recent years, many of them dealing with accusations of excessive force or alleged lawbreaking by personnel."
Examples were plentiful. In July 2014, Sheriff Gary Wilson resigned from the job following a slew of embarrassing events: the release of a video showing a deputy slamming a handcuffed inmate into a courthouse wall; the bust of a different deputy for helping a prisoner to escape; the indictment of Michael Than, then the second-highest-ranking member of the DSD, for, among other things, allegedly stealing Turbo Tax software from Target stores and selling it on eBay; a lawsuit filed by Jamal Hunter after fellow inmates scalded his genitals, which eventually cost the city $3.25 million; and the surfacing of a jailhouse clip showing a third deputy laying out a non-violent inmate with one punch.
Then, to make matters worse, news broke that the man appointed to sit at Wilson's desk on an interim basis, Elias Diggins, had a criminal record: After a 1996 car crash, he'd lied to a judge about having insurance and subsequently pleaded guilty to making a false report, a misdemeanor. And in December 2014, Denver City Council agreed to pay $6 million to the family of Marvin Booker, who died a thoroughly unnecessary death in the main city jail circa 2010.
Reform was Firman's charge, and in June 2016, he was at the helm when the City of Denver announced a new use-of-force policy intended to prevent abuses. But despite the document, negative publicity of the sort that had plagued Firman's predecessors never truly vanished, as witnessed by the long-running dispute over Michael Marshall, who perished in a Denver detention facility during a 2015 mental health crisis captured in surveillance footage. No deputies were criminally charged in the matter, but last year, the Office of the Independent Monitor took the DSD to task in a scorching report that added another humiliation to the pile.
Diana Sanchez, who gave birth unassisted in a Denver jail, made national headlines as a result of yet another video. And on September 9, Denver City Council had to pony up yet again, this time to the tune of $1.55 million, to settle a complaint from fifteen female deputies who depicted the jail where they worked as a sexual-harassment house of horrors.
No wonder rumors of Firman's impending departure have been circulating over the past few weeks. But when the end finally came, the city did its best to bury the news, issuing a press release after 9 p.m. on the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11.
The announcement included the following quote from Mayor Michael Hancock, who tried to put the best face possible on the tenure of a man he appointed. "For the past four years, Sheriff Firman has taken on the challenge of driving and implementing one of the most complex and critical reform efforts any of our safety departments has ever attempted. Undertaking a cultural shift of this magnitude is never easy, but the Sheriff never wavered in his commitment to implementing these needed reforms."
Hancock added, in an unexpected, if grammatically suspect, acknowledgment of the blow-back, that "Sheriff Firman has weathered criticism, fair and unfair, over his tenure at the department, but he remained dedicated his personal commitment to corrections reform, equity, ethical leadership and a passion for serving the people of Denver. He is a loyal and dedicated public servant, and a compassionate and humane man working in an environment where both qualities are sorely needed."
Firman's own remarks in the release struck a similar chord: "When I came here four years ago, it was to take action on over 400 reform recommendations that touched nearly every aspect of the Denver Sheriff Department. With the help of our partners and the tireless efforts of staff, we were successful in implementing those changes. It has been an honor to serve with these amazing men and women. I wish them the best as they continue to move forward."
The next Denver sheriff will have to do so under circumstances very much like those Firman encountered nearly four years ago.