The Race for Denver District Attorney: Meet Helen Morgan

Denver is about to get a new district attorney.

With Mitch Morrissey, who was elected in 2004, stepping down as a result of term limits, voters in November will have a chance to choose between Beth McCann, who won the Democratic primary in June, and Helen Morgan, running as an independent.

We conducted interviews with both McCann and Morgan to get their takes on a wide range of issues in the criminal-justice system and preview their approach to the DA position in advance of a Colorado Independent-sponsored debate scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, September 14, at Denver Open Media, 700 Kalamath Street. Yesterday, we published "The Race for Denver District Attorney: Meet Beth McCann." Today, it's Morgan's turn.

Morgan stresses that she's a prosecutor, not a politician. She's spent more than two decades with the district attorney's office (the last dozen under Morrissey's leadership) and is currently chief deputy district attorney for Denver County Court. Her candidacy has been endorsed by the Denver Police Protective Association.

Note that we asked McCann and Morgan the same general questions but allowed for occasional tangents. Click for more information about Wednesday's debate.

Westword: Why did you decide to run for district attorney?

Helen Morgan: Because Denver deserves, in this time of criminal-justice reform, someone with my experience, vision and leadership.

What do you see as your most important qualifications?

I've been at the DA's office for 22 years. I started on February 22 of 1994. And as I've progressed through the DA's office, it's been fascinating to watch how we've started to look at what we do differently. Certainly in the aspects of drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. So we have responded to a national movement — it started with Bill Ritter in the late '90s — to say, "Drug addiction is a health issue, it should not be a criminal issue, and we should give people the treatment they deserve, the tools they deserve, to help them be productive citizens." Because jailing a drug addict is just expensive and nothing else.

I have had the opportunity to respond to those challenges. For example, in 2007, I helped reestablish and reconfigure Denver's drug court. So I know how to effectuate change. As you know, working in government can sometimes make glaciers look speedy. You have the police department and you have the defense bar and you have the courts and you have probation. You have all these players, all of whom have a stake in the outcome, all of whom have limited resources, all of whom have the same goal but come at it from a different angle. And so to actually get something done takes much more than saying, "I would like to start a drug court," for example.

I came into the planning process of drug court in the fall of 2006, when the group had been going for about a year. We got money from the Denver Crime Prevention and Control Commission. When [then-Denver mayor John] Hickenlooper was asking for bond money for the jail, he committed to money for jail-diversion programs. He said, "I want to give a bunch of money and I want to form this commission," which was a fabulous idea, "and I want you to look at how to keep people out of jail." One of the things I said is, "We need to reestablish drug court.... Okay, what's our protocol? How are we selecting people? Where's our memorandum of understanding?" And there was a two-page document that sort of sketched out an idea of what we were going to do — and that was it.

We had a lot of work to do. Now, because I had been in drug court in the late '90s and seen some of the mistakes we'd made, as well as some of the things we did well, and because I knew everybody at the table, I was able to say, "Okay, let's look differently at how we do intake," because we don't want every offender in our system — because sometimes drug offenders also have guns and kilos of cocaine. Those are not the kind of people who are going to get a community sentence, and if they do, they're not going to get a community sentence within a drug court sentence. They're just not appropriate. So I said, "Let's take all those people out." And everybody was like, "Okay, that sounds good." Now, at the time, Charley Garcia, who went on to become Manager of Safety, he was part of the discussion group. He and I talked about eligibility criteria and about whether we should accept everybody who would already be eligible for community corrections, since that was a standard we already had. And everybody said, "Okay, that makes sense. Let's get that done." And it's those kinds of processes that are intricate and difficult and sometimes painful for agencies, since it means rethinking the way we've done things and admitting that the way we've done things isn't working.

Having done it, that makes me qualified in moving forward and changing things again — like in the way we handle, for example, allegations of police misconduct, or to further expand our problem-solving courts. Every time you have a problem-solving court, you have to commit resources from every agency that works within the criminal-justice system. And people won't just commit resources because you want it to happen. You've got to have a proven track record of being able to make it happen, and you've got to do it for the right reasons — having validated needs and being able to assess, using best practices, whether or not what you're doing works.

What do you see as the biggest difference or differences between you and your opponent?

Beth left the DA's office and has not prosecuted a criminal case since 1983. That's the key difference. I've handled over 9,000 cases. I've committed my career to being someone who's served my community from within the DA's office. That's what I have done, and I've done it well for 22 years. She hasn't done anything, in this direct arena, for over thirty. And the DA's office is different. It's not a political position, or it shouldn't be a political position. That does not mean to say I don't like Beth McCann, because I do, and it doesn't mean to say that Beth McCann hasn't served the public, because she has. She's just done it in a different arena. She will talk about passing gun legislation, for example — which some people look at very favorably. In the DA's office, we're not in the politics of gun legislation. What we look at is risk and need and where people need to be held accountable when firearms are involved, who needs firearms taken from them, and using what mechanism can we take them.

Beth has pointed to a bill that she passed as it relates to domestic-violence offenders having firearms relinquished from them. Well, right now, unfortunately, because of the way the bill was written — it was not artfully crafted, because it was written by people who don't deal in our system — we are unable to use it to the fullest extent because of some constitutional issues. You can do things with good intentions.... One example I use is when someone needs surgery. Who do you want? A surgeon or a hospital administrator? You want a surgeon, because you want somebody who knows what happens on a daily basis, because it's the only way you can make things better. So our biggest difference is our experience, and where we have gained our experience.

What will be your priorities as DA?

I talk about three different areas, and the first one is community engagement and involvement. As a prosecutor in the late '90s, I was a community prosecutor, which meant that I was in Globeville initially, and then I was in Capitol Hill. I would talk to people, answering questions about cases that were occurring in their jurisdiction. I'm also a Spanish speaker, which was particularly important in Globeville, where I could talk to victims groups and other groups. And because we serve the community, until we're back in that community, we're not doing our jobs. So that's number one: community engagement and involvement — and listening to people.

That plays into the second priority, which is transparency. You don't have to be a news reporter to know that people don't trust my office. Significant segments of Denver's population and nationwide don't trust what DAs are doing. And that's terrible, because I'm here to tell you, we do phenomenal work on a daily basis. I see it, but some people's opinions of our office are clouded by decisions that we make that they don't understand. So one of the things I'm going to do immediately is establish a protocol for all police allegations of misconduct where serious bodily injury is sustained by a person with whom a police officer had an interaction. And in those cases where we decide not to file, we'll issue a letter or opinion as to why we're not filing. That will be accessible to anyone who wants to see it. And I'll also do letters or opinions at the request of people who feel they were mistreated by police officers. We will issue a report at the end of every year not dissimilar from the Independent Monitor's report that will talk about how many cases we've refused, not only as it relates to police officers, but also general filings. Like, how many felony cases did we look at? What kinds of felony cases? How many of them did we decline? How many do we accept? Broad ranges of why we may have accepted or why we may have declined something. And as it relates to fatal police shootings and in-custody deaths, I will establish an independent-review process that will be concurrent with our review process, from people outside the jurisdiction who are experts and who will be looking at the same information I have. Because people deserve to know that people who don't have that intimate relationship with the police department and the sheriff's department, because they don't necessarily work with them the way we do, are looking at the same information we are. And prior to making a final decision, because it needs to be mine, I'll consult with that independent group, and depending on what it looks like, they may be also able to issue reports, especially if they disagree with my decision.

That plays into that community piece, too, because we'll be telling people not only after something has happened but before something has happened, "This is what we do and these are our responsibilities." It's funny: I was talking to the Independent Monitor the other day, and a lot of people who are well informed don't really understand what my job is, the same way they get mad at him because they don't understand what his job is. If we don't prosecute somebody, it doesn't matter what he does, he has no influence on a filing decision, and I have no influence ultimately over whether or not somebody is disciplined. My decision should be the decision of whether someone should be criminally prosecuted. And certainly I can say, "This may not be pursuant to practice," but I have to decide whether we should prosecute. So we need that transparency piece.

And finally, it's about public safety — public safety in 2016. And that means looking at every offender and saying what can be done so this person does not re-offend while listening to victims and treating them with respect and dignity. Now, that sounds very nice, but what does it really mean? It means assessing whether someone needs to come into the criminal-justice system in the first place. That means looking at if there should be diversion at the time of the arrest — making a decision not to arrest. It means diversion programs; we have one for juveniles, but we should also have one for adults, so there's no arrest on the record, and if someone successfully does what they're asked to do, there's no indication they were ever involved. And then it means if someone is within the system, accurately using validated assessment tools, looking at what we need to do with an individual offender to insure success. And for some people in the high-risk category, and I think specifically with domestic violence offenders or sexual offenders — in some cases, that's going to mean incarceration, because that's what we need to do to keep our community safe. But public safety doesn't mean locking everybody up; it cannot be. And that doesn't make everybody safe — we know that. But it does mean an individualized approach with each person — working with probation, working with defense counsel, working with broader community agencies such as the Mental Health Corporation of Denver or the Colorado Coalition of the Homeless and folks like that, to make sure people get the treatment they need.

What's your take on how the DA's office has operated under Mitch Morrissey? What are some of the good things that took place under his tenure, and what are some things you see as less positive?

On a personal level with Mitch, what I have really appreciated is that number one, he has my back. Number two, he understands the difficult decision-making process we all have to go through for each and every case. I've talked with him about more murder cases than I've talked to anybody else, and he gets it — and I really appreciate that. And number three is, he himself is a prosecutor — and he's a phenomenal prosecutor. So that, personally, has been great. On a broader, professional field, when Mitch Morrissey took over as district attorney, we didn't have the crime lab we have now, and we didn't have the Rose Andom Center. And it is due in large part to his work that those two institutions are here and will benefit families literally for generations to come. Those are two accomplishments that I don't think anybody else who's been DA can claim — two such significant achievements. The Rose Andom Center really is fabulous. It's a family justice center, a one-stop shop for victims of domestic violence and it means that both community agencies and law enforcement are working together to provide support for people who are victims. It's wonderful. It's a fabulous place, and Mitch's wife Maggie has been very supportive, as has the mayor and of course, Rose Andom herself. She owns McDonald's franchises out by DIA, among other things, and she was able to get such significant seed money that it became real.

As far as what I would do differently from Mitch, I think by nature I'm a bridge builder. Mitch is never afraid to challenge somebody who disagrees with him, and that in some instances is very admirable. I think in other instances, you end up getting into public disagreements with people who you could probably reach some consensus with when you're in a non-public arena that might benefit people. I think, for example, what happened with the police chief. There's the impression out there that the district attorney and the police chief don't get along. And there are people who feel very strongly about both characters. I know, because I talk to those people. The reality is, these are both people who are very passionate about what they do, who want to support the work of their agencies, and it's unfortunate that we got into the public arena, where people make the observation that these two agencies don't get along. You can disagree, but you don't have to fight in public.

The other thing, too, is that Mitch has not chosen to evaluate at the managerial level in a systematic way. And I understand that's a management style he prefers to use. I prefer to do systematic evaluations on a yearly basis that are 360 degrees for everyone at the management level. Why do I prefer to do that? When you are running a large organization, you may have a sense of how people are doing, but until people are given a voice to confirm or question your observations, I don't think people feel heard, and perhaps changes need to be made. So, for example, I'm currently chief of Denver County Court. I have thirteen lawyers, thirteen deputies, who work for me. Before I really got into campaigning significantly, I did reviews of all of them. I asked every person they interacted with to give me feedback. For the most part, it confirmed that I have a phenomenal group of deputies. But I also recognize that for some of them, there were certain areas where, because we could identify them and talk about them, they're going to get better in — and otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to have that conversation. That's something I'll do differently. 

Mitch Morrissey has been criticized for his reluctance to charge law enforcers in officer-involved shootings or excessive-force incidents. Do you think that criticism is fair?

No. Because I don't think Mitch is reluctant. Your choice of words is interesting. I don't think Mitch is reluctant. But Mitch has a standard that a DA must have, which is unless you know you can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, you cannot charge someone. I hear some people say, "Let a jury decide." That's not our job. We have to take the job as gatekeeper to the criminal-justice system as seriously for police officers as we must do for citizens who are not police officers. For example, on a daily basis, we decline cases, and I often give the following example: You get something stolen from your house. It's a beautiful, distinctive object. Two days later, person X pawns that item at a local pawn shop. The victim will say, "You know person X stole it from my house. How else would they have gotten hold of that item?" And our response is, "They probably did. But I don't have that evidence. I can't prove it." So what is my responsibility is to charge a pawn-broker violation and not burglary. Not to charge somebody and then say, "Let's see what a jury says." Because that means charging somebody. It means forcing them to get representation. It means engaging in an already overburdened criminal-justice system, all to get to a place where you have no reasonable belief that six or twelve people, depending on the charge, are going to convict.

I'll also say Mitch Morrissey has charged police officers in non-fatal incidents, and the two he had during his tenure were found not guilty by a jury. And I think most people agreed that they were strong cases.... When you have an encounter between a police officer and somebody and there's nobody else there, well, when listening to an officer's account of what happened, that's the information the jury's going to have. And the jury's decision has to be beyond a reasonable doubt, depending on the charge, because police officers have the authority to use fatal force.

Now, body cameras will change our sources of information by what they are. Does that mean the decisions going forward are going to change? I don't know. But it will certainly be advantageous to the DA's office in having that information, because we're fact finders. For example, if you and I are sitting down having coffee, and I throw coffee on you, and you go and report to the Denver Police Department, "She threw coffee on me," and they come and interview me, and I say, "Yeah, that's because he insulted my mother, or he said, 'I'm going to punch you right now,' and that's why I did it," well, our job is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that one side's story is correct, as opposed to another. With body cameras, you have so much more than just those two perspectives. You've got this font of information. Now, are they always going to be 100 percent reliable? No. If an officer says, "He pulled a gun" and on the body camera, you can't tell, then you'll have to figure out where it falls factually. Does it support the officer? Does it diminish the officer's credibility? That's something we'll have to do, because that's something we do every day anyway. But it will help. It's the same with surveillance videos. It helps to make a determination of what somebody did.

We continue to hear about disproportionate punishment when it comes to suspects of color. What are your thoughts on that issue and how would your office address it?

Before you talk about punishment, you have to talk about who gets into our system. And that's where the problem starts. Because it is a disproportionate number of people of color who come into the criminal-justice system. That is for a multitude of reasons, and I don't know that there's a consensus about why it's happening. But those are the facts, and we've got to deal with the facts. So the first thing you have to do is do exactly what I've been talking about: You have to look at each and every offender individually, and you have to say, "How can we make this person succeed and not re-offend?" I say that because of my experience in drug court in the late '90s. We had a lot of young men of color in drug court, and this is really when, for the first time, we were giving people probationary sentences and deferred judgments in a systematic way for people who were using crack cocaine, for example. So we'd say, "If you do what you're supposed to do, you won't have a felony record." But then what happened is, we didn't necessarily identify the needs of these particular young men. We didn't provide the probationary services. So they didn't do what they were asked to do and they'd get revoked on their deferred judgment, they'd get a felony conviction, and then they would end up either in the Department of Corrections or in some kind of incarceration. And that was a direct result of us not understanding what they needed to succeed. So it has to be validated with assessment. I'm very interested to see how the Denver Police Department's tracking of information, especially as it relates to racial information, may provide us with an opportunity to track more from the DA's office. Right now, we get our information about filing directly from the police department, and we have an electronic system. That's how cases are filed. So I think that may provide us with an opportunity to work with one of the institutes that allow an analysis of what happens. But the number one thing we need to do is treat people like individuals and recognize what we can do, and what our role and responsibilities should be.

I talk to people about felonizing someone. If you felonize somebody, no matter who they are, but especially if it's someone of color, you're impacting ability to get education, ability to get housing, ability to get student loans, employment. And what we know is if an offender has education and employment and housing, right there you're setting somebody up for success. And if you're depriving them of that opportunity by insisting that they get prosecuted for a felony, it's counter-intuitive — and we've done it for too long.

There are also a growing number of people in the justice system who are mentally ill. What can you do in the district attorney's office to address that situation?

I think those numbers have always been there. It's just that they're getting identified. So I don't think it's a growing number; I think they've always been consistent. But the criminal-justice system, unfortunately, is the end of a social environment that does not care for the people who most need to be cared for. We don't support people in crisis as we should, and then they come into the criminal-justice system. Within the criminal-justice system and a problem-solving model such as drug court, we have a mental health track. We specifically address the issues of mental health within the drug court setting. So a mental health court, both at the felony level, where we deal with over 7,000 cases a year, and at the county court level, where we deal with over 12,000 cases a year, is clearly an attractive option. But we must be realistic. To create a specialized court, we have to have the participation of probation, community, organizations such as the Mental Health Corporation of Denver and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, treatment agencies, public defenders office and also the personnel. So one of the first things I will do in addressing generally the issues of addiction and mental illness is to do a thorough review to see how we're doing with our known problem-solving courts and then go from there to create a model that best suits the situation.

And also, I'm very interested in the issue of police response to mental health crises. When you call 911, you have three options: police, the hospital and fire. And in the case of mental illness, you may need help with someone in crisis, but you don't need a criminal response. There are a variety of models throughout the country that look at a social-agency response as opposed to a police response, with police backup as necessary, to not escalate situations. And if we can stop people being involved in the criminal-justice system in the first place, we're all better off. We only need to take people who have committed crimes or when justice deserves it, and that's not everybody.

Do you feel that Denver and Colorado's marijuana laws complicate the work of the DA's office? And if so, how?

My job as DA isn't to make the law. It's to enforce the law, and it is the law. The thing that's most frustrating to me is that the marijuana industry isn't allowed to bank. Because that creates huge piles of cash within legitimate business industries, and it's like bees to honey. Why wouldn't you go into a marijuana dispensary with a gun and a mask and try and get that money? So that's the frustration. The marijuana law that's most frustrating, then, is that they're not allowed to bank.

What kinds of things do voters tell you they most want from Denver's district attorney?

We've knocked on over 5,000 doors; I am now on my third pair of sandals. And it runs the gamut. Last Sunday, I talked for over twenty minutes with a woman who was very concerned about the lack of sex assault prosecutions, and then I spoke to a woman who was concerned about the over-representation of minorities in the juvenile justice system, and then to somebody who said, "Everybody in the Democratic primary was concerned about getting people out of jail. I'm worried about keeping the most dangerous people in jail."

What I think everything boils down to is treating everybody in a system with dignity and respect, understanding limited resources and only incarcerating people who are a danger to others or to themselves — coming away from a traditional system of thinking that if we don't know what to do with someone, then a jail sentence is the answer. I think if you knocked on everybody's door and said, "This is the direction we're moving in: community engagement," people would agree.