Since October 2019, the Denver Sheriff Department has been operating without a permanent sheriff leading it.
Within a month, however, that should change, as city officials anticipate Mayor Michael Hancock choosing a new sheriff by the end of May or beginning of June.
"The Denver Sheriff search process was temporarily paused due to the city’s response to the COVID pandemic, but is now moving forward again," says Kelli Christensen, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, the city agency that houses the sheriff department. "The Sheriff Search Committee will review the applicant pool this week and conduct interviews next week. Committee members will develop interview questions and ranking criteria based on input received from the community, staff and inmates during the outreach portion of the search."
The Hancock administration formed the Sheriff Search Committee to help with the search process a few months ago; it includes a few individuals who have been critical of the city's criminal justice system.
"Hats off to Hancock for putting together some stakeholders into this discussion who have historically been aggressively against him and opposing some of the things he’s done," says Qusair Mohamedbhai, a local civil-rights attorney who has sued the city for alleged law enforcement misconduct.
"For him to want to hear those voices as part of the process to hopefully find our next sheriff, I respect that. It takes some courage of Mayor Hancock to do that."
After interviewing candidates, the Sheriff Search Committee, which is chaired by Murphy Robinson, the interim executive director of the Department of Public Safety, will submit a list of contenders to Hancock for a final decision. In January, Robinson took over for Troy Riggs, who resigned the Safety post to take a position in the private sector. The city has also been without a permanent fire chief since Eric Tade resigned from that post in February, following a firefighters' gala that featured sexual innuendos.
The most recent permanent sheriff, Patrick Firman, came to Denver in 2015 from Illinois, where he had a background in corrections. But as soon as his hiring was announced, the main union representing deputy sheriffs in Denver complained that Firman was not the right choice, and the union continued to register concerns about Firman throughout his tenure.
And while Firman was charged with reforming a department that had been through a series of reputation-damaging and ultimately costly use-of-force incidents at city jails, lawsuits against the department for jail mishaps continued to pile up under his watch.
Firman announced his resignation as sheriff in fall 2019, and the mayor quietly placed him in another city role that also had a six-figure salary.
"There needs to be substantial change. Until we get past this idea of, 'We’re jailing hardened criminals and we’re looking for a jailer and a law enforcement extension,' we’re going to fail, and Denver’s going to continue to pay out big lawsuits, and crime is going to continue to increase," says Mohamedbhai, who wants a sheriff who sees the city's jails as a "place of healing."
At least one of the candidates to become Denver's next permanent sheriff is a known entity: Fran Gomez, a career law enforcement officer who is currently serving as the interim sheriff, has applied for the position.
The fact that Gomez was an internal hire could help her application, Mohamedbhai believes. "Historically, we have seen that hiring outside has not worked. It takes too long for the rank-and-file to buy in," he notes. "It makes them ineffective at handling some of their personnel matters because they don’t have the buy-in of unions and existing command staff and rank-and-file officers."
The next sheriff could be the last one that a Denver mayor gets to appoint without council approval.
In late 2019, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and her chief of staff, Lisa Calderón, both frequent critics of Hancock, began pushing for a ballot initiative that would turn the mayor-appointed sheriff position into an elected one.
When she failed to get significant support from other councilmembers, CdeBaca joined forces with Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer to push a ballot initiative that would require council approval for mayoral appointees, including the sheriff position. CdeBaca and Sawyer are continuing to moving forward with that proposal, with the goal of getting it referred to the November 2020 ballot.
Denver is one of only two counties in Colorado that doesn't elect its sheriff. While sheriff's deputies in other jurisdictions often patrol unincorporated parts of their counties, deputy sheriffs in Denver are largely responsible for managing the city's jails and providing security in courtrooms.
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