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Denver sheriff not properly investigating serious inmate complaints, report says

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As noted in its just-released semi-annual report (read the document below), Denver's Office of the Independent Monitor is "charged with working to ensure accountability, effectiveness and transparency in the Denver Police and Sheriff disciplinary processes." And when it comes to inmate grievances, monitor Nicholas Mitchell and his staff find the sheriff's department wanting. A damning investigation reveals that internal affairs inquiries weren't launched in at least 45 cases alleging serious misconduct -- just one of several eye-popping findings.

Rather than conducting interviews to highlight the report, monitor Mitchell prefers to let the document speak for itself -- and it's got plenty to say, particularly in the second chapter, which represents what it describes as "a detailed policy and practice examination of a kind that the OIM has not engaged in or reported before."

Specifically, OIM looked at inmate grievances filed against sheriff's department members over the two-and-a-half years from January 1, 2011 to June 30, 2013. Over that span, 54 "complaints of serious deputy misconduct" were filed -- less than 1 percent of the 5,979 total grievances put forward during that period, but still a substantial number. Of those 54 filings, however, only nine of them resulted in Internal Affairs Bureau cases -- meaning that the other 45, or approximately 94 percent, didn't get the IAB treatment.

Here's a graphic from the report breaking down the complaints by category. The total tops 45 because some complaints made more than one allegation.

Because the Denver Sheriff Department belatedly decided to launch internal affairs inquiries in to all 45 of these matters, plus two additional ones, the report doesn't get into specifics about the complaints -- but it does discuss them generally.

Seven inmates are said to have alleged being "inappropriately struck by officers with hands, elbows, knees or legs." Six maintain that "deputies slammed them into objects (e.g., walls or doors)," while five accuse law enforcers of inappropriately taking them to the ground. Five more gripe about being improperly tased or pepper sprayed, and two more inmates say they were choked.

Biased conduct grievances include six allegations of deputies using racial or ethnic slurs or insults and five about the inmates' sexual orientation. Additionally, eleven inmates claim to have been victims of sexual misconduct, encompassing five alleged instances of inappropriate touching, four sexual harassment assertions and two complaints about improper sexual comments.

Finally, five inmates say "deputies threatened them with violence or false disciplinary action," two complain about denial of medical care or medication and two more accuse personnel of failing to provide them with required disability accommodation.

The OIM doesn't suggest that any or all of these reports are valid -- but Mitchell and company do think they should have known about them.

Continue for more about inmate grievances and the Denver Sheriff Department, including the complete Office of the Independent Monitor report. Yep, in addition to a lack of IAB investigations, the sheriff's department "is not routinely notifying the OIM of misconduct complaints contained in inmate grievances, as required by the OIM ordinance," the report states.

The language in that ordinance is hardly ambiguous. In one section, it states the following:

Whenever a citizen files a complaint with the monitor's office, the board, or the police or sheriff departments, the agency receiving the complaint shall, within three (3) business days, advise all of the other agencies (the board; the monitor's office; the manager of safety...) that it has received the complaint and provide a copy of the complaint to each of them.

And if you think the definition of "complaint" might provide the DSD with some wiggle room, think again, since the ordinance states that "the term 'complaint' will mean any formal verbal or written statement alleging misconduct of any employee of the Denver Sheriff Department."

Another discovery made by the OIM: Out of 788 inmate grievances, 125 of them were directed at just four deputies from a force of 700 employees.

The grievance-magnet deputies aren't named in the report. But the document shares the belief that "this pattern should have triggered a supervisory response that could have included meetings with the deputies, attempts to identify the reasons for the continued complaints against them, and other supervisory forms of intervention, if appropriate."

The sheriff's department apparently agrees with this conclusion, since the report says division chiefs have now "initiated discussions with these deputies to identify the reasons for the outsize percentage of grievances against them." But again, this was only done after the OIM found out about the issue through its own investigation and confronted sheriff's department officials with the findings.

In all, the report makes eleven recommendations about how to improve the inmate-grievance situation involving the Denver Sheriff Department, and in a number of cases, the DSD is said to have either accepted and taken steps to implement this advise or is at least considering it. But the manner in which the department has been conducting business prior to being called on the carpet is concerning, even as it demonstrates the continuing necessity for an active and vigilant Office of the Independent Monitor.

There's plenty of other important information in the report. Later chapters "discuss trends and patterns in complaints, allegations and disciplinary decisions" at the DSD and the Denver Police Department during the first half of 2013, as well as officer-involved shootings, deaths in custody and a detailed analysis of an excessive-force allegation that "demonstrated violations of policy and procedure" in the view of OIM staffers -- an opinion not shared by the Manage of Safety's Office.

Check it all out here.

Office of the Independent Monitor Semi-Annual Report Final Version

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Follow That Story archive circa July 2012: "Nicholas Mitchell chosen by Michael Hancock as Denver's new independent monitor."

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