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Pat Sullivan bust: Should buildings be named for living (or dead) people?

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Ex-Arapahoe County Sheriff Pat Sullivan, busted for allegedly trading meth for sex, has now bonded out of the Patrick J. Sullivan Detection Facility, a jail named for him. But officials still plan to revisit the policy of naming public buildings after living people. And Commissioner Rod Bockenfeld thinks honoring dead people in the same way may not be safe, either.

"When you're dealing with living human beings, there's an opportunity where something could go wrong and cast a shadow," Bockenfeld notes. "And as a society, we've seen cases where things come out after the fact about people who are deceased. That can cast a shadow, too. You want to recognize people for their efforts and what they've done, but there's also a human factor involved."

Sullivan is the last person most folks would have expected to spur such a debate. As we've reported, he became Arapahoe County sheriff in 1984, and rose to icon status five years later, when TV news cameras caught him rescuing a deputy held hostage by a double murderer. In 1999, his reputation was further enhanced in the wake of the slayings at Columbine High School, leading to his naming as national sheriff of the year. After retiring from his gig in 2002, he became director of safety and security for the Cherry Creek School District -- a position he held for the next six years.

Now, however, Sullivan, who's 68, has been charged with felony possession and distribution of meth, misdemeanor soliciting of prostitution, and a count of attempting to influence a public servant amid reports that he tempted recovering addicts with the drug in exchange for sexual acts.

Coverage of this shocking twist has prompted plenty of calls from Arapahoe County residents about the jail's name -- which Bockenfeld doesn't think should be changed while the criminal case is still ongoing -- and the wisdom of the current building-naming policy. Trouble is, Bockenfeld admits that "right now, we really have no policy" on the subject. He stresses that the detention facility was christened by a previous board, and the current one has not named a public building for anyone.

"We've gotten some pressure to do some of that," he admits, "but we haven't done it so far." Had the present members had the opportunity to name the jail after Sullivan long before any of his current difficulties, "I'm not sure we would have done it," he adds, "because when you're dealing with an individual, there could always be something valid, or sometimes even invalid, that comes out and harms that brand. And when that happens, the damage to the brand overflows back to the facility."

At this point, Bockenfeld isn't taking a position on naming buildings after people -- a topic that will be debated at a study session expected to take place in January. The passage of time between now and then "will give us time to do some research, some due diligence, look at whether it should be retroactive, and understand the impact of our decision. One of the difficulties in government is that sometimes the vocal minority is pretty loud, and we need to make sure that it's really the sentiment of the largest portion of the community. We don't want a knee-jerk policy because of emotional reactions. We want to think things through and make sure we consider all avenues before we establish a policy about how government will function in the future."

In the meantime, he stresses that "even if we do something, as soon as you elect a new board, they can do whatever they want. Circumstances could change and there could be pressure from folks wanting to honor people, and they could modify any new policy we come up with."

Until then, the Patrick J. Sullivan Detention Facility's moniker will continue to have an ironic ring to it.

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More from our Shmuck of the Week archive: "Pat Sullivan's fall from sheriff to shmuck makes for a disturbing story."

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