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, who is 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.
Up first: McCann, a well-known figure in Colorado law enforcement and politics for decades. Among her past positions: chief deputy district attorney in the Denver DA's office, deputy attorney general in charge of civil litigation and employment law in the Colorado Attorney General's office, Denver Manager of Safety and, most recently, a state representative for District 8.
Note that we asked McCann and Morgan the same general questions but allowed for occasional tangents. Click for more information about Wednesday's debate and other McCann events this week
Westword: Why did you decide to run for district attorney?
A couple of reasons. I think we can be doing things a little bit differently in Denver in criminal justice. I obviously believe strongly that people who are dangerous and commit violent crimes need to be put in prison, where they're not in the community. But I also think we could be doing more to address the causes of crime and preventing crime in order to keep our community safer. By that I mean particularly working with young people and the subject of mental health and substance abuse, addictions. There's national criminal-justice reform going on, and I'd really like to see Denver be a leader in that area.
That's kind of the substantive area. And secondly, my background gives me a unique set of qualifications for this race. It fits my background really well. I was a prosecutor here in Denver for many years, but I've also served as Manager of Safety of Denver and also supervised lawyers in the attorney general's office. And now I'm making the laws, writing the laws, as a legislator. So I bring a unique set of qualifications that I think will really help me lead Denver forward to some new thoughts about criminal justice and how we can get smarter about it....
I've been a lawyer for many years. I did not only do criminal law, but I also did private practice in litigation and supervising litigators at the attorney gneral's office more recently. So I've got that trial-work/strategy/evidence background. But I feel that to be the manager of the office, you really need a broader and deeper experience level. The management part is really important, because a lot of heading up an office involves management skills: personnel issues, performance reviews, budgets, those kinds of things. I have a lot of experience in those areas. But then the legislature has really broadened my view of what people expect from the criminal-justice system and how the laws get written and how many different points of view there are. It's just given me a much broader understanding of criminal justice as a whole.
What do you see as the biggest difference or differences between you and your opponent?
Certainly the management and legislative backgrounds are a big difference. But there are also big differences in terms of community involvement and input from the community, which I think is really important — and it's something I feel can be improved as far as the DA's office is concerned. There has been a lot of discussion lately about the relationship between the police department and the community, and I have a lot of experience out in the neighborhoods. I've walked them for my campaign, and I also go to a lot of neighborhood meetings. I have town hall meetings frequently, too. I think that community base and grassroots work really distinguishes me from Helen, as well, and I think that's going to be important, particularly in this climate.
What's your take on how the DA's office operated under Mitch Morrissey? What are some of the good things that were done under his tenure, and what are some of the things you see as less positive?
Mitch has done a remarkable job with development of DNA evidence. He's a national expert in this area, and I think has really taken it upon himself to develop that expertise in the office. And he's also been instrumental in helping get support for the crime lab, which came to be during his tenure. I think he's really made it a state-of-the-art crime lab, which I think is great. And I also just attended the opening of what's called the Rose Andom Center, which is a center for domestic-violence survivors that's all in one location. I just took a tour last week, and it's very impressive. That's the kind of thing we really need to be doing more of — helping victims of crime get the services they need in many different areas. Social services, housing, support services for therapy work that they need, and working with children: I think that's a real accomplishment to get that up and running.
In general, I think the lawyers are good, too. They do a good job in the courtroom. But areas where I think there's room for improvement, I mentioned the community involvement. I plan to have the deputy DAs be required to go to neighborhood meetings to communicate with people about what the office does and why it's so important — and also to be receptive to community ideas. I get some really good ideas from neighborhood folks, and I think the DA's office hasn't been as visible under this administration as I would like to see it be. And transparency is another big issue. I care about that quite a bit, and when I talk to people about the DA's office, they feel like it's hard to get answers, it's hard to get explanations. That's going to be something important to me, to make sure we're open and we involve people. I plan to have advisory councils so I can get community folks involved. Making the office more transparent is very important.
I'm also interested in the whole issue of mass incarceration and whether there are better ways to deal with the lower-level non-violent crimes. I mentioned substance abuse, mental health. We need to be looking at how we can break the cycle, and look at how we can put more resources up front, so that we don't have to put as many resources on the back end. And juvenile justice is another area where I'd like to continue the work they've been doing and expand to the concept of restorative justice. There are pilot projects going on in four DA's offices in Colorado; Denver is not one of them. So I'd like to have us look at establishing restorative-justice projects in Denver, perhaps starting with young people, but moving to adults as well. That's another area where I think we can make improvements.
We're always wanting to make sure that victims are heard and respected in the system, and I think Mitch has done a good job of involving victims services. But I always think you can improve the relationship with victims groups.
Mitch Morrissey has been criticized for declining to charge law enforcers in officer-involved shootings or excessive-force incidents. Do you think this criticism is fair?
I think there's definitely a perception in the community, particularly communities of color, that justice is not being done and that law enforcement is not being held accountable for use of excessive force. I can't really comment on the cases, because I haven't reviewed all of the files and details. I have gone and looked at a couple of the cases. But I definitely feel this is an area where we need to broaden the input. For example, there was one case where I thought a case should have been filed — that was the case where Judge Martinez ruled the DA's office should have filed against a deputy sheriff that grabbed an inmate who was in handcuffs and threw him up against a window in the courtroom. The judge actually filed the complaint in the case. [The incident involved inmate Anthony Waller
, who filed a $5 million lawsuit
against the City of Denver and two other individuals in July 2014
.] I actually sat in the courtroom when the judge issued his ruling, and I agreed with him. That was a case where, looking at the video and what the inmate was doing at the time, it looked to me that the case should have been filed, and the judge agreed — though the statute of limitations had run out, so a case couldn't be filed.
I was also disappointed that the investigation wasn't as thorough as it should have been. Not all of the witnesses were interviewed. So I thought there were instances where a more thorough investigation should have been done — and the DA's office has the ability to do independent investigations. So that was disappointing.
One of the things I want to do is involve the Office of the Independent Monitor in the decision-making, so they can help review cases and have some input into whether or not there's enough legal grounds to file a case — and expanding the review in the office will be important. And also answering questions from the public. I 'm interested in having more of a public review after a decision is made if the decision is not to file a complaint. Have a public meeting where I would be present and hopefully the detectives would be present to look at what the evidence showed, so the public actually understands the basis for the decision in a more comprehensive way. For example, Mitch releases a very detailed report when he makes the decision not to charge, and he also makes the files available down at the DA's office. But I don't think most people would take the time to actually go down to the office. So having some kind of public forum or airing, I think, will be important to increase the public's trust that the case has been taken very seriously and why the decision was made not to file.
You mentioned communities of color, and we continue to hear about disproportionate punishment when it comes to these communities. What are your thoughts on that issue and the ways your office can address it?
One thing I want is to have a mechanism in the office for tracking. There are really four critical points where the DA's office has an impact directly. One is whether to charge a case at all. Secondly, what charge are you going to bring. Third, if you did bring the case, what kind of plea bargain are you going to offer. And fourth, what kind of sentencing recommendations will you make. At any one of those places, there could be implicit or unconscious bias that affects the decisions. So what I'd like to do is have a tracking mechanism in the office, whether it's a sheet in the file or electronic, so we can track the race and gender and sexual orientation of the defendant and determine if there is some kind of unequal treatment or bias going on. And if there is, we need to stop that; we need to address it.
Secondly, I want to have cultural-competency training for the deputies and the staff. Because we all have biases, and just becoming aware of what those are and how to deal with them, I think, would be important. And third, if I can get the funding, I'd like to get a grant to bring in an outside agency that can come into the DA's office and analyze how you can handle cases and make recommendations.
Is that something you would do at the outset of your administration, even before you've collected all the data about bias, if you can get the funding?
I think it will depend on how quickly that kind of analysis could be done. I think I can implement something internally much more quickly than I can arrange to have an outside group come in. So it would depend on how quickly we can develop both of those and get results. Cases take a while to go through the system.
You mentioned people in the justice system who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs. That population seems to be growing. Can you talk about what the district attorney's office can do with respect to dealing with those kinds of issues?
Obviously, the DA's office has limited ability to address those directly. But what the office can do is work with programs that provide services and use our diversion programs: deferred judgment, where people are put on probation, and if they get the treatment, those cases are dismissed. So it's in the realm of plea bargaining and making sentencing recommendations where the DA's office would directly be involved. But the DA can also advocate for more funding for those kinds of programs. I think that's one of the struggles we have now — that we just don't have the resources or the people power, if you will. There just aren't enough providers for the need. So it has to be done in conjunction with finding more acceptable providers for treatment. It's a complicated area. What we've done is decided to close a lot of the psychiatric in-patient facilities and try to integrate these people into the community, which is fine, if they can survive and do well — but I think we've found that many people aren't able to assimilate into the community in a productive way. So I would like to see us have more in-patient options as well as out-patient. It's a big system, and the DA's office isn't directly responsible for that kind of treatment. But I think we can certainly partner with groups that are providing it.
Do you feel that the marijuana laws in Colorado and Denver complicate the work of the DA's office? And if so, how?
I wouldn't say they complicate it, except in one area. First of all, the community has voted to allow legalized marijuana, and most of the dispensary folks I've worked with have been working very hard to make sure they're in compliance. It's mostly regulatory; there are very extensive regulatory requirements for the marijuana industry. So I think generally, the marijuana industry is working very hard to make sure they're conducting their businesses in a legal fashion. But one area where we have more challenges is the private grow, where people can grow marijuana in their homes, particularly with medical marijuana.... They're allowed to grow a certain number of plants, and those plants have to be tied to a patient. And that's more difficult for law enforcement to go in and enforce that kind of regulatory scheme. It's not something they've traditionally done. So I think that whole area is one where we'll probably see more regulatory authority. The Department of Revenue inspectors, I hope, will get more involved in trying to regulate that, where people are growing a huge number of plants and they say they have a certain number of patients — but there isn't a really good way to monitor that.
The other area, of course, is illegal grows in general. It's harder to do that in Denver, because we don't have much open space. But I think some of the rural sheriffs and police departments are struggling with finding them and enforcing the laws with illegal grows. But if there's a crime being committed — if, for example, there are underage sales taking place — that's something we prosecute. We've done it with alcohol, so I don't think it complicates things too much. It's the same kind of prosecution process. And if there are sales taking place out the back door, with more marijuana than a place can legally sell, those will be prosecuted.
What are the kinds of things voters tell you they want most from Denver's next district attorney?
I hear a lot about communication and transparency. Obviously, people want their communities to be safe. There's frustration with homelessness. I hear a lot about homelessness even though most of the homeless issues are handled through the city attorney's office, because they tend to be handled by city ordinance. If there are crimes, they tend to be city-ordinance violations. But people on both sides of that question talk to me. Business owners, residents of lower downtown: They're very concerned about these younger homeless people, more so than the older, chronically homeless people. They're concerned about sanitation and health and safety and drug abuse and so forth. And the folks on the other side are concerned about how we treat our homeless. If we round them up, where do we put them, and how do we provide shelter? So that's a tough issue, and I hear about that a lot.
I also hear a lot about auto theft and theft from automobiles. People are concerned about safety, garage break-ins, theft of autos. Those issues come up. And of course the police excessive-force issue comes up frequently, and the other issues I've brought up: mental health, substance abuse.
You mentioned advocacy earlier. Is that something you'd like to do as district attorney — to advocate for issues even in areas where the district attorney's office doesn't have direct control?
Yes, definitely. I think the DA can be more visible and use the office to advance the conversation about mental health, substance abuse, racial disparities, mass incarceration. In those areas and others, I hope to be advocating. And the whole racial-disparity issue is another thing that I hear about from voters. It's one I think people are concerned about....
If you looked at the criminal-justice system on a broader level, we need to do a better job of preventing crime and working with those who are in there to help them make better choices in the future. That's some of what I've been doing in the legislature. I got a bill passed for juvenile justice reform, to provide due process to juveniles who are facing prosecution in felony court, to allow for a hearing to determine whether or not they should be charged as juveniles or adults. And I was also a prime sponsor of two gun-safety bills.... There are just too many guns out in our communities. We did the universal background check bill, which has kept at least 800 people from purchasing guns who shouldn't have had them. And another issue that's close to my heart is domestic violence, and I did the bill to facilitate the ability of judges to get guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Domestic violence continues to be a very tough issue.... And last year, I tried to get a bill through to get one of the boxes off an employment application, so they don't ask in the initial application if you have a criminal history. So many people get weeded out at that level and are not even given a chance to interview for a job. The bill didn't say you have to hire a person with a criminal record. But the bill was about giving someone at least a chance to interview and show whether they're qualified for a job. It's people who are out of jail but they can't find a job, they can't find housing: It's hard for them to be productive members of society. So I think we can do a better job of that, as well. And I didn't mention my human-trafficking bill that was a landmark in Colorado. That came out of a case I had when I was a DA, of a young girl who was being trafficked. When I got in the legislature, I was able to work on that issue and get a bill passed that strengthened our human trafficking laws. Now, prosecutors are using that law to prosecute traffickers.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't just talk about this stuff. Throughout my career, I've been working on public safety and trying to improve it.
That's another distinction between me and my opponent. I've been doing these things throughout my career. The DA's office is a perfect fit for that background. It's a natural move for me.