Who Slugged the Sheriff?

A recent attempt by Denver sheriff's deputies to remove politics from their wage negotiations resulted instead in fisticuffs between two key players, an act that has serious political repercussions all its own: City officials may now have to discipline--perhaps even fire--two deputies who are arguably among the most influential officers in the department.

Last month's faceoff between Fraternal Order of Police president Joe Sanchez and deputy Raul Silvas, a member of the rival Denver Sheriff's Union (DSU) and vice president of the Denver Sheriff's Bargaining Association, occurred less than one week before an election to determine whether the FOP or the bargaining association would represent the department in wage talks with the city. It wasn't a knock-down-drag-out brawl, but because both men were on duty when it happened, the fight clearly violated Mayor Wellington Webb's directive against violence in the workplace.

And according to that executive order, any violation, including a first offense, can result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

"The tension of the election probably got a little too much for some people," says Sanchez, who claims Silvas "attacked" him. Silvas did not return phone calls seeking comment, but his friends say they doubt he was to blame. "I think Joe was the aggressor," says sheriff's sergeant Mike Horner.

Some deputies say the fight was the culmination of years of political jockeying between two large factions of officers within the department.

For 25 years, until early 1995, the Denver Sheriff's Union was the largest employee group in the sheriff's department and represented department employees in wage matters with the city, although there was no formal collective bargaining. In those years, the city council set deputies' salaries based on surveys of other metropolitan areas around the country.

But in 1995 two events caused a major turnabout: The FOP's membership overtook that of the DSU for the first time, and Denver voters approved a referendum allowing collective bargaining for police and sheriff's deputies. The referendum prohibited them from striking, but law enforcement officers were granted the right to negotiate for wages, fringe benefits and other issues.

Sanchez says the FOP prospered while DSU membership declined because of officers' dissatisfaction with the pay and benefits packages obtained for them by the union. DSU representatives, he charges, "were weak and they were inept. They were incapable of standing up to city politicians." In addition, he says, the sheriff's union always tried too hard to please the department's upper echelon of officers, which annoyed the rank-and-file deputies.

Because the FOP had the larger membership at the time the referendum passed, it was designated by the city council to represent the department in wage negotiations slated for the fall of 1995.

Those first-ever collective-bargaining sessions did not go smoothly--the deputies wanted a 20 percent raise over three years, and the city offered a 4 percent raise over two years. In January 1996 the two finally agreed on an 11 percent raise over two years.

But not everyone in the department was pleased with the settlement, nor was everyone allowed to vote to ratify the contract, says Horner, who serves as treasurer of the sheriff's union. "The FOP only let its own members vote," Horner claims. But when it came time to divvy up the costs of procuring the contract (a total of $95 per deputy), the FOP tried to get DSU members to pay, too. The sheriff's union rebelled.

"We decided we shouldn't have to pay because we didn't get to vote," Horner says. The DSU then put its share of the costs into escrow and prepared for a fight. The issue is pending in federal court.

The 1995 referendum allowed deputies to decide who would represent them in contract negotiations. Anyone or any group that could get 33 percent of the department to sign a petition could, according to Sanchez, "challenge the big dog on the porch." And the FOP was clearly the big dog.

It was a sheriff's major, says Horner, who came up with the idea of a "bargaining association" to challenge the FOP--a maneuver backed by the sheriff's union. Raul Silvas was named vice president of the bargaining association. The DSU, Horner says, "did not want to split the department three ways, so we encouraged our members to support the [bargaining association]." The election was set for Friday, March 21.

Although the pre-election hoopla was civil for the most part, some deputies were unable to separate their personal feelings from their professional desires. Many officers have complained about Sanchez's "us versus them" attitude, which they believe pits FOP members against city officials and high-ranking sheriff's officers.

On March 15, Sanchez says, he was walking to the chow hall for breakfast when he passed the internal affairs bureau, where Silvas was working. "He made a comment," Sanchez says of Silvas. "I only caught part of it. It was something about, 'Here comes that fucking FOP president.' It was an inappropriate comment, because he had two inmates with him.

"On my way back, I told him that there was no need to make a comment like that in front of inmates. He came out from behind his desk and said, 'We can take care of this outside, or we can finish it right now.' I said, 'Go pound sand, Silvas,' and he pushed me.

"Actually, some verbal language was used that I'm not expressing now."
Sanchez claims that a third officer pulled Silvas off him "after the second time he shoved me."

According to Horner, Silvas claims that Sanchez blew up at him. "[Silvas] said Joe was yelling and spitting a little bit" and he kept edging closer and closer, Horner says. "Raul finally pushed him back, and Joe hit him."

The incident, which was reported immediately to Denver corrections chief John Simonet, created problems for the department from the get-go. The department's internal affairs bureau couldn't investigate the incident because Silvas worked there. The case was then handed over to the Denver Police Department's internal affairs unit. The police turned over their results to the Denver District Attorney's office to determine whether criminal charges would be filed. (A sheriff's department source says the DA will likely refuse to file charges, because the men engaged in "mutual combat.")

In the meantime, the FOP won the right to represent the officers in wage negotiations. The vote split along lines that approximate the numbers of FOP and DSU members in the department--in an 80 percent turnout, the FOP got about 60 percent of the vote. (The FOP claims about 450 members, the sheriff's union 250.)

The most delicate phase of the incident's aftermath has yet to be handled: Simonet (who declines to discuss a "personnel matter") must schedule a hearing to determine who was at fault in the fight and who should be disciplined.

Butch Montoya, the city's manager of safety, who also declines to discuss the situation, says he feels "very strongly about violence in the workplace, and we're very careful to evaluate each situation on its own merit."

Sheriff's deputies are keeping a close watch on the investigation. Some DSU members fear that the entire matter will be glossed over, because they believe the city cannot afford to make an enemy of the FOP. If one man is disciplined and the other is not, some deputies may feel that the city is taking sides with one employee group over another.

"The manager of safety doesn't want to have egg on his face," says one longtime deputy. "Either both will get saved or both will be fired." Frankly, he adds, "if it was mutual combat, both should be fired. We are in a business where we can't afford to turn on each other.

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Karen Bowers