Why Three Denver Deputies Fired for Excessive Force May Not Stay Fired

In recent weeks, three Denver Sheriff Department deputies — William Jackson, Steven Roybal and Monwell Fuller — have been fired for using excessive force against inmates at Denver County Jail.

Afterward, Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman issued a tough statement in regard to these moves, saying, "The Denver Sheriff Department does not tolerate the use of excessive force by deputies. While force is sometimes necessary, the use of excessive force is never justified."

But there's no guarantee the story ends there.

In fact, plenty of fired Denver law enforcers have been reinstated following reviews of their cases. And a City of Denver official says the process when it comes to the fired sheriff's department employees is laborious, time-consuming and can result in individuals guilty of excessive force being given their jobs back due to technicalities.

Despite such possibilities, though, a hearing officer defends the process as fair to the employee because it properly puts the burden for proving wrongdoing on the city.

The disciplinary letters in the cases of Jackson and Roybal, who were pink-slipped on June 27, and Fuller, let go on July 12, are among the documents on view below. Jackson was fired for a November 2014 incident in which he allegedly grabbed the neck of a mentally challenged inmate and hurled him into a metal table. Roybal was accused of smashing an inmate's fingers in a cell door circa July 2015. And this past January, Fuller is said to have slugged an inmate in the face and more over a dispute involving phone use.

When asked about the cases, attorney David Lane, who's filed plenty of excessive-force complaints against law enforcers (he doesn't represent any alleged victims of Jackson, Roybal or Fuller), expressed satisfaction with the dismissals. "Maybe all these lawsuits are finally making a difference," he says. "Maybe that's what it takes to wake the government up to police abuses. It's certainly less violent than riots in the streets."

But he adds a note of caution: "Now if only the corrupt Civil Service Commission will sustain those terminations. The game Denver plays is that they fire people and then the commission overturns it, which is no surprise, because the commission is stacked with law enforcement people. And then Denver officials wring their hands and say, 'We tried to do something' — which is ridiculous, because they didn't."

In fact, the Civil Service Commission won't be reviewing the firings of Jackson, Roybal and Fuller. As noted by Earl Peterson, executive director of the CSC, the commission oversees such issues when it comes to Denver police officers and Denver firefighters, whereas the Office of Human Services' Career Service Authority deals with the Denver Sheriff Department.

Peterson also disputes Lane's view that the commission is prone to excusing excessive force because too many members have a law enforcement background; of the five current members, just one is an ex-police officer (although there's also a former city manager and a onetime fire chief). And he argues that the commission's merry-go-round of firings and reinstatements has improved in recent years, after the CSC did away with what he refers to as the "de novo process, where the executive director has to basically retry the case. Now it's an administrative disciplinary process, where fired employees still have their rights — which is critical for police and fire — but the burden has been shifted to the firefighter or the police officer to show that the manager of safety's actions aren't reasonable or consistent. And that's a positive change. Now, technicalities don't necessarily get your job back."

Echoing this sentiment is Denver Deputy Manager of Safety Jess Vigil. Under the old system, Vigil says, commission hearings about fired officers "were like a full-fledged trial on the issues raised, whether or not they had anything to do with the question of if the discipline was proper in the first place. Some of those cases we're still litigating years after the fact, and there have been reversals."

However, Vigil continues, the Career Service system — which will handle any appeals by the three fired deputies — still uses the de novo process, making it much more likely, in his view, that matters will drag on and on and possibly result in reinstatement for reasons that are tangential to whether or not excessive force did or didn't take place. "Hearing officers are reluctant to exert any sort of control over those kinds of things," he maintains, "and they sometimes allow these hearings to become the equivalent of civil-rights trials, where, if you walked in, you'd think you were in federal court. These are simple employment issues, but they've been turned into a complex process that shouldn't be that complex."

As Vigil describes it, the Career Service board has the power to change its methodology, as the Civil Service Commission did. But thus far, Career Service is sticking with de novo, and hearing officer Valerie McNaughton feels that's the right call.

"The burden of proof should be on the agency," she allows. "One reason is because it's the law. It's a vested right, and due process says you can't take it away absent of a full hearing, where you get to cross-examine and bring in your own witnesses. And number two, the agency has most of the records. If you can't force the agency to bring in your witnesses, all you can say is, 'I didn't do it' — and that doesn't appear to be fair. They're the ones who made the allegations. They have to not only say something happened in a disciplinary letter, but prove that it did in a hearing. And oftentimes something in a disciplinary letter will change completely once the evidence is tested in court."

That's why "I very much believe in the system," McNaughton emphasizes. "You can't just say something and make it true. You've got to back it up."

As such, there's a substantial chance that the firings of Jackson, Roybal and Fuller won't be the final word on their career with the Denver Sheriff Department — and no one would be surprised if one or more of them eventually ends up back in uniform again.

Continue to see the aforementioned letters about the three deputies, as well as other employees whose discipline fell short of termination.

Denver Sheriff Department: William Jackson et. al. Discipline Documents

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts