Several of the city’s elected leaders are pushing for change after receiving an extensive report on the death of Michael Marshall, a man who suffered a psychotic episode in a Denver jail.
“This was unacceptable at every single level. Every — single — level,” said Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech at a meeting on Wednesday. Shortly afterward, Mayor Michael Hancock’s office said it was looking at more reforms for the sheriff’s department.
Marshall died November 2015 after choking and vomiting while being restrained for several minutes by deputies in Denver’s jail, despite a nurse’s reported warnings. It resulted in the city paying a $4.65 million settlement to Marshall’s family, and the city also has agreed to staff mental health professionals at its jails.
None of the people involved have been disciplined or fired, and the Department of Public Safety continues to reject claims that it mishandled its investigation of the death.
The new report published earlier this week by the Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian group within city government that oversees law enforcement. It recommended several more changes at the sheriff’s department — including the idea that internal affairs, which investigates cases like this, should be put under the control of civilians.
In her comments, Kniech said that those kinds of changes have to come from the mayor’s office.
“The mayor is the boss of this department of safety,” the councilwoman said. “If he’s not OK with them, we need to hear from him.”
Hancock’s office said the death was a “deep tragedy,” and that it would continue to look for potential reforms.
“As we assured Mr. Marshall’s family, the terms of the settlement agreement were only a starting point, and the city is committed to identifying additional areas for improvement. We’ve met with the Monitor a number of times now to review his report and recommendations, and will next determine what changes can be put in place to continue the reform,” wrote mayoral spokeswoman Amber Miller in an email.
Katina Banks, the chair of the Citizen Oversight Board, said that the report pointed to deep problems in Denver’s sheriff’s department.
“It is apparent to us that, systemically, something is happening in the department of safety that is creating a culture that we strongly believe needs to be taken seriously,” she said on Wednesday. (Her board makes recommendations on certain law enforcement issues for the city.)
Councilman Paul Kashmann said that the situation could “probably be descried as chaos that needs to be reined in.” He continued: “What I’ve heard is a lot of deep breaths and measured comments and questions, because the instinct is to pound the table and scream at what appears to be obvious injustice.”
And Councilman Paul López asked why the sheriff’s department seems to be dogged so much more by complaints and discipline, compared to the larger police force. He also said that there seemed to be inconsistencies in punishments.
Mitchell acknowledged the “pattern.”
“I have noticed the pattern. I think there are probably multiple explanations for it,” he told López. “Surely, the sheriff’s department has been in transition and maybe in turmoil for some period of time.”
The department has indeed been through some changes. Earlier this year, Hancock brought in Troy Riggs to replace Stephanie O’Malley as the director of the safety department. (The department of safety includes both the police, who you see on the street, and the sheriff’s department, which mostly handles the jail.)
In a response to Mitchell’s report, the deputy director of the safety department argued that the process had worked correctly. Mitchell had raised concerns throughout the investigation, and the internal investigators had responded by doing more work, Jess Vigil wrote.
“In fact, the process is set up to seek your input,” the response stated. “There are times when there are disagreements with how investigations are proceeding. The process recognizes this …”
Mitchell didn’t buy that, he said.
“That’s not evidence of a process that’s functioning well,” he said in an interview. “We issued a report precisely because the process did not function as it should in a very, very serious case.”
The case, again:
Mitchell found that a deputy may have ignored a nurse’s warnings as he and colleagues used their body weight to restrain Marshall for minutes at a time, and later covered his face in a “spit hood” even though he had vomited.
Marshall was found to have choked to death, with an apparent connection to the way he was held down, according to a medical examiner. He was in jail because he couldn’t pay $100 bond after he was picked up for trespassing. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Afterward, the Denver Police Department hired one of the deputies involved to be a police officer, though neither the criminal and internal investigations of the death was finished. The sheriff’s internal affairs investigators, meanwhile, attempted to close the case without speaking to the nurses and deputies involved, according to Mitchell’s report.
While several sheriff’s employees eventually were disciplined, their punishments were limited to suspensions of 10 and 16 days. That discipline also was overturned when it was reviewed by a city hearing officer.