UPDATE: City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca will propose a change to the city charter on Sept. 30 that would make the Denver sheriff an elected position.
The change would require a vote by Denver residents.
As the city’s public safety brass focuses attention on who will take over for Patrick Firman, Denver’s soon-to-be-former sheriff, the public is asking questions about whether Firman had the confidence of his deputies, and why the city is one of two in Colorado that lets a politician — not the public — make the hire.
During a Thursday press conference, Department of Public Safety Executive Director Troy Riggs said Firman was not asked to step down, adding that only Firman, who took the day off and did not attend the media gathering, could say why he will leave next month. Riggs gave Firman an A for effort but also said he did not have the faith of everyone underneath him.
“I think with some, you have (their confidence), some you don’t, and that’s how it is with any leadership position,” Riggs said. “And let me just say this, after 30 years you get a little tired. Tough job, tough job.”
That job included managing a 2016 policy meant to curb the use of force in the jail system after Michael Marshall died in the sheriff department’s custody. Denver’s law enforcement watchdog, the Office of the Independent Monitor, gave Firman’s office a scathing review back then.
Recent criticism includes Firman’s oversight of a woman who gave birth alone in a jail cell last year and a resulting lawsuit. And earlier this week, the Denver City Council approved a $1.5 million settlement with female deputies who alleged the department failed to protect them from sexual harassment at the county jail.
Firman was given the job of implementing more than 400 reforms — everything from inmates’ underwear to mental health first-aid — that stemmed from the independent monitor’s audit and a report by outside consultants. A Denver Sheriff Department spokesperson said nearly all have been implemented but had not provided a complete list at press time.
Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell told Denverite he plans to do a thorough, data-driven audit of the reforms, so he would not comment on what Firman did and did not do well at the helm.
“Creating a culture in which deputies feel respected in the workplace, and treat inmates with dignity and humanity, will require focus and dedication,” Mitchell said in a statement. “I have seen recent advances in the reform effort with the creation of the Public Integrity Division, but much more work needs to be done to ensure that our jails meet the community’s expectations.”
Riggs aims to have fewer people in jail, and that’s something that’s trended downward recently:
Firman oversees more than 1,000 employees in the Denver Sheriff Department. Fran Gomez, named Thursday as the interim sheriff, will take the reins when Firman leaves next month.
Firman’s resignation reignites a perennial Denver question: Why does almost every other Colorado city get to vote for their sheriff?
Denver is one of two Colorado counties (the other is Broomfield) that doesn’t elect its sheriff. Some are calling for that practice to get another look.
City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, whose chief of staff and criminal justice advocate Lisa Calderón has pushed for an elected sheriff in the past, said she will consider pushing a ballot measure that would give voters a say. Another option, she said, is a joint appointment by the mayor, city council and independent monitor.
“I would like to advance the conversation,” CdeBaca said via text message. “I know some are skeptical and I fully understand but also we have proof of what the status quo gets us. I think we lack a vision, goals and metrics for accountability and the status quo is discrimination, lawsuits and negligence.”
The Denver Justice Project is skeptical. Co-lead of the project Elisabeth Epps, a self-described abolitionist who advocates for the incarcerated, thinks politicizing the position opens the door to big money and its accompanying influence.
“The reasons to have an elected sheriff would be to enshrine control in the hands of the people,” Epps said. “If I thought that were achievable I’d be in favor it. But in part because of how the elections are funded, I don’t think it’s reasonable that our preferred candidate could compete with someone who is less desirable.”
Public safety director Riggs said he’d leave the question up to the mayor, adding that he thinks there’s “a lot of potential issues” with an elected sheriff.
Interim Sheriff Fran Gomez represents “fresh eyes” — very fresh. She’s only been with the department a year.
Riggs said “fresh eyes” were one reason Gomez was appointed. Gomez, the first woman to hold the post, is currently director of professional standards at the department. She began her career as a deputy in Denver’s county jails before spending 23 years as a police commander in Aurora. She was deputy chief of police in Commerce City for two years.
“I think it’s a great challenge, and I’m very much looking forward to it,” Gomez said.
But she was short on specifics about her tenure, telling reporters that she would listen to her employees before deciding how to move forward. Gomez said she does not know whether she would take on the permanent role if offered.
Filling the job won’t be easy, to have Riggs tell it.
“These are difficult jobs,” he said. “It’s very few people in the world that have the talent to run a very complicated jail with all the medical needs and all behavioral health needs.”
Riggs said he wasn’t sure whether the search would go national.