What do Denverites want to see in their next sheriff? For one thing: a person who cares about mental health

5 min. read
A public meeting discussing the next Denver sheriff on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at Calvary Baptist Church in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

During four meetings held over a two-week period this month, Denver residents got together to talk about what they want to see from the next person who will be paid $194,476 a year to be Denver Sheriff.

Of course, there's a lot more to this job than getting paid a lot. Just ask the former sheriff, Patrick Firman, who stepped down in October amid criticism and numerous allegations over mismanagement. The 900-officer department's primary task is overseeing Denver's jails.

Whoever steps in will inherit an office facing a string of recent PR nightmares: A lawsuit from a woman who gave birth alone in jail, a $1.5 million settlement with women deputies over sexual harassment, and a recent flub revealing the department wasn't tracking deputies who had violations for dishonesty.

As part of the search process, four public meetings were held to gather input from residents to be shared next month with Mayor Michael Hancock, who is responsible for appointing the next sheriff. Fran Gomez is currently serving as interim sheriff.

Meetings took place at Calvary Baptist in Hampden, St. Francis Center in Five Points, the Denver Indian Center on Morrison Road and Monbtello's Recreation Center on East 53rd Avenue.

Denverite attended the Calvary Baptist and Montbello meetings, and a pattern emerged for the list of wants. Folks at both meetings said they want:

  • a sheriff who had an understanding of mental health care for both inmates and sheriffs;
  • someone who will see the value in employing an ethnically diverse staff;
  • a leader, not just a supervisor;
  • a person who values transparency;
  • someone who will be a member of the community, making occasional appearances at neighborhood events;
  • and someone with a concrete vision for the department.
Inside Denver's downtown detention center. Oct. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Chief Administrative Officer Daelene Mix started the meetings by letting everyone know why they were there. She works at the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the sheriff's department and has managed the public meetings.

Despite the public perception of the office, she and other department staff at the meetings spoke with optimism about the department's future, which could include changing how the sheriff gets the job.

"We want to hear everything that you have come here to share with us tonight," Mix said.

About 20 people attended the meetings at Calvary Baptist Church in Hampden and at the Montbello Rec Center.

Dianne Tramutola-Lawson, a member of the Denver Sheriff's Citizen Advisory Board, was part of the Dec. 11 meeting in Hampden. She summed up a suggestion many people at both meetings had: She wants to see someone with integrity and leadership skills.

Green Valley Ranch resident Stella Nash attended the Montbello meeting on Wednesday. She said the meeting felt productive and she thought the people there paid attention to her opinions.

Nash wants the next sheriff to be someone who follows a servant-leadership philosophy.

Thrichosia Burdine speaks during a meeting discussing Denver's next sheriff on Thursday, Dec. 19, in Montbello. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

"That means you are able to follow as well as to lead," Nash said. "You're willing to do what the other folks are willing to do ... you're not in this dictatorship sort of thing."

Gordon J. Kieft, a licensed professional counselor, sat next to Councilwoman Kendra Black during the Hampden meeting. He too said he felt like he was being listened to during.

Kieftsaid the new sheriff should address violence in the jail.

"Statistics show that the biggest mental health providers are the criminal justice system," Kieft said this week. "I think the new sheriff should have a significant understanding of that information, of that data."

The department has mental health programs accessible to inmates, including 24-hour mental health office in partnership with Denver Health. It also provides inmates with medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. Earlier this year, the inmate program director said more than half its inmates show signs of mental health illness.

In far east Denver, Thrichosia Burdine sat with Nash and eight or so other Montbello and Green Valley Ranch residents. Unlike the meeting at Calvary Baptist, this one didn't break into groups. They sat at a large table. Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who said she wants to see a sheriff who values reentry initiatives, was among the attendants.

Burdine and Kieft both mentioned a specific attribute for the next sheriff: They want someone who can be compassionate and shed the "tough guy" image for sheriffs.

"All of this has to come together because when we don't have that compassion, then the people are kind of like -- they're standoff-ish," Burdine said. "But when you talk to people, let them know that you're concerned about them, their situation, how things are going with them, then they feel like you care."

Fran Gomez speaks to press as Denver Department of Safety Director Troy Riggs announces he as Denver's interim sheriff, Sept. 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Burdine also said she wanted a sheriff who recognized the importance of hiring an ethnically diverse staff. A department's 2018 annual report showed people of color made up more than half of its 2018 inmate population.

"No matter what society you are in, it's always good for people to see themselves," Burdine said after the meeting.

Hancock wasn't immediately available for comment Friday. Mayoral spokesperson Theresa Marchetta said a timeline isn't set yet for when the next sheriff will be picked. She reaffirmed that the resident's suggestions will be considered by the mayor.

"The mayor has in mind where he wants to go," Mix said during this week's meeting in Montbello. "But he wants that process informed by your feedback."

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