City Civil Service Commission director fired after questioning police and firefighter hiring standards

Niecy Murray had alleged Denver leaders wanted to lower hiring standards for police and firefighters
6 min. read
New badges for a class of cadets graduating from the Denver Police Academy in Central Park. March 31, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Updated at 8:17 p.m. on May 28, 2024.

Commissioners announced Tuesday that Niecy Murray, director for Denver's Civil Service Commission, has been released from her duties. Commission member Amber Miller said the board had been deliberating for weeks over the decision.

"Ms. Murray’s claims to the press this morning appeared to have been a preemptive attempt to block or influence her release," Miller wrote. "These developments have not deterred us from our course of action, and we have separated Ms. Murray from her position."

Miller said that the decision to lower the admittance score threshold came from a recommendation from contracted consultants hired by Murray.

"The Board is in the process of reviewing all procedures and processes to look for efficiencies and improve operations to move candidates through the hiring process faster and alleviate unnecessary bottlenecks all while meeting the needs of a skilled, modern workforce," Miller said.

The announcement comes hours after Murray held a press conference where she alleged city leaders were pushing to lower hiring standards for police and firefighters.

Our original story below.

In an effort to quickly staff up Denver’s Police and Fire Departments, city leaders are pushing agency leadership to “ignore applicant red flags,” according to the head of Denver's civilian oversight agency. 

“The Mayor has made it clear that he will not back off of the staffing numbers he set in his campaign,” said Niecy Murray, Executive Director for the Civil Service Commission, in a press release Tuesday. “My job is not to be liked, it is to be sure that the standard The People expect for their first responders be upheld. The current culture emphasizes serving the needs of the men I am meant to help hold accountable over the independence and objectivity of my agency.”

Mayor Mike Johnston set a goal in September of hiring an additional 167 new officers to support his public safety efforts. The Denver Police Department has struggled with understaffing and recruiting in recent years.

The mayor’s office referred Denverite to Armando Saldate, Executive Director of Public Safety, who denied the claims.

“Ensuring Denver is a safe and thriving city is the Department of Public Safety’s top priority,” Saldate wrote in a statement to Denverite. “We hold our agencies to the highest standards, including a shared priority with the Civil Service Commission to recruit top public safety candidates through a thorough, equitable, and expeditious hiring process. Modernizing the Civil Service Commission process is an essential step in building a diverse, dedicated, and highly skilled public safety workforce, and we must make evidence-based changes to that process to make that vision a reality.” 

The Civil Service Commission, led by Murray, is an independent agency made up of civilians that oversees screening for police and fire applicants. 

Murray said the push to quickly hire people has led to “increased hand holding, more cradling, more score-lowering for recruits” who might otherwise be rejected from first responder training programs. She said that the minimum evaluation score to reach the academy was 70 in 2019, but that was lowered to 67.14 in 2020. 

According to Murray, city leaders now want to lower the minimum to 60.

“Now people are asking ‘Why do we need a minimum score at all, we can probably fix them in the academy,’” Murray said Tuesday. “Simultaneously, academy staff have shared increasing frustration with the quality of recruits that show up for duty. If you show up with a pulse, you’re in there.”

A spokesperson for the city said that Johnston has not met with Murray or “issued any directive to the commission.” 

According to the city, about half of applicants resign during recruiting “due to the extremely long and complicated application process.” 

In 2021, the city was only able to hire 98 recruits despite budgeting for 105. Denver hired 139 out of 187 budgeted positions in 2022, and in 2023, the city filled 124 out of 188 budgeted positions.

The city spokesperson said entrance tests include questions about law enforcement that recruits do not learn until they enter the academy, potentially weeding out qualified people, and that all recruits receive “rigorous training” regardless of their entrance score.

But at a press conference Tuesday, Councilmember Sarah Parady said that she viewed a redacted evaluation document describing an applicant as “unfit,” but said that the applicant was able to proceed in the application process regardless.

“I heard from one agency employee, other than Director Murray, that they've never experienced this degree of political interference with their work,” Parady said. “I think there's no question that the dynamic has changed for those employees, and that's what we've heard from them directly.”

The hiring push comes just a few years after the George Floyd protests, which pushed leaders across the country to examine misconduct and racial bias in policing. 

That movement hit home in Colorado, where police officers and paramedics have spent months on trial for the death of Elijah McClain. Paramedics in Aurora injected McClain with a fatal dose of ketamine after Aurora police arrested McClain while he was walking home from a convenience store.

Meanwhile, Denver has paid out millions of dollars in settlements and lawsuits over claims of police misconduct during the 2020 protests.

“At a time when our city is being asked to restore trust in our police, that faith is being built on a clear expectation from the public that our first responders will hold themselves to a certain standard, one which makes everyone feel more safe about who will be answering a call for help,” said Councilwoman Shontel Lewis in a separate statement Tuesday. “That the city’s officials are saying one thing publicly while encouraging substandard hiring practices behind the scenes raises real concerns for myself and many of my colleagues on Denver’s City Council.”

At the press conference Tuesday, Lewis, alongside Parady and Councilmember Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, called for an investigation into the Commission and its relationships with city leadership. They emphasized that Murray was speaking out on behalf of herself, not the entire commission. Murray did not take questions at the press conference.

“I want to let everyone know that Director Murray is up here today at tremendous personal cost,” Parady said. “This is a terrifying thing to do, quite frankly, and she's here because as a very dedicated public servant, she came to the point where she felt she had no other choice.”

Editor's note: This article was updated to include comment from Saldate and information from city leadership.

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