It's been Fran Gomez's personal experience that female law enforcement officers are capable of doing everything that a male officer could do, "we just (go) about it in a totally different way."
After years of controversy — including inmate deaths, excessive force cases and millions of dollars paid out in settlements — it could be argued that the Denver Sheriff's department is in need of a totally different approach. One that Gomez, who recently became the first woman named Denver Sheriff, hopes to provide.
Former Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman stepped down in September after four years at the post.
Gomez, who has spent close to 30 years in law enforcement on the street and most recently as the Sheriff Department's Director of Professional Standards, spoke to Colorado Matters about "the perfect storm" that led to her rising (on an interim basis) to the job. She also discussed some of the challenges that deputies face and the need for training and increased support — for both inmates and officers.
In 2015, Michael Marshall, an inmate at the jail, was killed by deputies while being restrained during a psychotic episode. Marshall's family eventually received $4.6 million in a settlement with the city. Gomez said the case is an example of the complexities that occur in the jail.
"Probably, at any given day, 50 percent of our jail is inhabited by a population that has mental health alerts," Gomez said. "So on top of the having an incredibly hard job dealing with the incarcerated population, obviously people who aren't really happy to be here, it's a challenge for our department because they have to care for people who would probably be best be served in other locations, maybe treatment facilities."
"We are working on many of those issues," she continued. 'We've instituted a crisis intervention training in our department. We're looking at trying to get them services inside the jail. We're trying to get them services as they leave the jail."
The department has recently attained a grant that will be used to provide support for inmates with potential mental health concerns when they're released from the jail, Gomez said.
Earlier this month, the department came under further scrutiny when, in August, a former inmate filed a lawsuit after giving birth in the jail without medical assistance. The following month, the Denver City Council approved a $1.55 million settlement for fifteen female sheriff's deputies who alleged that they had been sexually harassed on the job.
Gomez said those cases are not indicative of a cultural problem within the department.
"I'm hoping the mere fact that they have a woman in this position gives the women of the department at least the understanding that I know some of the things they've experienced," she said. "My door is open and we certainly won't tolerate any disrespect to men or women within the department. I expect there to be a high level of regard for everybody who works here."
It remains to be seen how long Gomez will hold the position. When she was announced last month as the interim sheriff, Denver Executive Director of Public Safety Troy Riggs said Gomez would likely keep the job through the end of the year. In the meantime, city officials gathered input from citizens and elsewhere about what the job should look like, or what changes to the position should perhaps be made.
City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca has suggested making the sheriff an elected position, or one determined by means other than just being appointed by the mayor.
Gomez said commenting on CdeBaca's proposal might "sound a little self-serving."
"I will say this, that whether you have an elected sheriff or an appointed sheriff, the issues and concerns of the jail will remain the same," she said.
Would Gomez be interested in seeing the interim title removed and becoming the official Denver Sheriff?
"I think it definitely might be something to consider."
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