Amid abuse of power allegations, Denver sheriff vows crackdown at jail

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Photo: Denver Sheriff Gary WilsonDenver Sheriff Gary Wilson says his department is undergoing a thorough "top-to-the-bottom" review in the wake of serious allegations of misconduct and excessive use of force involving his deputies.

The department’s Internal Affairs Bureau is currently investigating 114 allegations. Thirty-five of them claim misuse of force, according to the department, which has about 750 officers. This week Wilson placed a deputy on paid leave for allegedly using inappropriate force at the jail. Wilson has also asked the Denver District Attorney's Office to investigate whether criminal charges should be filed. And, Wilson put a second deputy on leave for allegedly writing an inaccurate report about the incident.

“What I want to see happen in the future is we see less to almost zero misconduct coming out of our department,” Wilson said in an interview with "Colorado Matters." “That’s what I hope.”

Wilson said that while his department is in the process of an overhaul, he is ready to fire officers who act unethically or violate policies.

The allegations against the jail, one of the largest in Colorado, date back years, but some have come to light only recently. Last month, a judge ordered the release of a 2011 video showing deputies apparently choking and beating inmate Jamal Hunter. Hunter has filed a lawsuit against the City and County of Denver, naming two deputies.

Jeffrey Schwartz, a nationally-recognized expert on jails and use of force, reviewed the video and said Hunter doesn’t appear to physically provoke the attack and that the deputies' restraining methods appear to constitute an excessive use of force.

The video is similar to one from a year earlier, in which deputies are shown wrestling Marvin Booker to the floor. In the video it appears that the deputies beat Booker, who later died in the hospital. His family is suing Denver. No deputies were disciplined in the Marvin Booker investigation, according to the Denver Sheriff's Department.

“It’s not one officer going sideways or going rogue or something like that,” said Schwartz, who is the president of LETRA, a nonprofit that helps turn around troubled jails. “It raises questions that need to be looked at very carefully about, ‘Is that kind of behavior being supported or condoned by management; by the overall history and practices in the department, etc.’”

Schwartz said the department should focus on creating a use of force policy that clearly states using force is a last resort -- only when deputies are facing an imminent threat. The department should review how it investigates complaints that deputies physically harmed inmates, he added.

In December the Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian oversight group established by Denver, found the Sheriff's Department was slow to investigate such reports and claims of sexual abuse. Wilson said that since then, he's making headway on improving conditions for inmates and deputies.

“What we’re doing is we’re taking a look at the agency from the top to the bottom,” Wilson said.

Departmental insiders and outsiders are making suggestions -- some that have already been implemented -- through task forces on discipline, policy, training and well-being, he said.

For instance, inmates may place free phone calls to the Office of the Independent Monitor if they want to file a complaint against a deputy. Previously if an inmate wanted to complain, the inmate might have had to file it with the very deputy who was the subject of the complaint.

In another example of progress, Wilson said the department is looking at “significant changes” in the policy that governs when deputies can use Taser electroshock weapons to incapacitate unruly inmates. In both the Hunter and Booker cases, video shows deputies apparently using Tasers.

“Part of that process is to make sure we’re reviewing incidents of concern, not just looking at it from a position of, ‘Was it justifiable [to use the weapon]?’” Wilson said. “We want to make sure we are also assessing...whether other options should have been considered.”

Wilson acknowledged deputies in his department are often stressed, and that stress can lead them to actions the department regrets. Officers are expected to be strong and there is a culture that coming forward with psychological problems is a sign of weakness, Wilson said, adding that that culture has to change.

“This profession has a very high divorce rate,” Wilson said. “This profession also has a fairly troubling suicide rate for employees.”

The department has created a wellness initiative and other resources to help, Wilson said. The Sheriff's Department issued a memo last month in the roll out, saying that good employees have made "bad decisions, resulting in personal and department-wide embarrassment." It also stated that "inappropriate and unethical behavior will not be tolerated." ​The department is also focusing on mentoring young recruits, offering family support and looking at revising deputy work schedules, among other initiatives.

Schwartz said he has seen troubled jails become models, but it takes time and money to turn the situation around, he said, adding, “It ultimately comes down to one word, and that word is leadership."