Denver’s Sheriff Talks About Lowering The Heat, Danger Of Inmate Confrontations

Listen Now
Denver Sheriff Department Record Recruit Class
A record number of recruits graduated from the Denver sheriff department's academy in May 2016.

Denver's new sheriff, Patrick Firman, is charged with reforming his troubled department, and he's just made a proposal aimed at perhaps its most troublesome issue.

In 2014, the city spent almost $10 million to settle lawsuits claiming deputes used excessive force on inmates, and the complaints haven't stopped there. Just last November, an inmate who was restrained by six deputies during a psychotic episode choked on his own vomit and died. While prosecutors declined to file charges against the deputies, the case provoked a public outcry.

Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman
Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman

Firman took office last October. He spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

On sheriff's union president Mike Jackson's assertion the new policy will increase danger for deputies, inmates and other jail staff:

"When Mike Jackson says that the deputies are going to now hesitate before they act, that's really what we want them to do. We want them to think about whether or not they can de-escalate something before they react. And so we think that that's going to create a safer environment for both the inmates and for our staff."

On whether increased reporting requirements will take excessive time from deputies who would otherwise be working with inmates:

"We're hiring almost 200 new deputies this year. We're promoting a large group of individuals into supervisory roles. We understand that in order for this policy to work, in order for the deputies to have the time to step back and write these reports and be accurate with them, we've got to provide them with the resources to that. ... I'm committed to advocating for the staff and making sure that they get what they need in order to comply with this policy."

Read the transcript:

Ryan Warner:  This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. In a single year, 2014, Denver paid almost $10 million to settle claims that its sheriff deputies used too much force. As recently as last November, an inmate's death sparked a public outcry. Now the city has introduced a new policy that imposes much tougher limits on how much force deputies can use. Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman joins us to discuss this new policy and a boatload of other changes that have been recommended for his department. And sheriff, welcome to the program.

Sheriff Patrick Firman: Thank you.

Warner: This new policy means essentially that deputies are required to consider non-violent options before using force on an inmate. When they do use force, it has to be the least possible amount to end the threat. Respond to someone who hears that and thinks, "well, that's a no-brainer; force only when necessary."

Firman:  Well you know it is, and really what it is is it's changing the perspective and really what we're asking the deputies to do is, and again, when they have the ability, to look at de-escalation as a first option. And so the policy really focuses on not necessarily what they can do, but what they should do. A lot of times in the past in a lot of departments they talk about this is how much you can get by with legally. We wanted to kind of flip that on its side and say "look, we know what you can do legally but here's really what you should do" and so this policy focuses on that. 

And again it understands the fact that as sheriff's deputies we deal with an incredibly difficult population. Everybody that comes through our doors has some issue going on. They're in crisis. They've got mental health issues. They've got substance abuse issues. So a lot of times our deputies are responding to behavior. So there are many times that we know and we understand that there's going to be a force, there's going to be use of force incidents because we're responding to that behavior and there's no time. What this policy does is it looks at those times when there are opportunities where the deputy can step back and put a plan together, can get a supervisor there, can get some back up and utilize interpersonal communication skills to de-escalate that situation as opposed to looking at force as a first option.

Warner: Yeah the policy makes reference to "verbal judo." What does that mean?

Firman: Verbal judo is, it's kind of a catch phrase in the law enforcement field but it really is using interpersonal communication skills to deal with behavior.

Warner: What does that sound like? Take me into the jail and paint us a picture of what that looks like and sounds like.

Firman: Well you've got people as I said, people that are coming in, especially down at our intake area, we have about 25 percent of our population have some type of mental health issue. Many of them are coming in, they're under the influence of some type of drug or alcohol or they're going through detox from drug or alcohol. And so you know you've got individuals that have a lot of different things going on, they're in crisis mode. They're not responding like people who aren't in crisis mode are responding to things so this idea of verbal judo, CIT, which is Crisis Intervention Training, emphasizes kind of understanding where people are at. And taking that and looking at different ways to communicate with them.

For example, somebody may be a schizophrenic and maybe hearing 50 different voices in their head. It may not be that they're not listening to you, it may be that they're not hearing you and so our deputies need to kind of understand that and look at that from a different perspective; that people are in crisis and there are other ways to deal with that. 

Warner: Are there types of scenarios that are most likely to escalate quickly?

Firman: Yeah, I think the biggest issue that we have is down in our intake area and that's where people are coming in fresh off the street. They've just been arrested. Like I said they may be currently under the influence of something and so it's a very volatile situation, a very volatile area down in our intake area. We do have areas up in our special management units where we house people that may have some particular mental health issues or behavioral issues. So things can escalate very quickly, especially with the population that we're dealing with.

Warner: Yeah and it makes me wonder if deputies truly are equipped to deal with complex mental health issues. I suppose there can be training in de-escalation but at a certain point are you asking a law enforcement official to be doing the job of a mental health professional?

Firman: Yeah and I think you're right. And I think it's changing and it's not an issue that's unique to Denver. This is something that you see across our nation with jails really becoming kind of the de facto mental health institution as we close down the formal mental health institutions, there's no place left for them to go and so the default to that is they get dropped off at the jail. And so most, a lot of times our deputies are not equipped and so one of the things that we're committed to doing is we're committed to getting all of our deputies trained in this CIT, this Crisis Intervention Training. We think that's important to give them some skills and some more tools in order to deal with this population because it's changing. I think jails across the country are becoming more and more filled with individuals with mental health issues. 

Warner: We spoke to the president of the sheriff's deputies union, Mike Jackson, who thinks this new use of force policy will increase the risk to deputies, to inmates and to other jail staff.

Mike Jackson: You put everybody at risk when you don't react. And this is what this policy will do; it will make deputies be hesitant to react because they'll be thinking about this policy and did they do all these things because they know I'm going to have to write these things and if I don't write these things then I'm going to be subjected to discipline. 

Warner: Sheriff, can I get your response?

Firman: You know I think change is hard. Anytime that we introduce something like a new policy it's tough and we're in the process right now, we've started our, the in-service training this week actually with our staff to help them understand the policy, help them understand what some of the changes are. I think some of that fear comes from just not understanding exactly what it entails. A lot of this policy was done with committee work and so we had 44 different individuals from within the community, from within the sheriff's department. We had representation from the FOP at those committees.

Warner: Fraternal Order of Police.

Firman: The Fraternal Order of Police, yes. And so I think there's always that not-knowing and so there's this tendency sometimes to catastrophize things. I'm confident that once the deputies understand what the policy is, most of what, you know we've been talking about this for awhile now. This isn't something where you know this policy comes out and all of a sudden tomorrow everything is different. We've been talking about de-escalation, we've been talking about the importance of that, we've been training that in our academies. This policy is really a formalization of all of these previous conversations that we had that we believe will help staff better understand what it is that we're looking for. So when Mike Jackson says that the deputies are going to now hesitate before they act, that's really what we want them to do. We want them to think about whether or not they can de-escalate something before they react. And so we think that that's going to create a safer environment for both the inmates and for our staff. 

We understand and we've continually emphasized the fact that we know there will be use of force incidences, it's just the nature of what we do. And we understand that there are going to be many times where deputies don't have the opportunity to take a step back and think through that. So there are going to be instances where the deputies are going to have to defend themselves and are going to have to use force. We're continuing to train force in our academies. We continue to train self-defense. We're not taking those skills away from them. That's, it's an incredibly important thing for what we do.

Warner: Are there "bad apples" you have to get rid of?

Firman: You know I think within any organization I think there's people that are, that make everybody else look bad. I think there will be people in our organization that are not going to be able to grasp this policy or are not going to be able to deal with this type of population and I think we're committed to identifying those individuals and when we can, salvage them, give them some additional training, give them some mentorship. And those that just can't or won't get it, then we are going to do what we can to get them out.

Warner: In addition to the new rules about when and how much force to use, a deputy who does decide to use force, will have to fill out a report. If part of the idea is for deputies to spend more time with inmates, to keep things under control to begin with, aren't you introducing more bureaucracy that could cost them time?

Firman: Well you know, the report writing is an important aspect of that and again trying to get the deputies to understand and to be able to articulate why they're doing what they're doing. And we understand that that's going to take some resources and so one of the things that we're doing in addition to this in-service training is you know we're bringing on resources. We're hiring almost 200 new deputies this year. We're promoting a large group of individuals into supervisory roles. We understand that in order for this policy to work, in order for the deputies to have the time to step back and write these reports and be accurate with them, we've got to provide them with the resources to that. And so that's something we're working on, we understand that. We believe that by the time that we get some more of these academies graduated and we get staffing on the floor, that we will be able to accomplish that.  But I'm committed to advocating for the staff and making sure that they get what they need in order to comply with this policy. 

Warner: Again we asked for the union's thoughts on this reporting requirement in particular and folks there are concerned that the people who decide whether the force used was justified will make subjective judgments. Here's Mike Jackson of the union again.

Jackson: We think that this policy really gives the department the ability to discipline whoever they want, regardless if it's a good use of force or a bad use of force, it wouldn't even matter. It really will give them the ability to say well if they don't like a person, they use this policy against them. And if they do like a person, and it's a bad use of force, they'll use the policy to help that person.

Warner: What do you think?

Firman: Well you know, and I think we've got enough safeguards in place. We have, every investigation we do is overseen by the independent monitor. We have representation from the Fraternal Order of Police when we have disciplinary hearings. This is not, the decision to discipline or the decision of whether a force was justified or not is not something that one person makes. It's something that's a, there's a lot of eyes on it and I believe it's a fair process. 

Warner: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and we are speaking with Denver's still fairly new sheriff, that is Patrick Firman and he, along with other city and county officials have unveiled a new plan for deputies' use of force. So I want to say that in 2014, the city and county hired a national consulting firm and paid $300,000 for an in-depth review of the sheriff's department. The report came out in May of last year, that was before you were appointed sheriff, it was very critical, identifying 14 separate key findings and 277 recommendations for improvement. Can you point to another change of direction, besides the use of force policy, that you are implementing?

Firman: Yep. I think a huge piece of that, and we have talked in the past about this idea of base-building. You know none of these changes are going to be successful unless we have the resources available to do that and so we, we're committed to bringing additional deputies on board, we just had a class a couple weeks ago graduate, of 80 new deputy recruits. We have a current sitting class of 60 recruits, a little over 60 recruits.

We've got a outside company that we've contracted with to conduct some promotional examinations for us. One of the critiques of the department was that the promotional process was not fair and did not look at the right characteristics and so we've contracted with an outside agency to actually conduct promotional exams that look at leadership skills, leadership qualities. And so we're committed to giving that test and getting more supervision on the floor so that we can have the supervisors get up in to the housing units and do their rounds and mentor the staff, the deputies, like what they need to be doing.

We've, we're in the process of hiring some civilian people to take some of the responsibilities off of the shoulders of the supervisors. An example of that would be our scheduling unit. Rather than have deputies sit in a room and conduct scheduling or fill out the schedules, we're going to get some civilians in there to relieve them so that they can get out on the floors and develop those relationships with the staff.

We've done some reorganization with the department. We've created a brand-new inmate management unit which focuses on really everything to do with inmate management. Our classification unit, our grievance process, our inmate programs, so that's new for the department, we're changing our focus and kind of looking specifically at this idea of the people that we work with. Our strategic…go ahead.

Warner: We mentioned that the city paid almost $10 million in settlements in 2014 for lawsuits claiming excessive force. Just last November, a man having a psychotic episode died after deputies restrained him, he choked on his own vomit. It was ruled a homicide, the DA decided against prosecution. But let's sit back, the Denver Post profiled you recently and described what they called your mantra to deputies, quoting here, "You're going to be expected to treat people with dignity, no matter how they treat you. We are human beings who work with human beings in crisis."  I guess to wrap up, have sheriff's deputies not met that standard of dignity in the past?

Firman: You know I think, I don't think it's been a focus and I think that's the big change is that the focus now is on people and it's not just, it's relationships with supervisors, with deputies, it's relationships with our community and engaging our community and it's relationships with the inmates. And I think you know one of the unique things about what we do, especially when you talk about the detention facilities, is there's, there's this sense of maintaining control. We're always outnumbered in the jails and so a lot of times the mantra is you need to maintain a professional distance with the inmates and I think over time that kind of has developed into this not seeing them as necessarily as people but seeing them as inmates. And I don't think we're unique to that. I think if you look out in society, in the communities, I think a lot of times the communities have that same thing and they look at inmates as just ex-cons or ex-felons and so everybody is grouped together and nobody wants to hire them or give them a chance and I think what we're focusing on is looking at them as individuals. Looking at them for who they are and the fact that it's not our job to punish them. The punishment is just that they're being locked up. They're being separated from society and so we're not here to punish them even more than that. 

Warner: I want to just clarify that we said homicide for that death and that homicide means that someone died at the hands of someone else, it's not necessarily a crime. Just to be crystal clear on that. Sheriff, thanks for being with us. 

Firman: Sure. Thanks.

Warner: Sheriff Patrick Firman was named to that position in October, 2015. He joined us from his office downtown. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.