Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Q&A: Denver’s new sheriff on learning from protesters, modeling Denver’s jails after Norway, and more

Denver’s new sheriff is taking over leadership of the city’s two jails at an unprecedented time, as a global pandemic and national civil rights movement are changing the way the country thinks about crime and punishment.

Sheriff Elias Diggins took over as Denver’s jails remain the site of one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the state, 140 of the agency’s 871 deputy positions are unfilled and the names of men killed in the city’s jails have been chanted by protesters in the streets.

Diggins joined the department in 1994 and worked his way through the ranks, including a stint as interim sheriff from 2014 to 2015. He has been in high-ranking positions during the jail’s many controversies over the last several years and has become embroiled in them himself, including a secretly-recorded phone call that cost him his previous position as interim sheriff and a lawsuit alleging he covered up mistreatment of an inmate. Both he and Mayor Michael Hancock acknowledged that history during a news conference announcing his appointment and said it was time for Diggins to have a second chance.

Diggins spoke with The Denver Post on Wednesday about his priorities as sheriff, calls for criminal justice reform and more. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

There is a lot of discussion in the city, and nation, about criminal justice reform. What reforms would you like to see here at the Denver Sheriff Department? 

It’s different from reform. It’s transformation. We have been through a lot of reform over the past few years. We’re now in a state of transformation. Everything that we do, we’ve got to revisit and understand what is the community’s expectation for who the Denver Sheriff Department is. What does the community expect us to be? And through all of the protest, through the civil uneasiness and unrest, law enforcement as a whole has to transform. I want to ensure that humanity is infused in everything that we do, that we lead with our humanity at all times. And that we recognize that the people who are with us — whether they’re in custody or people that we’re dealing with in the community or the courts — that we deal with them in the way that we want somebody to deal with our mom or our dad, treat them with the dignity and respect that we give to our sisters or to our brothers.

The other thing that I want to share with everyone, with our staff, is that we’ve got to understand that deprivation of a person’s freedom is their punishment. We all, through our constitutional rights, are endowed with three inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And when we take away a person’s inalienable right of liberty, when we take that away, that’s enough. We don’t have to punish anyone further.

In previous interviews, you referenced an interest in following the Norweigan model of incarceration, specifically when it comes to re-entry. Are you interested in looking at the other parts of the Norway model, like creating a homier setting and building more equitable relationships between deputies and inmates? 

I haven’t been to Norway yet. But I have been to Las Colinas, which is the the women’s detention facility run by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. They have taken the ideas behind that and actually done it in the United States, where the color palettes that are on the walls are something that you would see in your home. The way that the campus is laid out is very open. The housing areas are bright, the furniture, the fixtures, the equipment, everything is done with the sense of understanding that jail doesn’t have to be a hardened environment in order to keep it secure. And that’s what the Norway model is. It’s about understanding that the environment has a direct impact on someone’s psyche while they’re in your custody.

What we have already done is attempt to replicate portions of that with our Building 24 project. We actually sent a group out to San Diego to see the Las Colinas model. If you go to the county jail campus it has different color palettes that are intentional. I would like to eventually see that we move in the future to replicating that in everything that we do.

One of the things that I know is in Norway, and even at Las Colinas, the interaction between the staff and the people in custody is way different. There’s a level of respect that begins with the way that (deputies) address people, they address people with sir and ma’am. And I think that goes far to say that you’re addressing everyone with a sense of dignity. And that begins to let people know that you still have your dignity.

How do you get to people on board with that idea who aren’t already?

Well, we have people that will serve as ambassadors inside of our agency. It’s about ensuring that I’m selecting leaders that actually believe in it that can help to make the transformation, and for those who are a little harder to buy in, perhaps we even take them to some of those places so that they can see how this works. So they can see how the environment can be different and hopefully get them to that place.

Do you plan on making any of those kind of environmental changes at the Downtown Detention Center?

We’ll look around to see where we can do that. The biggest change that you can make something that’s very simple, is changing the color patterns to be more inviting. Jail doesn’t have to be just all stark gray walls. Once we get out of the recession that we’re in and have an opportunity to perhaps change the furniture, fixtures and equipment. There are companies that are now making equipment that is still detention grade. It’s safe in a jail environment. But it’s seats that you see in an office or that you see in a conference room, things of that nature that just look a little bit different than what you see a in a typical jail environment.

The Denver jail population has been hovering at about 50% of its pre-pandemic numbers due to changes in arrests and bond procedures intended to reduce the number of people locked up during COVID-19. Is that something you’d like to see continue in the future, this strategized way to reduce the number of people locked up here?

Absolutely. I absolutely hope that we can stay in the space where we are only jailing people when it’s absolutely necessary. As a last resort.

What are your other priorities for the next six months?

Getting out and talking to our staff and documenting a couple of things. The first is the challenges that they see with our agency, but also what they believe to be the solutions. And I think that’s really where you get those things is from the people that are on the ground that do the work, the rank and file staff, uniform and civilian that can bring those great ideas. So I’m getting out. I’m going to be touring and talking with them. I’m gonna do the same thing with the people that are in our custody and talk to them and also talk to the community.

Speaking of the community, I’m also standing up a board that’s going to meet every single month. The title of it is the Community Employee Leadership Council. It’s gonna include community advocates, as well as some folks that I’m not going to talk about yet because I’m still trying to get them to the table, as well as the leadership of every single employee organization inside the Denver Sheriff’s Department to ensure that our employees have a voice. And that group is going to be completed by myself, my two chiefs, the six majors, and some of our other senior leaders, and we’re going to meet every single month, and we’re going to keep minutes and the leadership team is going to be responsible for responding and taking action on the ideas that are brought to that table.

That’s going to help to lift morale. I think it’s going to help lower attrition. And it’s going to be something that is seen as an effort towards the goodwill that the community expects from the Denver Sheriff Department.

What are the biggest challenges in the department right now?

It’s absolutely retention. When it comes to morale, we’ve got to ensure that we give our staff a voice and that we are actively moving towards those solutions. And so that’s going to be a priority for every single leader in this agency. We have some training to do with some of our supervisors to help them to understand what it means to be a leader. To be able to direct the actions of staff is something that sometimes can be a challenge. But every single supervisor, especially the sergeants, which are the most important leadership rank in our agency, they have got to be comfortable in doing.

Those are probably the biggest challenges for us besides the overall trust that has been broken with the community with all law enforcement and figuring out ways to earn that back.

Did you attend or watch any of the protests that have happened here in the past months?

I was actually deployed during the protest and worked there. And there’s a video on Twitter of the protesters came right up to 14th Avenue to the fence line that we have. There was a mother, who told me that her daughter was so afraid of law enforcement that she was afraid that she was going to die. And she asked me if I would speak to her. I walked up to that fence line with all of my staff back behind me. And I told that young lady that I love her. And we’re here to serve you. We’re here to help.

One of the things that I remember vividly was the protesters chanting, “I don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?” And at the time, we were all dressed with helmets, and all of the gear that you see in those videos, and that changed my perspective. Because at that time, the protesters were generally peaceful, but we continued to dress up. I told our staff, “We’re not going to put that on. Everybody take their helmet off. Unless there is something that we know is a specific threat to us. We’re going to be out here. We’re going to wait in our vehicles, but we’re going to listen to them and we’re not going to be dressed up and all this riot gear because they’re peacefully protesting.”

Are there any specific changes you plan to make in your agency as a result of the protests?

Overall, just that humanity is something that we all have to have in law enforcement. Imagine if the officers that were involved in George Floyd would have led with their humanity. It’s about what do we in uniform. We need to look in the mirror about who we are and what we do.

So you’re talking about a kind of a broader culture change, but nothing absolutely specific.

We have had a lot of changes over the past few years. And we’re ahead of a lot of agencies but we still have a lot of work to do, to really get to the place where the community really believes that the Denver Sheriff’s Department is an agency that they believe in. There are some community members that obviously support us. But there are those that still have some questions about who we are, what we do. And we want everyone to believe that we are a department that understands that we serve the people.

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