Denver's head of safety responds to scathing watchdog report on inmate death

Posted at 8:13 PM, Apr 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-25 22:13:11-04

DENVER -- Denver's new head of safety and top deputy took the heat from elected leaders during a committee hearing Wednesday as they responded to a scathing report from the city's watchdog, and vowed to make changes.

This comes more than a month after half of city councilors didn't show up for a meeting to hear about the mistakes from independent monitor Nick Mitchell. A stark comparison to the packed committee room on Wednesday, where almost all the council members on the committee were in attendance.

Mitchell's report found the city mishandled the investigation into the Denver jail death of inmate Michael Marshall, and failed to hold anyone accountable.

Marshall was struggling with a mental illness and died at the hands of deputies in 2015. The case cost taxpayers nearly $5 million to settle. Despite all that none of the deputies, captains or sergeants involved in Marshall's death had their discipline upheld.

"When I arrived and I saw that we have an individual who died in jail. That's there's (sic) questions about use of force, and no one has been terminated. That is a question, but understanding the policy was in place at the time," said Riggs.

Riggs explained that ever since the Marshall incident, the department has adopted a new use of force policy that is clearer on deputy's responsibilities and de-escalation techniques. He also pointed to a recent rule change in how deputies appeal their discipline to the career service board, which oversees discipline for the department. Under the changes, the burden of proof now falls on the deputies instead of the city to prove why they believe any discipline is unwarranted.

Two months on the job, Riggs also shined a light one what he called a mental health crisis in our community.

"I do not believe Mr. Marshall should have been incarcerated. His death should have never occurred because he was in a jail setting. He should have been somewhere getting assistance," he said.

Riggs said he plans to work with nonprofits and city leaders to find beds that don't come with handcuffs, to help those struggling to get the help they need.

"I have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of this city and I am going to ask their patience as we develop data. As we share that data, we get input," he said. "But if we're gonna deal with these issues. We have to deal with the training. We have to make sure we have the best and brightest applying and we're retaining them in these positions. But we also have to have a community dialog."

Riggs said the department plans to release a comprehensive report in July that will update the public on the ongoing efforts to reform the sheriff's department, and where the agency plans to go from there.

"In general, I'm happy with the responses what I'll be looking for is actual outcomes," said safety committee chair Councilman Paul Kashmann. "Very anxious to hear the outcome on whether or not Director Riggs will choose to civilianize the leadership of the internal affairs bureau."

Mitchell report recommended civilianizing the IAB process, and Riggs said he was exploring the idea and how best to make it work.   

"We also need leadership, and what I would like to do is find a seasoned professional that's a civilian. That will come here and be here long-term to make sure that that leadership is solid and is best practice oriented here in the city of Denver," said Riggs.