Co-chair of Colorado Latino Forum blasts Denver Sheriff's Department in strongly-worded letter

Posted at 3:52 PM, Jun 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-24 20:06:04-04

DENVER – The co-chair of a Latino advocacy group in Colorado is calling out the Denver Sheriff’s Department over discrimination, Latino representation within the agency and jail overcrowding and assaults that the group claims disproportionately impact the Latino community.

In a strongly worded letter obtained by Denver7, Lisa Calderon, the co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum Denver, calls out Sheriff Patrick Firman, accusing him of being the first sheriff in the past 20 years who has refused to meet with Latino and African-American community leaders to discuss pressing issues that impact both communities.

“It is our people who are suffering due to mass incarceration, an overcrowded dangerous jails [sic], and lack fair and timely legal processes that disadvantage the poor, mentally ill and addicted,” Calderon writes in the letter.

The exchange between Calderon, Sheriff Firman and Pastor Terrence Hughes, the president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, started after Calderon raised concerns regarding the demotion of former Denver sheriff Gary Wilson, who was accused of providing preferential treatment to an inmate related to Denver Department of Safety executive director Stephanie O’Malley.

Documents obtained by the Denver Post showed Wilson and his sister, Phazaria Koonce, made decisions based on political and familial ties and bypassed established procedures to benefit the inmate.

The newspaper reports Koonce was booking O’Malley’s niece on Sept. 7 and escorted her through the booking process while skipping several steps that ensure safety for both deputies and inmates, according to the documents obtained by the post.

The Post also reports deputies working at the downtown jail complained of preferential treatment and even called the internal affairs bureau to complain – some doing so anonymously for fear of retaliation.

In the letter obtained by Denver7, Calderon calls Wilson’s demotion ‘questionable” while also questioning the department’s “lighter punishment” in excessive use of force cases and the lack of a “cohesive plan” to reduce jail overcrowding and rising assaults.

“There seems to be a pattern and practice of discriminatory and differential treatment in your Department that you refuse to acknowledge or address, and that we are now experiencing firsthand,” the letter continues.

While not addressed in the emails, responses from the sheriff’s department allude to the fact that Calderon had requested for department leaders to discuss Wilson’s demotion, which the department said it cannot do because that is subject to the City’s employment appeal process.

In a series of emails also obtained by Denver7, Sheriff Firman also discusses dates, times and places for community meetings as well as topics on the agenda, which Calderon responded to by saying the community had “no interest in hearing about your exclusionary Sheriff's Advisory Board, the impractical organizational realignment, or superficial strategic planning process.”

“You are being asked to attend a community meeting to hear OUR concerns about these issues, including the unjust and politically motivated demotion of Chief Gary Wilson, and the lack of people of color in leadership positions beyond tokenism, a practice we find highly offensive yet you tend to repeat,” Calderon wrote in response.

Pastor Hughes was also part of the talks to set up a meeting to talk about issues affecting the community and in an email, replied to Sheriff Firman by doubling down on Calderon’s topics of discussion.

But in response to that email, Firman expressed disappointment over the “inappropriate tone that has been conveyed” between community leaders and the sheriff’s department, and he declined the request for a meeting after a draft agenda was proposed by the department “to demonstrate a vested interest in thoughtful discussion."

Speaking to Denver7 reporter Sally Mamdooh, Calderon said the focus of the meeting is not Wilson's demotion, adding they would really like to speak to him about his "absentee leadership." 

"What we want to talk to Sheriff Firman about is the rising jail population and assaults associated with crowded conditions. The stressful conditions that deputies are working under."  

In a statement sent to Denver7 on Saturday, Firman said Calderon’s claims alleging the department refused to meet with them to discuss several pressing issues to the Latino and African-American communities was not correct.

“We are happy to meet with CLF anytime – as long as recent discipline matters aren’t on the agenda.”