DENVER - Denver safety director Stephanie O'Malley says she's striving to create a fair but efficient system for reviewing more than 100 disciplinary cases at the troubled Denver Sheriff's Department.
O'Malley said her most "urgent priority" is hiring an independent organization to study the agency and stop the flood of abuse complaints -- and steady stream of videos showing deputies brutalizing inmates -- that has damaged public trust in the city's jail system.
"We want to get this right and we want to again regain the confidence of the public," O'Malley told 7NEWS Reporter Amanda Kost Tuesday. "The priority of this office is to get to that space."
The drive by Mayor Michael Hancock and O'Malley to fix the sheriff's department is fueled by fallout from a federal lawsuit by former jail inmate Jamal Hunter. He accused one deputy of encouraging inmates to torture him with scalding water and another deputy of choking him to the ground. The lawsuit includes accusations of a deputy smuggling porn and drugs into inmates and an assistant city attorney using police detectives to intimate or discredit witnesses in the case.
The city has given initial approval to a $3.25 million settlement with Hunter that the City Council is expected to finalize next week.
Revelations in the Hunter lawsuit recently led Sheriff Gary Wilson to step down.
7NEWS' Kost asked O'Malley how she'll stop the mounting disciplinary cases?
The safety director replied that the 100-plus pending cases are symptomatic of the number of complaints inmates make against deputies.
"We can't control the number, okay," O'Malley said. "What we can control are the things that perhaps are precipitating some of the conduct and the behavior, getting at training, getting at -- where appropriate -- ridding ourselves of those deputies that have demonstrated that they have violated policies or procedures."
Mayor Hancock has instructed O'Malley's Department of Safety to expedite the review and handling of pending disciplinary cases.
Why do some disciplinary cases take more than a year to resolve? Kost asked.
"One major reason that has been put out there historically is the protection and integrity of the investigation and the process itself," O'Malley said, "[and] being able to balance due process rights for those who are accused of misconduct and their response to the allegations. It’s a huge balancing act that we have to be a participant in."
"It has taken a lot of time historically, and my goal is to get at that," she said.
O'Malley said that's why she wants to bring in an outside firm with fresh eyes to help get at the root of what's wrong at the sheriff's department and propose effective, efficient solutions.
Kost points to the latest videos in jail abuse cases.
- One video shows a Dec. 26, 2012 incident where Deputy Steven Valerio punches an inmate, throws him to the ground and then lifts him by his handcuffs. It took 15 months for the city to fire Valerio. Now Valerio is appealing.
- Another video shows a Sept. 26, 2013 incident where Sgt. Ned St. Germain is accused ordering two deputies to deploy their stun guns against an inmate who was sitting on his bunk during a suicide watch. After a seven-month investigation, St. Germain was suspended without pay for 10 days. He's also appealing his punishment.
How can the public expect a complete overhaul of the sheriff's department, when a single disciplinary case is tied up for 15 months? Kost asked.
"Well, what you do is you look at the process, which is what we’re beginning to do now in a greater way," O'Malley said. "We’re asking ourselves those tough and hard questions: Are we doing this right? Is our approach right? Is the model right?"
Kost pushed for a more specific answer, "You’re saying we need to afford due process, but when you’re looking at a piece of videotape evidence, and it clearly shows an inmate who is not displaying any kind of physical threat, and then they are punched or shoved or thrown down. Why are these investigations taking so long?"
"I can certainly understand that inquiry," O'Malley said. "But what I again would say to you, that there is a process that has to be engaged in, and that process includes affording the person accused, his or her due process considerations relative to all of the facts and evidence that must be taken into account to make a determination as to whether or not some rules or procedures have been violated."
Is there a way to afford deputies their due process rights but somehow streamline the review process?
"That’s something that we’re exploring, and that’s something that clearly I recognize as a challenge," O'Malley said.