DENVER – A recent spate of high-profile excessive force cases involving Denver sheriff’s deputies became a rallying cry Monday for those accused of using too much force and those who want it to stop.
More than a hundred deputies protested outside the downtown jail over what they see as a lack of support from city officials amid the negative attention.
Their voices were muffled at times by a smaller group of counter-demonstrators who shouted “criminals” and other accusations over a loudspeaker while trying to drum up public support.
A union representing the majority of the roughly 730 deputies in the Denver Sheriff’s Department held the rally as the department tries to make sweeping reforms amid allegations involving use of force against jail inmates.
One former inmate received a $3.3 million settlement in a jail-abuse lawsuit, the largest payout in city history to resolve a civil-rights case.
A federal jury is currently hearing a civil case against five Denver deputies accused of causing the 2010 jail death of a homeless street preacher. Other incidents have prompted calls for a federal investigation of the department.
Former Sheriff Gary Wilson stepped down, and interim Sheriff Elias Diggins assured deputies last week they could use force when necessary.
However, the scrutiny has made deputies afraid to do so even for protection, said Mike Jackson, president of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents Denver deputies.
“The inmates are starting incidents, and the deputies don’t want to put their hands on them because they’re afraid they’re going to be retaliated against” by department leadership, sheriff’s Sgt. Charles Denovellis said.
A task force looking to change the way the department disciplines deputies has issued 32 recommendations, including swifter and steeper punishment for deputies who use inappropriate force or lie about it.
“We’re used to making split-second decisions,” Deputy Michael Britton said. “Now, we’re second-guessing the same split-second decisions we’ve made before.”
Jackson told onlookers that inmates were becoming more aggressive. Daelene Mix, a spokeswoman for the city’s safety department, said it’s studying whether assaults by inmates have increased.
As Jackson spoke, supporters of Marvin Booker, the street preacher, held a banner with his image.
“People tend to deserve the reputations they get,” said Jesse Cooper, who was among those holding the sign.