“Wasn’t suited to be sheriff”: Patrick Firman’s resignation follows years of lacking respect, ongoing jail trouble
Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman's resignation this week culminated years of mistrust from deputies and community activists, who said that was the price of filling the position with a man who was never the right person for the job.
Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman’s resignation this week culminated years of mistrust from deputies and community activists, who said that was the price of filling the position with a man who was never the right person for the job.
Firman didn’t have experience running a large jail system in a diverse city, never gained respect from the deputies and didn’t have the personality to forge reform and culture change in an organization with approximately 1,100 employees, they said.
“Nice guy, just wasn’t suited to be sheriff,” said Lisa Calderón, chief of staff for Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and a longtime advocate for changes in the jails.
Firman talked about leaving his position for months before the Wednesday announcement of his impending resignation, Denver Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said at a news conference Thursday. Firman’s resignation, effective Oct. 14, follows years of trouble at the city’s two jails and two recent high-profile lawsuits that may have increased pressure to resign. The mayor’s re-election in June also gave the administration more freedom to make changes, Calderón said.
“There was clearly some writing on the wall that he should go or be ousted,” said Denise Maes, public policy director at the ACLU of Colorado who has also been involved in jail reform.
Efforts to reach Firman since his resignation have been unsuccessful.
Michael Britton, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Denver Sheriff Lodge #27, said he thought Firman’s resignation was the result of political pressure. From the beginning, Firman was constrained by a system that places the sheriff under the management of the city, limiting his authority and autonomy.
“I have nothing against Firman,” Britton said. “He’s a nice guy. He was just put in a no-win situation.”
When Firman took the job in 2015, he inherited a department under intense scrutiny after a series of excessive force cases that cost the city millions in settlements. Before Firman was hired, Mayor Michael Hancock announced a review of the department’s policies and procedures and said he needed a “change agent” as sheriff to lead the necessary reforms.
The city hired Firman after a hasty search and despite criticism that Firman was not qualified. From the start, the deputies union opposed his hiring and never came around to support him. In recent weeks, the FOP has posted repeatedly on social media urging Firman to resign or the mayor to fire him.
“I think he was way over his head, and I think he had a lot of people who didn’t want him there,” said Mark Pogrebin, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver who studies jails. “From the very beginning I think it was a mistake. I don’t know how they hired him.”
In the first months under Firman’s watch, deputies killed Michael Marshall, a homeless man who was suffering from a psychotic episode, and more than a dozen female deputies filed a federal lawsuit saying the department failed to protect them from sexual harassment from male inmates. Firman ordered an audit in 2016 after multiple incidents of deputies releasing inmates early or failing to release those who had served their time.
Three years after his hiring, Firman announced in August 2018 that the department had completed nearly all of the 400 reforms recommended by an outside consultant, the city’s independent monitor and auditor, and community groups, though he acknowledged that there was always room for the department to improve.
Then and now, community leaders and advocates doubted whether the reforms would usher in broad culture change.
“Nobody ended up taking the reins and guiding these officers through these changes,” Britton said.
The department still struggles to recruit and retain deputies and is 123 deputies short of full staffing, Britton said. The sheriff’s department for years paid millions in overtime because of those shortages.
Recent agency disciplinary cases include three deputies who have been charged with crimes so far this year, suspensions for deputies who ignored a woman suffering from hours of seizures in the jail, and discipline for allowing an attempted murder suspect escape. Last month, the sheriff’s department made national news after a woman filed a federal lawsuit, saying deputies ignored her cries for help as she gave birth in a jail cell.
Even Riggs acknowledged morale remains low in the department and said it was one of his priorities for improvement.
“I’m not going to say conclusively that the reforms have not mattered one bit, but boy it’s like watching water boil,” Maes said.
Running jails is a difficult job, Pogrebin said. It is an intense environment that necessitates working with hundreds of people experiencing crises.
Any sheriff selected from the outside to complete major reform is going to face push back from the rank and file. To overcome that, leaders need to meet with their employees, create a plan and develop buy-in from the staff. That never happened in Firman’s case, Pogrebin said.
“Jails are the stepchild of the whole criminal justice system,” he said. “You can’t blame (Firman) for all the problems that exist in jails.”
Denver’s unique system of having an appointed sheriff also sets up leaders for failure, said Calderón, who once ran a community re-entry program out of the jails. The sheriff is subject to the direction of the mayor’s office and works under a civilian director of public safety. That limits the sheriff’s autonomy to make reforms, hire or fire staff and make budgetary decisions, she said.
“You have politicians running a jail,” she said. “Firman was supposed to be a change agent, but without the authority to make those changes.”
The day after the city announced Firman’s resignation, CdeBaca said she wants to make the sheriff an elected position. She will ask council to place a question on the 2020 ballot that would allow voters to decide.
In the meantime, the city will begin its search for the new sheriff. Riggs pledged Thursday to be transparent throughout the process and said he would first listen to deputies and the community.
Pogrebin said the new sheriff should have truly innovative ideas and an ability to develop younger staff into leaders. Maes said she’s looking for someone with a significant record of taking a large department and changing it for the better.
“They need to make people believe it’s not idiots that are running this place,” Pogrebin said. “The community demands better.”
Britton was skeptical that any appointed sheriff could effect significant change.
“We want a vision,” he said. “Nobody has a vision. Nobody knows what to do.”
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