Aug 9, 2023 - News

Denver Sheriff Department's plan to expand authority hits snag

Photo illustration of an open jail cell door, unlocked handcuffs, and a clock.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The Denver Sheriff Department's plan to create a unit with deputies who will have the ability to file criminal charges is facing a major roadblock.

  • Deputies are primarily responsible for supervising city jails, and also provide security for the City and County Building and carry out court-ordered evictions.

Why it matters: The additional duties would create more authority for an agency struggling to fill its ranks to fulfill its required work.

  • The department is short 287 deputies as of July 28, according to spokesperson Daria Serna.

Catch up quick: Creating a criminal charges team in the sheriff's department was introduced under former Mayor Michael Hancock's 2022 safety plan. The idea was to manage certain calls, like inmate assaults or possession of drug paraphernalia.

  • Right now, when a crime is reported inside city jails, police officers respond to investigate.
  • A criminal charges team would allow sheriff deputies to investigate and file charges.

Driving the news: The new team came up last Friday during a public meeting of the Citizen Oversight Board, the civilian group tasked with overseeing the Office of the Independent Monitor.

  • The monitor serves as a watchdog for Denver's law enforcement agencies.

Yes, but: Allowing deputies to file criminal charges would require approval from Denver public safety executive director Armando Saldate. And even if Saldate did authorize the agency, it's not clear if deputies would be able to legally carry out arrests.

The intrigue: Saldate tells us he is waiting for an opinion from the City Attorney's Office, since city laws say these powers rest with Denver police.

What they're saying: Regardless of what the legal opinion says, he's skeptical about moving forward with the plan: "I don't know that that's a good idea right now with the staffing shortages that we have."

  • Oversight board members Stefan Stein last week called the situation "troubling" given the legal concerns.

Of note: Sheriff Elias Diggins declined to speak to Axios Denver, with a spokesperson referring questions to Saldate for comment.

  • During a board meeting last year, Diggins said the criminal charges team would consist of a sergeant and five deputies.

By the numbers: 13 charges were filed on average per month against people in custody in 2021, according to city documents.

  • The jail's average daily population is roughly 1,700 inmates.

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