Updated May 29, 2024 - News

Exec fired after accusing Denver mayor of lowering public safety hiring standards for political gain

A Denver police officer listens during a news briefing from Mayor Mike Johnston on May 13. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Denver Civil Service Commission's executive director Niecy Murray was fired Tuesday evening after alleging the mayor's administration has been lowering safety standards through political pressure to fill positions in the police and fire departments.

Why it matters: The commission leader and other critics had warned that Mayor Mike Johnston's push to keep his campaign promises, including adding 167 police officers this year, could mean new first responders are less qualified and ill-prepared.

State of play: Murray, who headed the commission — which oversees screening for police and firefighters — claimed Tuesday morning that since Johnston took office, the agency has come under significant political pressure to lower standards and cut corners to meet quotas for public safety positions.

  • That includes allegedly sidestepping standard protocol and, in at least one case, pushing through an applicant who failed a psychological exam.
  • Johnston "has made it clear that he will not back off of the staffing numbers he set in his campaign," Murray said in a statement Tuesday.

The latest: The five-member Board of Commissioners — three of whom are chosen by the mayor — announced in a statement later Tuesday that Murray had been notified of her release from the position following the board's May 16 decision to fire her after "weeks of deliberation."

  • Murray's claims earlier that day "appeared to have been a preemptive attempt to block or influence her release," the board said.

Friction point: Murray said the mayor's administration is asking for officials to drop the minimum exam score for entry-level police to 60% — down from 65% in 2023 and 70% in 2019 — with a focus on providing more training for low-scoring applicants in the academy.

  • As a result, academy staff have shared "increasing frustration" with Murray about the quality of recruits. "If you show up with a pulse, you're in there," she said.
  • However, the police and public safety departments deny this, telling Axios Denver the mayor has not met with Murray or "issued any directive to the commission."

Between the lines: Safety officials say entrance exams test applicants' knowledge of specific law enforcement decision-making, which candidates are not taught until the academy. That can weed out potentially strong applicants before they are given the opportunity to learn.

  • Officials also say, regardless of applicants' entrance score, candidates still must complete "rigorous" training in the academy and successfully graduate to join the city.

Zoom in: Several city council members, including Shontel Lewis, Sarah Parady and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, are siding with Murray after hearing direct complaints from commission employees.

  • One employee said "they've never experienced this degree of political interference with their work," Parady told reporters Tuesday.
  • She also said she has seen a redacted evaluation of an applicant saying that the applicant was "unfit" but "nonetheless allowed to proceed."

The other side: The mayor's office referred Axios Denver to the Department of Public Safety.

  • Public safety director Armando Saldate told us in a statement that "we hold our agencies to the highest standards" and are making "evidence-based changes" to "modernize" the hiring process and recruit top public safety candidates.
  • In a statement to Axios Denver, the Board of Commissioners said it disagreed with Murray's claims, adding that "at no time" has it set expectations that the commission should operate "any way other than independently."

The intrigue: Denver police have been struggling to fill recruitment classes for years. Last year, the department was budgeted for 188 recruits but only hired 124.

  • In 2022, it staffed 139 recruits out of the 184 budgeted. And the year prior, just 98 of the 105 budgeted were brought on.

What's next: The Board of Commissioners is searching for a new executive director "immediately," it said in a statement.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show the Board of Commissioners announced the firing Tuesday, but had already voted on it.

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