DENVER – The Denver Sheriff Department lacks a comprehensive and systematic approach to identifying risks, ensuring the safety of deputies and inmates, and responding to incidents related to assault, sexual assault, or uses of force, according to a new audit from Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA.
“The Sheriff Department needs to take action to better protect the public, its staff, and the inmates,” Auditor O’Brien said. “This starts with having a comprehensive, clear, and consistent plan to respond to incidents and prevent them from happening.”
The audit took an in-depth look at how the Sheriff Department ensures the safe and secure operations of the city’s jails for the public, staff, and inmates, after some concerns from other recent assessments of the jail system were left unanswered. The audit team found a fragmented approach to risk management in the city’s jails, as well as practices that do not align with national leading standards.
Some risks are beyond the Sheriff Department’s control—such as the jails’ population makeup and size, as well as staff turnover. However, better risk management practices could help address other safety concerns in the stressed jail system, which includes the Van-Cise Simonet Detention Center in downtown Denver and the Denver County Jail.
An example of a risk the Sheriff Department could manage better to improve safety is how and when inmates are restrained. The audit team reviewed restraint practices for other sheriff departments in Colorado and across the country and found that many recommend handcuffing high-risk inmates behind the back, except for pregnant women, the elderly, or others who cannot be restrained in that way due to medical concerns. However, our auditors witnessed a high-risk inmate in Denver’s jail being handcuffed with his hands in front of his body and the audit team found this is common practice.
In one instance, auditors watched as an inmate was handcuffed in front of his body, and the inmate then reached out to grab documents from a deputy’s hand. The inmate was able to use the handcuffs to grasp a deputy’s wrist, and this led to a use-of-force incident. In another incident reported to the audit team, a deputy did not handcuff an inmate before leaving his cell because the deputy did not think the inmate displayed any intention to resist. However, that inmate did resist and assaulted the deputy; two other deputies were also injured.
Deputies respond to an average of about five unique incidents per day related to assaults, sexual assaults, or uses of force, our audit team found.
The Sheriff Department disagrees with our recommendation to align restraint policies with leading standards. The department refuses to change its handcuffing practices and claims front-handcuffing is a safe and adequate technique despite the reported incidents noted in the audit.
The department also does not believe it should follow the National Institute of Corrections’ standards because the department follows the American Correctional Association’s standards. Although we continue to believe the National Institute of Corrections is a relevant standard and the Sheriff Department itself has consulted with and relied on the institute for guidance and training, our audit does not require the Sheriff Department to follow a specific set of standards. We call upon the department to re-evaluate and align its risk management with leading practices, including practices related to inmate restraint.
“The real point here is that the current restraint practices are inconsistent and not working, as witnessed by my own audit team,” Auditor O’Brien said. “The Sheriff Department says what it does now is adequate, but the evidence in this audit report suggests otherwise.”
Our concerns about the jail system’s intake and classification processes also persist. Auditors previously expressed concerns about delays and decision-making related to these processes in an assessment completed last year. This new audit took a more in-depth look at the processes and found several instances when the current processes deviate from both national leading practices and the department’s own policies and procedures.
Leading practices recommend that an inmate should be identified and that an initial security screening to identify threats should happen within the first day after booking. The audit team found a small percentage of bookings were not completed in this time frame.
The Sheriff Department is also not taking pictures of tattoos, scars, and other marks to assess possible gang affiliations. The department says self-reporting and other physical characteristics are enough to confirm gang membership; however, there is an incentive for an inmate to not self-report gang membership.
The department has also changed classification interviews to take place during intake, instead of having separate interviews both during intake and before classification to determine housing. Classification staff expressed concern about this change, and it has not been formally documented in department policies and procedures.
Finally, the department does not regularly review its objective classification process, during which deputies assess the risk an inmate poses and then determine appropriate housing and other conditions of confinement. Deputies overrode the classification system 14 percent of the time in the time period our audit team analyzed, and most of that time, those overrides were done to lower an inmate’s custody level. Without regular review and analysis, it is difficult to determine whether the need to override the system so often was due to housing shortages for higher-risk inmates or because the system itself is flawed.
“Classification errors can lead to serious incidents, including assaults on staff and inmates, because higher-risk inmates could be incorrectly housed among lower-risk inmates who have reduced security privileges,” Auditor O’Brien said. “Improper classification and housing shortages can also lead to violence, tension, and the availability of contraband within the jails.”
The lack of holistic strategies for risk management contributes to a fundamental disconnect in the department’s understanding of how weaknesses in the design, implementation, and evaluation of the intake and classification process can create systemic risks to jail safety and security.
The audit team also identified a lack of consistent risk management and data management techniques. Effective risk management strategies should help leadership understand the interaction between efforts to address or mitigate risks and whether actions could create new risks elsewhere. The Sheriff Department has taken some steps to understand and manage risks; however, practices are still siloed and inconsistent.
The department has also taken steps to strengthen data management practices through its Data Science Unit; however, those personnel are not being leveraged for the full benefit of the department. The audit team found the department relies on the Data Science Unit primarily for “data cleaning” such as data-entry and crafting system inquiries, as opposed to using it as a resource for more meaningful analysis. Meanwhile, auditors also recommend the department should learn from the limitations of its current data management system when implementing its new system. In some cases, the department’s vendor did not sufficiently deliver on all elements for the current system when it was put in place in 2008, while in others, the Sheriff Department did not leverage the full capabilities of the system to aid its operations. It is key that the Sheriff Department learn from these system limitations and challenges to avoid the same pitfalls with the new system.
“The Sheriff Department is working to improve risk management strategies and data management; however, there is still bigger concern for safety due to the fragmented and inconsistent approaches currently in place in the city’s jails,” Auditor O’Brien said.