Black Pastors Denounce Denver Sheriff’s Department for ‘Jim Crow-Like Behavior’

Outraged by misconduct in the Denver Sheriff’s Department, a coalition of African-American pastors is demanding that Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration implement reform.

At issue for the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance is a string of snafus about which Hancock and even the city’s official safety watchdog have remained mum. In one case, a sheriff’s deputy slammed a fully shackled inmate into a window of a Denver courtroom without provocation. The attack was caught on videotape. In another case, a deputy plucked an innocent black man off Colfax Avenue in a rogue manhunt for a prisoner the same deputy mistakenly let loose from jail.

The beating victim and the man wrongly apprehended are both black.

The pastors are blasting Mayor Hancock, Safety Department Executive Director Stephanie O’Malley and Sheriff Gary Wilson – all of whom are black – for ignoring misconduct cases, especially ones in which African Americans are targeted.

“We have not seen the mayor. We have not heard from the mayor. Where is the mayor about all this?” said the Rev. Reginald Holmes of Denver’s New Covenant Christian Church/Alpha Omega Ministries.

“I’m not just out outraged. I’m pissed,” added Pastor Patrick Demmer of Graham Memorial Community Church. “Here we are, all the way out of slavery, supposedly to a new day, an era when we have an African-American president and in Denver a black mayor, manager of safety, police chief and sheriff. I expect those who look like me to have a sense of obligation to ensure my safety and the safety of those who look like them.”

The sheriff’s department has come under fire in recent years for imprisoning the wrong people after mistaking their identity. Those blunders led to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. Disability rights advocates sued the department for failing to provide sign language interpreters to some deaf prisoners. The Latino community has raised concerns about the department’s treatment of Latino prisoners – especially non-English speakers who have struggled to communicate about medical needs and grievances. One of the department’s most vocal critics has been Butch Montoya, a former city safety manager who now leads a Latino faith initiative. It was Montoya who called the latest spate of misconduct cases to the attention of the black pastors, with whom he works closely in watchdogging city safety issues.

The Ministerial Alliance is a powerful force in metro Denver’s black community, which has a long history of discontent with law enforcement. In recent years, community members railed against the sheriff’s department for the 2010 death of 56-year-old street preacher Marvin Booker after Booker was forcefully restrained by a gaggle of sheriff’s deputies in the holding area of the city jail. The pastors also cried out in 2011 when Alonzo Ashley died after police subdued him with a stun gun during an altercation at the Denver Zoo.

Autopsies deemed both Booker and Ashley’s deaths to be homicides. Yet in both cases, officers dodged criminal charges and even disciplinary measures by the safety department.

A more recent spate of misconduct cases came to light starting with a Colorado Independent article about a September 2012 sheriff’s deputy grabbing Anthony Waller, an inmate whose arms and legs were fully shackled, and slamming him into a courtroom window without provocation. That deputy, Brady Lovingier, is the son of Bill Lovingier, a former longtime head of the sheriff’s department. It took the judge in the courtroom, Doris Burd, to ask for an investigation. Safety officials waited more than a year to discipline Lovingier for the attack and for his statements about it, which contradicted courtroom videotapes and internal affairs investigators deemed to be “untruthful.”

Lovingier is appealing his 30-day suspension.

After hauling off on Waller in the open courtroom, Lovingier somehow managed to keep his in-training gig teaching fellow deputies about use of force and how to write truthful reports about useful force incidents. Sheriff Gary Wilson’s office said it was “unaware” that Lovingier was teaching those courses until The Independent asked about them. Wilson then removed Lovingier from those duties.

“What happened in that courtroom – an officer beating a man in handcuffs and leg chains — was Jim Crow-like behavior. That’s Jim Crow. That’s apartheid-type brutality. For the city leadership to not stand up and take notice is unconscionable,” Holmes said.

The pastors also are decrying the handling of a separate 2012 case involving sheriff’s Deputy Bruce Mitchell, who mistakenly let a prisoner walk out of the jail’s release area while Mitchell was shopping for car parts on Craigslist and eating Corn Flakes. When Mitchell realized his mistake, he went on a rogue manhunt for the inmate, Elvie Bellamy, who is black. Mitchell deemed it a “waste of time” to look for the missing prisoner at his last known address, as his superiors ordered. Instead, Mitchell plucked a random black man, Sean Proctor, out of a group of people standing on Colfax Avenue and hauled him back to jail in Bellamy’s stead.

Officer Mitchell – whom records show mistakenly released two other inmates in prior misconduct cases – declined an interview last week as he appealed his 28-day suspension.

During his appeals hearing, Deputy Safety Manager Jess Vigil said Mitchell’s rogue manhunt “shocked the conscience.”

“It’s outrageous to me that someone was snatched off the streets and brought to jail under those circumstances,” Vigil testified. “He could have picked any black person. That’s what makes this so objectionable. He got in his vehicle and went around searching for a black person.”

During Mitchell’s search for the prisoner he mistakenly let free, Sheriff’s Department Division Chief Michael Than apparently expressed concerns that Mitchell “might go and arrest every black person from (Denver’s Downtown Detention Center) to Aurora,” according to testimony.

The Rev. Holmes objects to the part of Officer Mitchell’s disciplinary report noting that the man Mitchell randomly apprehended had done time in jail.

“Somehow, because this man had a record, it seemed justifiable to pick him up? That speaks to the brazenness of these officers,” Holmes said. “This kind of stuff you expect to happen in Mayberry somewhere, not Denver, Colorado.”

The pastors also are questioning the efficacy of Nicholas Mitchell, Denver’s independent safety monitor, who is tasked with watchdogging city safety agencies. The Office of the Independent Monitor was created after community fury over the 2003 Denver Police killing of Paul Childs, a 15-year-old developmentally disabled East High School student. John Hickenlooper, who became mayor the month police killed Childs, created the independent monitor’s office as a way for the public to keep check on excessive force and other misconduct by city safety officials.

Hancock appointed commercial litigator Nicholas Mitchell to the job in July 2012 after Richard Rosenthal, the first independent monitor, resigned. In a year and a half on the job, Mitchell’s biggest move was a report this winter finding that the sheriff’s department ignores misconduct among its ranks, takes too long to investigate excessive force cases and makes it difficult – if not impossible — for some prisoners to lodge grievances. Mitchell presented his findings gingerly, making a point of patting the department on the back throughout the report. The first paragraph of reads: “Policing the streets and the jails can be difficult and thankless work. Officers are called on to respond to crisis, and often see people at their worst. They are sometimes exposed to both verbally or physically abusive behavior. Although officers are trained not to show it, they are vulnerable in their interactions with the public. This day-to-day exposure to job-related stress can exact a long-term physical and emotional toll.”

One of Independent Safety Monitor Mitchell’s responsibilities is to ensure “transparency in the Denver Police and Sheriff disciplinary processes,” yet Nicholas Mitchell refused comment about grievances alleging that deputies were beating prisoners, inappropriately using Taser guns, engaging in sexual misconduct and using racial slurs. Being quoted by the news media, he told The Independent, could harm his ability to work with the department he had criticized in his report.

Nicholas Mitchell has continued to remain silent after news about the Lovingier attack, which he has said he knew about for months before being asked for comment. Again, he said, speaking out could hurt his working relationship with the sheriff’s department.

Pastor Demmer was instrumental in creating the Independent Monitor’s office almost a decade ago. Mitchell told him in a recent meeting “that he tries to reach a relationship with members of the department so they can come to him and tell him their troubles.”

“We don’t need a safety monitor taking on their troubles and concerns. They’ve got their unions, their civil service review and the (disciplinary) matrix to protect them. We don’t need an independent monitor doing the protecting for them. We need an independent monitor watching out for us.

“That office is just formalized window dressing,” Demmer continued. “The way things are, it’s a façade that citizens have somewhere to go, someone to speak out when power is misused.”

Holmes agreed: “The independent monitor was put in place to say, ‘Hey, this kind of stuff is wrong.’ There’s nothing independent about an independent monitor who isn’t willing to speak out.”

Montoya took up the issue of Mitchell’s silence in a Feb. 27 letter.

“The Independent Monitor’s Office was to assure the public that nothing is under the table and that public transparency is an important issue,” Montoya wrote Monitor Mitchell. “I know you are very entrenched in your position, but I ask politely and professionally that you reconsider not speaking with the news media when there are questions regarding the reports you release, or when an incident of interest occurs in any of the two departments… some response may be necessary.”

Mitchell, in a statement to The Independent, wrote that his office “has a strong history of independent decisions and reports, which includes our recent investigation into the process for handling inmate misconduct complaints within Denver’s Jails.”

“I welcome discussion about the role of oversight in the city and county of Denver”

Hancock’s office at first refused comment on the Lovingier case because the Mayor was out of town. Asked again, it said no comment would be coming even after his return.

Safety Department Executive Director Stephanie O’Malley has cited legal reasons for her silence about the Lovingier and Bruce Mitchell cases. Both men are appealing their suspensions. Publicly commenting, she said, could interfere with those appeals.

Rev. Terrence Hughes, the Ministerial Alliance’s vice president of community affairs, questions the city’s disciplinary system, which is known as “the matrix.” Why, he asks, should a deputy get only a 30-day suspension for a brutal and unprovoked attack on a fully shackled inmate [and for] being “untruthful?” And why should a deputy with a record of having released the wrong people from jail be suspended for only 28 days for letting an inmate walk free while he was car shopping online, and then being so eager to make up for the mistake that he grabbed a random black man off the street and hauled into jail?

“There’s a culture in that sheriff’s department that isn’t right. There’s a culture where they know what the matrix is, they cross the line and then, for having crossed the line, they get only a slap on the wrist that they appeal on top of that,” he said. “There’s apparently no real deterrent for bad behavior.

“If that were your son or daughter who got picked up randomly, or your son or daughter who got slammed into that glass, it would be pretty clear that the matrix is out of balance.”

When responding to news media questions about misconduct in the sheriff’s department, officials often point to what what they deem as a major accomplishment. They cite its so-called “Triple Crown Accreditation,” which means that the department has been certified as meeting the standards set by the American Correctional Association, the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc.

The Rev. Holmes questions “what kind of criteria was used” to win such an accreditation.

“That crown, that triple crown is spin. It’s spin, plain and simple,” he said. “There’s a tremendous spin about a sheriff’s department that has all of these hidden incidents that keep coming out, and it makes you wonder how many other, countless unreported incidents are happening without being publicized.”

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