There is something to the old saying, ‘there’s a new sheriff in town.’ But in this case, the ‘new’ sheriff isn’t exactly new. Elias Diggins, who was appointed as Denver Sheriff by Mayor Michael Hancock in July, has been around. In fact, this isn’t his first time as Sheriff of a department that has its share of tough times and tough headlines.
“I think that it was God that led me to the department,” Diggins said in a recent telephone interview. That epiphany happened in 1994, said the veteran law man. “I was a student and working at U.S. West,” he recalled. “I walked past a sign that said the Denver Sheriff’s Office was hiring.” He saw the $24,000 a year salary, compared it to his U.S. West salary, applied and was hired. The rest is history, one with more than a few highs and more than a few well publicized lows. The new sheriff says he understands the challenges he faces.
The Denver Sheriff’s Department marks its 118th year in December. Its role is to staff the courts, oversee the jail and its more than 1,300 inmates and perform other duties as assigned. It has a workforce of more than a thousand full-time deputies and staff.
The new sheriff is well aware that his department needs to polish its shield. The department has paid out millions of dollars in judgments involving violence against inmates, wrongful actions by deputies and sexual harassment alleged by female members of the department.
Settlements filed by families of inmates Marvin Booker and Michael Marshall, both of whom died in the jail’s custody and Jamal Hunter, an inmate who claimed he was beaten by other inmates at the behest of a sheriff’s deputy, have totaled more than $10 million. The Hunter episode occurred when Diggins served as interim sheriff in 2014. The city also paid out more than $1.5 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a number of female deputies who claimed the department did little to stop degrading treatment aimed at them by inmates.
“My main objective is to ensure that we provide every tool necessary for staff to do their job,” said Diggins, acknowledging that the department is in a clean-up mode. Deputies, he said, need to “understand what wearing a badge means…we are here to serve others.” The newly appointed Sheriff who himself has had family members who were incarcerated stressed, “We have work to do.” The work, he said, begins at the top and begins with respect. “Every leader in our agency is expected to uphold those values. If not, we will respond accordingly.”
Diggins said the job of running a department like his has undergone a seismic shift since he put on the uniform. For one thing, it’s not just a job of warehousing warmbodies. “When I began over 25 years ago, the level of mental health acuity for people in custody was lower.” No longer, he said, can the needs of people with mental health issues be treated merely with discipline.
The locks and levers on doorways and cells that were standard when Diggins first wore a badge are now relics. “Technology is a significant component in what we do,” all the way down to the fingerprinting routinely done at the time of a booking. Diggins says ‘dynamic fingerprinting’ allows officers to almost immediately identify subjects during bookings and release. An inmates prints are automatically run through a fingerprint matching database.
Technology is not the only thing that will make a good department better. “The Denver Sheriff’s Department is one of the most diverse departments in the state,” he said. “You will find people of color (at all levels) and gender is no barrier to promotion. Women have served in every rank,” he said. “LGBT officers have also risen in our agency.”
Diggins would also like to create a change so that when inmates are released,they’re not simply walking out the door. “I have been to jails from border to border and coast to coast,” he said, “and have seen some of the most innovative programming that you can imagine.”
He said he would like to see in Denver what he saw when he visited San Diego. He saw a real coffee shop in the jail and run by inmates, “where staff can purchase drinks.” He’d like to see something similar here where “You can’t throw a rock in Denver without hitting a coffee shop.” If he can find a way to copy San Diego, said Diggins, “We will be giving them skills they can take with them. That’s what our focus should be. Innovation should help people in our custody.”
During Diggins’ time serving as interim sheriff, the department was rife with challenges including his own personal ones. A 2014 Denver Post story said, “Diggins faced accusations of covering up evidence.” The story also pointed to a misdemeanor charge for lying to a judge in a case involving an automobile accident. He told the judge that he had car insurance when he did not. Diggins has admitted to exercising poor judgment, calling it a “foolish decision” and one that he still regrets.
One tool that has helped Diggins is humility. “I have had family that ended up in prison,” he said. “That has helped me remember the folks in our custody are someone’s family. An awesome authority has been granted to us.” He hopes he can lead the transformation in “how we respond, and we act every single day.”