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Culture of Abuse and Corruption Plagues Jail in Denver, Colorado

by Lonnie Burton, Matt Clarke, David Reutter, Christopher Zoukis

When Jamal Hunter was arrested in April 2011 on three misdemeanor charges, he had no idea what was in store for him during his stay at the Denver City Jail. Not only was he choked and tasered by guards, he was also severely beaten and had his genitals scalded with hot water by a group of prisoners while a jailer who arranged the attack stood by and did nothing.

Hunter’s subsequent federal lawsuit exposed years of abuse and corruption in Denver’s police and sheriff’s departments, resulting in a multi-million dollar settlement, resignations and terminations, and a call for a federal investigation. And that just scratches the surface of systemic deficiencies in Denver’s jail system.

A Culture of Lawlessness

According to Mary Dulacki, as of June 2014 the Denver Sheriff Department (DSD) had 114 open internal affairs investigations. Thirty-five involved allegations of excessive force by deputies, said Dulacki, the records coordinator for the city’s Department of Safety.

Then-Sheriff Gary Wilson, who has since resigned, said he addressed the issue of deputy misconduct by introducing new training methods and making other changes. He blamed the bulk of the misconduct on “stress.”

“These officers [are] working in an environment where they’re charged to maintain order ... with people who aren’t always compliant and [have] the ever-present potential for violence,” Wilson said. “You couple that with real-life stressors that are off the job ... it can lead to bad decisions.”

As of November 2014, DSD deputies had worked over 146,000 hours of overtime of which at least 75% involved overtime by downtown deputies. Staff shortages resulted in sergeants spending more time on administrative tasks, such as filling out work schedules, than supervising and assisting deputies.

“Stress” also seemed to be a problem among officers with the Denver Police Department (DPD). Police chief Robert C. White acknowledged an epidemic of alcohol abuse in his department as well as a rash of officer arrests, most of which were alcohol-related.

For example, DPD Captain Sonya Gillespie was arrested in early June 2014 on assault charges after she allegedly threw a cell phone at a man during an argument outside of work. She was placed on administrative leave. Division Chief Frank Gale came under scrutiny after a jail captain filed a complaint against him in connection with Gillespie’s detention, accusing him of giving her “preferential treatment.” Gale was subsequently fired, then filed suit against the city in September 2016, claiming his termination was in retaliation for his actions as a union representative.

Qusair Mohamedbhai, the attorney who represented Jamal Hunter in his federal lawsuit, indicated that Sheriff Wilson and Chief White were just making excuses for their employees.

“The rampant excessive force by Denver’s law enforcement is not due to alcohol or stress, but rather leadership that is unable or unwilling to address the root cause of the problem.” Mohamedbhai stated.

Indeed, the allegations of staff abuse at the Denver City Jail were alarming. In July 2014, two guards were implicated in an excessive force investigation involving a prisoner during the booking process. A security camera recorded the incident but Wilson refused to release the video to the public, citing a “pending investigation.”

The incident involved Deputy Thomas Ford, who was also named in Hunter’s lawsuit. Although neither details nor the prisoner’s name were disclosed, upon viewing the video Wilson said he “was very disturbed by the actions of one of our officers ... by the inappropriate use of force.”

Mohamedbhai said the video footage should be released. “Denver’s refusal to turn over the video involving Deputy Ford is yet another attempt to hide the corruption within the Denver Sheriff’s Department,” he stated.

In another incident, Deputy Brad Lovingier was caught on video slamming a handcuffed detainee, Anthony Waller, into a wall during a court hearing without provocation. Another guard, William Lewis, a 12-year veteran, was investigated for writing a false report about that incident. Both Ford and Lewis were placed on paid administrative leave.

“The present criminal investigation into Deputy Ford is the predictable consequence of the broken disciplinary system of the [DSD],” Mohamedbhai remarked. “Failure to discipline officers for using excessive force on inmates creates a culture where unlawful force is condoned and tolerated.”

Mohamedbhai, together with co-counsel David A. Lane, had previously prevailed in a lawsuit against the Denver City Jail on behalf of pretrial detainee Robert Duran. Duran was arrested on March 22, 2009 and assaulted by guard Steven Kohler the following day; security video showed Duran was both cooperative and handcuffed at the time of the assault. The jury awarded Duran $40,000 on July 24, 2013. See: Duran v. Koehler, U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:10-cv-01569-REB-KMT.

On April 7, 2013, Deputy Matthew Andrews helped prisoner Felix Trujillo escape from the Downtown Denver Detention Center. He let Trujillo wear his coat and cap to walk out of the jail. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.56]. While Trujillo turned himself in three days later, Andrews received a six-year prison term – the maximum sentence – in January 2014 after pleading guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant.

Further, former DSD Chief Michael Than, once the No. 2 official at the Sheriff’s Department, who ran the jail until he resigned, was indicted on April 25, 2014 by a Jefferson County grand jury on theft and tax evasion charges. According to court documents, Than would shoplift by stashing Turbo Tax software inside other merchandise, like a large dog food bag, and pay only for the cheaper items. The indictment accused him of stealing 1,288 copies of the software which he resold on eBay, reportedly to finance his gambling addiction.

Than was “intimately involved in looking into serious allegations of misconduct by deputies at the jail,” said Denver’s Independent Monitor, Nicholas Mitchell. Than decided which deputies accused of misconduct would be investigated, he added – which was ironic given the former DSD chief’s own illicit activities.

Hunter’s Allegations

“The video of Denver sheriff’s deputy Edward Keller choking a non-combative inmate was recorded in the summer of 2011,” began a June 2014 Denver Post article detailing the abuse that Jamal Hunter suffered, both at the hands and direction of jail guards.

According to court records, witnesses and the video footage, Hunter was first assaulted on July 18, 2011 by his cellmate and other prisoners at the behest of jailer Gaynel Rumer, who didn’t like Hunter because he was argumentative and made jokes about Rumer’s drinking.

Rumer told Hunter’s cellmate, a muscular 6’2”, 270 lb. prisoner by the name of Amos Page, that Hunter was a snitch and had been bad-mouthing Page and his “gangster homies,” saying they weren’t so tough. Page told Rumer he would take care of his cellie.

During a head count on Rumer’s shift, Page and several other prisoners severely beat Hunter and scalded his genitals with hot water. Rumer allegedly facilitated the attack by turning off the lights in the unit; he then ignored what was happening and did not intervene, witnesses said, even when Hunter reportedly screamed during the beating until he lost consciousness. Page was not disciplined for the brutal assault.

Hunter was permanently disfigured. He filed administrative grievances against Deputy Rumer, though nothing was done. Nearly two years after the incident, however, following the filing of the lawsuit, Rumer was suspended for 45 days. He denied any involvement with the beating.

Hunter’s second run-in with abusive jail guards came on July 31, 2011, just 13 days after the first incident. On that date Hunter approached Deputy Keller, who was working at the unit podium, and in an “animated fashion” asked to see the nurse to look at his burns. Witnesses said Hunter, an African-American, began cursing at Keller and calling him a racist. “You need to treat me better,” he told the guard.

Keller then ordered Hunter, who already had an appointment scheduled with the nurse, to return to his cell. According to Keller’s attorney, John Adam Marks, Hunter continued using abusive language and took an “aggressive step” towards Keller. Marks said the video and another guard corroborated Keller’s account of the incident.

But on the video Keller is seen holding Hunter’s shirt sleeve to escort him to his cell, then grabbing his neck with both hands and forcing him down on the bunk. Three other guards, including Ford, rushed into the cell to restrain Hunter while a sergeant fired a stun gun into Hunter’s back from a foot away.

“Mr. Keller, an officer for the Denver Sheriff Department, lost control of himself and attacked me, choking, punching, and body slamming me without cause,” Hunter wrote in a grievance dated August 10, 2011.

Nearly two years after the assault Keller had not even been interviewed about the incident, Mohamedbhai noted in a brief filed in connection with the lawsuit. In September 2014, the Denver Post reported that both Keller and Ford had been fired for excessive use of force.

Lawsuit Revelations

Unlike the typical prisoner lawsuit, filed pro se and either swept under the rug or summarily dismissed by a disinterested judge, Hunter’s case, filed by Mohamedbhai, landed on the desk of U.S. District Court Judge John Kane. Consequently, the disturbing details uncovered during the litigation led to changes in jail policies, resignations and an extraordinary courtroom hearing.

Page, the prisoner who coordinated and took part in the assault on Hunter, told all – or nearly all – during an unheard-of open court deposition.

A self-described leader of the Bloods street gang who was serving a ten-year sentence for robbery, Page testified that shortly after he was assigned to a cell with Hunter in A-pod at the jail, he noticed one day that Rumer’s face was flushed and his speech slurred. After sneaking a sip from Rumer’s Thermos and finding it was vodka, Page confronted the guard about his on-the-job drinking.

Page said Rumer became visibly shaken and quickly agreed to smuggle cigarettes and a lighter into the jail for him the next day. He soon began to smuggle other items as well, including pornography and marijuana. Rumer would drop the contraband in the trash where Page, who worked as one of the pod’s janitors, would pick it up and sell it. Page said the porn would go for $3 a sheet. He said he paid Rumer a kickback in the form of jail soda machine tokens.

Running his cellblock “like a gang,” Rumer would also allow prisoners to make “cell-house hooch” during his shift, Page testified. Additionally, he learned from the guard which prisoners were snitches and sex offenders, then would use that information to extort them.

Finally, Page related how Rumer asked him to be his “muscle” and “take care of” other prisoners who filed complaints against him or caused too much noise or commotion in the pod. That was when Rumer told Page about Hunter.

The deposition conducted in open court before Judge Kane was a first, according to court watchers. Pretrial depositions of potential witnesses are normally held behind closed doors with a court reporter, or in Page’s case, in prison. But Kane had a very good reason for ordering the open-court deposition: witness intimidation by Denver police officers. See: Hunter v. City and County of Denver, U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:12-cv-02682-JLK-MJW.

Witness Intimidation and Ensuing Fallout

A motion filed by Mohamedbhai alleged that Sgts. Brian Cotter and Brad Lenderink with the DPD’s internal affairs office went to the Crowley County Correctional Facility in an attempt to intimidate Page into not testifying in Hunter’s lawsuit.

“There’s some fairly significant criminal statutes involving these police officers,” Judge Kane stated. “And I make no judgment as to whether they’re guilty or not, but I think there is certainly cause to suspect that witnesses have been intimidated.”

Kane asked federal authorities to investigate the Denver Police Department to determine whether there was any evidence of criminal wrongdoing in connection with Hunter’s lawsuit.

In addition to allegations that DPD officers had intimidated a witness, the private law firm that was representing the City of Denver abruptly withdrew from the case amid allegations that city officials had withheld key evidence related to the intimidation. Two other law firms quickly stepped in to defend the city.

According to evidence submitted by Mohamedbhai, lawyers working in the City Attorney’s office had pressured Cotter and Lenderink via email to “investigate” Page. The emails were disclosed in late June 2014 despite an earlier order by Judge Kane to share all documents related to the case.

Mohamedbhai moved for sanctions against the city for failure to promptly disclose the emails. According to the motion, Assistant City Attorney Stuart Shapiro allegedly authored an email that described Hunter’s lawsuit as “an attack on Denver, its law enforcement agencies and the Denver jails.”

The internal affairs officers, who followed through with the City Attorney’s directive to contact Page, later stated the email was “intended to influence their investigation.”

Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock said he took the allegations seriously. “Once the facts are known, we’ll go from there,” he declared.

But Judge Kane did not let the issue die; he ordered the DPD to produce all documents involving its investigation of Page, including all emails, notes and correspondence. He gave them one week to comply.

Further, Kane “immediately and permanently enjoined [the DPD] from any and all action, investigation, consultation, or any kind of participation, including any action by its Internal Affairs Bureau [IAB], until judgment is entered in this case.”

Kane additionally ordered that a transcript of the hearing be provided to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible criminal charges, and said that if Hunter’s case went to trial the jury would be instructed regarding witness intimidation by the defendants.

“I think it ... smacks of a sham to suggest that the [IAB] of the [DPD] was investigating [Page] for any kind of criminal activity,” Kane said from the bench. He added that he could not understand “for the life of me” why the IAB was involved at all, since the Sheriff’s Department has its own internal affairs investigators.

Kane ordered all statements from Page that were recorded by city law enforcement officials stricken from the record of the case, and summarily canceled all depositions of other witnesses. The judge gave Hunter’s attorneys authority to depose the DPD internal affairs officers at the city’s expense, including attorney’s fees.

Finally Victorious

Following the change in attorneys representing the city, the allegations of witness intimidation and a potential federal investigation, Denver officials finally saw the handwriting on the wall and approved a $3.25 million settlement offer to Hunter, plus policy changes at the jail, on July 24, 2014. Due to the size of the settlement the City Council first had to transfer money from its contingency fund to bolster its liability claims account.

The settlement, one of the largest of its kind in city history, required the approval of the Council and Judge Kane. City attorney Scott Martinez insisted the monetary payment was not an admission of liability but rather “an opportunity to move forward.”

“Mr. Hunter feels his civil rights have been vindicated. He is proud to be an instrument of change,” Mohamedbhai said during a joint news conference with Martinez.

Hunter indicated that he planned to use the settlement funds to open a salon that caters to cancer patients who lose their hair due to chemotherapy.

“With my background in cosmetology, I’m definitely about doing the wigs for the center patients, putting together a foundation,” he stated.

Regardless of the settlement in Hunter’s case, Judge Kane indicated he may still press forward with related investigations. “There needs to be corrective steps [taken] to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good to have one scandal after another.”

When Mohamedbhai referred to Hunter being an instrument of change, he was referring to improvements made in the jail’s grievance system as well as new DSD guidelines for deputies and jailers to deal with the apparent stress of their jobs.

The jail typically receives about 3,000 grievances per year filed by prisoners. In the past, grievances were informally screened by sergeants who, with no written policy guidance, decided how to handle them.

Mitchell, Denver’s Independent Monitor, was so stunned when he learned about the allegations in Hunter’s case that he ordered a review of two years’ worth of grievances.

In a report released in December 2013, Mitchell found that 46 grievances alleging serious misconduct by deputies, not counting Hunter’s complaint, had not been adequately investigated. He recommended sweeping changes. The report found that 16 percent of all misconduct grievances had been filed against just four deputies in a force of over 700 DSD employees.

Jail policy required all allegations of criminal misconduct be referred to internal affairs officers, but that was rarely done, Mitchell found. A number of grievances had not been reviewed at all. Further, the jail’s inmate handbook did not tell prisoners that an informal resolution was not required if their grievance alleged serious misconduct by staff.

The report analyzed around 6,000 grievances filed by prisoners over the two-and-a-half year period of January 1, 2011 through June 30, 2013. The focus was on complaints that alleged serious misconduct such as excessive use of force, sexual abuse and biased or prejudicial behavior by staff.

Although Spanish-speakers constituted over a third of the Denver jail’s population, they did not file a single one of the approximately 6,000 grievances reviewed by Mitchell. “Spanish-speaking inmates weren’t aware they had the right to file complaints,” he said, nor were grievance forms available in Spanish.

As a result of the report, grievances at the jail are now handled differently; they are filed in a locked metal box and collected daily by a department supervisor. The sheriff also ordered all staff to send serious accusations, such as those involving excessive force, sexual misconduct and racial bias, to the internal affairs office. According to then-Sheriff Wilson, jail employees were “counseled in regard to the grievance process.”

Due to the additional workload created by the increased number of misconduct complaints now requiring review by internal affairs, the grievance process has been slowed. But neither side took issue with what some have called a necessary side-effect of the new grievance policy.

Wilson said the practice of jail supervisors sitting on grievances to protect fellow employees “would not be tolerated by my office.” However, he did not elaborate on what, if any, mechanisms were in place to detect and prevent such practices.

Other changes at the Denver City Jail included establishing work groups to review the department’s training, procedures, programs, staffing and policies.

“We’ve been working hard to understand the culture and dynamics at the jail,” said Denver’s Safety Director, Stephanie O’Malley. “I take these things very seriously.”

Also, in mid-June 2014, Wilson released a “six-point plan” that he claimed would help deputies deal with job stress and thus curtail prisoner abuse. The list of items included assigning a mentor to new recruits, enlisting family support during training, employing a holistic wellness program, and training deputies on coping strategies, ethics and resiliency.

However, his six-point plan and other policy changes implemented at the DSD were too little, too late for Sheriff Wilson, who was forced to resign in July 2014 amid the turmoil and fallout stemming from Hunter’s lawsuit.

Wilson was not the only casualty after the Denver Sheriff Department was subjected to scrutiny. Chief Michael Than resigned in late 2013, though that was related to his criminal misconduct outside of work. He eventually pleaded guilty to stealing Turbo Tax software and was sentenced in January 2015 to 60 days in jail plus four years’ probation.

Progress as Complaints and Damages Rise

As a result of the settlement in Hunter’s lawsuit, jail staff were ordered to complete additional training, grievance forms are now available in Spanish and prisoners have been encouraged to call the Independent Monitor’s office directly with any problems related to filing complaints.

During the summer of 2014, the number of pending internal affairs investigations at DSD grew from 114 in June to 147 in July – though the almost 30 percent jump could be attributed to the reforms making prisoners more comfortable to file complaints.

The number of investigators, however, did not increase at the same rate as the number of grievances filed. “The investigative staff has to stay much later and do that much more work,” according to Mitchell.

The DSD was not the only department plagued with understaffing. The Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) has struggled for years with a long waiting list of prisoners needing court-ordered mental health evaluations and treatment. It announced in February 2016 that the backlog was finally cleared, at least for pretrial detainees awaiting mental health services.

Regardless, Disability Law Colorado requested the re-opening of its lawsuit against the CDHS, arguing the department had “violated a federal settlement agreement by allowing the waitlist to form in the first place.” The case settled in August 2016, with the CDHS agreeing to oversight by an independent consultant until 2018.

Despite positive developments, some cling to their old habits. DSD veteran jailer Erick Wright was fired in July 2014 after an internal affairs investigation found he was responsible for multiple rule violations including failure to make his rounds, which allowed a prisoner to hang himself in his cell. Wright argued the policies were unclear but investigators disagreed.

Following a three-week civil trial, a federal jury found five DSD deputies guilty of using excessive force against Marvin L. Booker, a 56-year-old homeless man who died in 2010 after the deputies tased and choked him unconscious using a sleeper hold. [See: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.34]. The jury awarded Booker’s family $6 million in damages in November 2014. See: Booker v. County of Denver, U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:11-cv-00645-RBJ-KMT.

The new record high verdict against the city indicated “[t]he community won’t tolerate this anymore, and things have to change,” said attorney Darold Killmer, who represented Booker’s family.

The city accepted liability for the deputies’ misconduct and “remains committed to its ongoing efforts to improve the Denver Sheriff’s Department,” stated the attorneys representing the deputies. However, prosecutors failed to press charges and the DSD declined to discipline the jailers for their involvement in Booker’s death. Four of the five deputies are still employed by the Sheriff’s Department.

In November 2014, the Denver Post reported another scandal involving the city’s jail system. A record high of five prisoners, including Sebastian Littlejohn and Adam Satchell, were erroneously released that year. All were later recaptured, and interim Sheriff Elias Diggins announced that the jail’s release policies had been reviewed and changes were made to prevent future premature releases.

“We want to be sure that anyone who is supposed to be in custody is in custody,” he said.

Adding to Denver’s woes, it was later revealed that Diggins had a criminal record: He was once charged with attempt to influence a public official, a felony, and pleaded guilty to making a false vehicle accident report, a misdemeanor, when he lied to a judge about having insurance. He did not last long in the position of interim sheriff.

A spokesperson for the city’s Manager of Safety said it was unclear whether Mayor Hancock was aware of the arrest record when he appointed Diggins. In the wake of Sheriff Wilson’s resignation, Hancock assured the public that the city would conduct a “top-down” review of the DSD after it was stained by allegations of abuse and misconduct.

In December 2014, Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher accused Mayor Hancock’s administration of undermining his office’s investigation of the Sheriff’s Department. “We have encountered recalcitrance, foot-dragging and what I can only describe as obstructionist behavior,” Gallagher wrote in a letter addressed to the mayor.

The Auditor released a 75-page report in March 2015 that accused the DSD of poor management, understaffing and lack of oversight. Gallagher particularly criticized the absence of proper record-keeping and flawed methodologies for reviewing staffing needs and other operational issues.

“[W]e are left with a backlog of investigations and unanalyzed data that could have been used to help reduce the very incidents that lead to allegations of misconduct in the first place,” Gallagher wrote.

Facing mounting public pressure, DSD officials finally released a series of surveillance videos in January 2016 that captured the death of mentally ill prisoner Michael Lee Marshall. Surrounded by guards and other staff, Marshall, 50, was placed in a restraint chair with a “spit hood” over his head on November 11, 2015. He choked on his own vomit and was brain dead for nine days at a hospital until he was removed from life support. Marshall, who weighed 112 lbs., had been arrested on a trespassing charge and was being held on $100 bond.

Although the coroner ruled his death a homicide, prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against any jail staff. The attorney representing Marshall’s family called for a federal investigation, saying the decision not to prosecute was an “outrage.”

Together with Booker’s former legal team, in May 2016 Marshall’s family filed notice with city officials that they planned to pursue a lawsuit. The video footage of Marshall’s death was released only after his family members, as well as several faith leaders and civil rights advocates, went on a 10-day hunger strike in protest, and after The Colorado Independent filed suit over the city’s failure to promptly release the video.

A Cultural Change Needed

The actions of one prisoner who stood up to jail officials who abused their authority, and his perseverance and determination to hold them accountable – as well as to make changes in the system that fostered the misconduct – resulted in the resignation of the sheriff, the suspension or termination of at least five law enforcement personnel and a federal judge determined to see that the U.S. Attorney’s Office thoroughly investigates the Denver police.

City councilman Paul Lopez, chairman of Denver’s newly-revamped Safety and Well-being Committee, said the changes at the DSD were an important step forward.

“I think the well-being of inmates in our facilities has top priority,” he stated. “You can’t compromise that [and] I look forward to more steps in terms of reforming the department.”

Attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai, who represented Hunter in his successful lawsuit, argued that any real improvements would require systemic change. “It’s about changing the role of a Denver sheriff from the culture of law enforcement to one of collaboration and rehabilitation,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, problems at the Denver City Jail continue. In September 2016, six prisoners were hospitalized after reportedly overdosing on crack cocaine that had been smuggled into the facility – an indication of continued security lapses. A 2015 report on security at the jail by a consultant found that contraband was a “chronic challenge,” and noted that staff members were a likely source of drugs and other illicit items because they were not searched when reporting to work.

“What happens when you have a building with 1,500 inmates in it is [contraband] does occasionally slip through,” said DSD spokesman Simon Crittle.

Resolving the long-standing problems in Denver’s jail system, however, will require much more than simply stating the obvious.

Sources: The Denver Post,,,,,,,,, Washington Times,

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Related legal cases

Hunter v. City and County of Denver

Booker v. County of Denver

Duran v. Koehler