The Denver Green Party understands that a citywide initiated ordinance to elect a sheriff may soon be collecting signatures within Denver county. In a city with limited resources and the justified concern for policing and the carceral state in general, interest in this potential initiative is understandable. However, because the proposed initiative’s language does nothing to mandate community oversight, transparency, accountability or even to guarantee that the human rights of inmates are protected, we believe this proposed ballot initiative is not in the best interest of Denver’s residents.
A coalition of proponents have joined together to form a board to oversee this proposed ballot initiative, including the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the Colorado Latino Forum and its co-chair, Lisa Calderon, the Independence Institute (II), and newcomers on the local political scene, Working Families Party. Individual members, like mayoral candidate Kayvan Khalatbari, also sit on this board. The board meets at the offices of II, a Libertarian/conservative think tank that has previously been known for stances against teachers’ unions and in favor of school vouchers and privatization of public schools. FOP has been a regular donor to campaigns to oppose legalization of marijuana in Colorado.
While we normally support more grassroots democracy and increased voter participation and choice, the Denver Green Party believes that this ballot initiative trades an illusion of democracy for the further empowerment of harmful institutions to gain increased control of Denver’s already violent and oppressive criminal justice system. Given that the effect of the ballot initiative is to alter the city charter, the initiative proponents missed a tremendous opportunity to transform the function of sheriff and to make the position accountable to the community. Since such entities as the FOP and II are funders and initiative board members, it is clear to us why the existing initiative language misses the mark in such profound ways.
This initiative potentially opens the door for the prison industry — one of the most powerful lobbying forces in the country — to greatly influence the type of candidate that rises out of an elected sheriff process. When we think “elected sheriff,” we can’t help but think of Joe Arpaio, who focused his office’s efforts toward discrimination of Black and brown communities in Arizona. But even if we don’t get a Joe Arpaio out of the elected process, we foresee a best-case scenario of potential candidates like former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, whose tenure produced a legacy of violence and obstruction as the county’s lead prosecutor and whose failure to hold law enforcement accountable led to a recall effort that, unfortunately, ultimately failed. While city ordinance and state law affirm our right to recall elected officials, we should recognize that recalls are difficult to achieve and have never succeeded in Denver county.
Instead of the misplaced energy of electing a sheriff, we should direct our accountability efforts toward the office of the District Attorney (DA) and city government in general. The DA has the most direct responsibility for who ends up in the criminal justice system and for the failure to hold police accountable. Additionally, the mayor’s office and city council must reform city and law enforcement priorities and protocols, especially a full repeal of the urban camping ban. We cannot stress the point enough, that while the sheriff is responsible for jail safety, they are not responsible for who ends up in jail. And given that the initiative would give unilateral, autonomous hiring and discipline authority to the sheriff for the conduct of deputies and does not reform its relationship with the FOP, we do not believe that inmates would be any safer. There have been very infrequent instances in which a sheriff has attempted to discipline deputies for deaths or grievous harm, and their punishment has often been negated by appeals efforts initiated by the FOP.
Even though “accountability” is used as rationale for this initiative, we are very concerned that the initiative board has chosen a different way of doing business. The initiative board has reportedly accumulated a war chest of $250,000, which includes large contributions from II and the FOP. As of April 25, 2018, no campaign committee has been filed with Denver Elections or the Colorado Secretary of State. It appears that the war chest has been stashed away in the account of one of the 501 c(4) organizations that make up the board, protected from campaign finance reporting requirements and from public scrutiny of expenditures or funding.
Clearly, the confluence of mass incarceration policies, privatization and money have created a situation that demands a new path to bring peace and safety to our community while protecting human rights. The Denver Green Party advocates other ways as avenues of true transformation in the criminal justice system, and specifically jail safety, including:
- Justice reinvestment, which is the process of navigating money away from jails into community empowerment projects, is a way to literally divest from funding prisons and invest in education, housing, workforce programs and efforts of transforming safety that don’t involve using incarceration.
- Bail reform is needed to address the fact that many people currently sitting in the Denver jail are people who simply can’t afford bail and are forced to spend time incarcerated without actually having been convicted of anything. We argue that the process of proving one’s “innocence” is a process that is inherently inaccessible to those who are experiencing any level of poverty and people shouldn’t have to suffer behind bars because they are too poor to get out. Bail reform would also do much to reduce the overall jail population, which is the quickest way to increase overall safety.
- Restorative justice programs should be expanded and used more often (by schools and by the DA’s office) to avoid using discipline and imprisonment as a means to achieve safety.
- Decriminalizing public health concerns such as lifting the urban camping ban that criminalizes homelessness and establishing safe injection centers and treatment programs as alternatives to punishing addiction.
- Diversion efforts that also place more emphasis on rehabilitation and reconciliation rather than the violent and punitive measures of incarceration. Expansion of access to city-based mediation services.
- Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board reform, which would make it easier to decertify officers who have proven to be dangerous, is something that even chiefs and sheriffs across the state have advocated for.
The Denver Green Party believes these are all useful reforms that could actually make the jails safer and create more accountability. However, it’s time to move away from utilizing the system of cops, courts and cages overall and empowering our communities to navigate conflict and safety ourselves. Some of these tools have existed in our community for ages, and there is a growing importance of returning to practices that involve de-escalation, basic first aid, conflict resolution and empathetic treatment of mental illness.
Our current criminal justice system functions on the notion that people are disposable — whether by keeping them in cages or by killing them outright — and the current elected sheriff ballot initiative does more to validate that system and to empower those who benefit from it. The Denver Green Party encourages Denverites to reject this proposed ballot initiative, and we look forward to conversations and efforts that transform our understanding and practice of public safety.
The following is the latest version (that we have acquired) of the proposed initiated ordinance language:
ARTICLE XII –SHERIFF
PART 1. GENERAL PROVISIONS
12.1.1 –Office of Sheriff, and Qualifications.
The Sheriff shall be a citizen of the United States; a resident of the City and County of Denver for the two (2) years immediately preceding his or her election; a qualified elector of the City and County of Denver and at least twenty-five years of age, and any other qualifications required by state law.
12.1.2 –Election and Term.
The Sheriff shall be elected during the regular elections of all other elected officers for the City and County of Denver in accordance with section 8.2.2 of this charter, and serve 4 year terms and until a successor is elected and qualified. All provisions of Article VIII, Part 2 of this charter will apply to the election of Sheriff except that an election for the Office of Sheriff will occur during the first Coordinated Election after this Article XII is approved by the voters.
The name of a candidate for Sheriff shall be placed upon the ballot when a verified petition of not less than three hundred (300) signatures of registered electors shall have been filed in the candidate’s behalf at least fifty-five (55) days before the day of election in the manner and form and under the conditions established by the Clerk and Recorder.
12.1.4- Vacancy in the Office of Sheriff.
When any Sheriff is unable, by reason of resignation or death, to perform the duties of the office for the time remaining prior to expiration of his or her term of office, the Council shall declare by resolution that a vacancy exists. Notwithstanding any provision of Section 8.2.3 of this Charter, such vacancy shall be filled by a special election, which shall be called by the Council to be held not less than 120 days nor more than 130 days after the Council declares that such vacancy exists unless another City-wide election has been scheduled to be held within 160 days after such vacancy is declared; and the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes at said election shall qualify and take such office immediately and shall hold such office for the unexpired portion of the term in which the vacancy occurs. Prior to such election for the office of the Sheriff, the current Undersheriff shall serve as interim Sheriff.
12.1.5 –Powers and Duties.
The Sheriff shall have full charge and authority of the Sheriff’s Department for the City and County of Denver. The Sheriff’s Department shall be composed of the Sheriff, an Undersheriff who shall be appointed by the Sheriff and serve as long his or her services are satisfactory to the Sheriff, other administrative senior managers who shall be appointed by the Sheriff and service as long as their services are satisfactory to the Sheriff, and Deputy Sheriffs and other employees, as may be necessary to perform the duties of the department. The salary, benefits and other compensation of the Sheriff shall be set at a minimum consistent with provisions established in state law for category I-A counties but may exceed that level if established by ordinance. The Undersheriff, and any other senior administrative managers shall be established by ordinance with due consideration given to the recommendations of the Sheriff. The Sheriff shall have full charge and custody of the jails of the city and county and the prisoners in the jails, transport prisoners, and execute writs and attend the several courts of record held in the city and county. In addition thereto, the Sheriff and the Sheriff’s Department shall exercise and perform the powers and duties now required or that may hereafter be required by the Constitution or the general laws of the state to be performed by the county sheriff. The Sheriff shall be deemed the appointing authority pursuant to Career Service requirements for purposes of hiring, promotion, discipline and termination of Deputy Sheriffs and other employees within the Sheriff’s Department.
12.1.6 Appropriations to Support Sheriff and the Sheriff’s Department.
The City Council shall appropriate sufficient funds to the Sheriff and the Sheriff’s Department to enable the Sheriff and the Sheriff’s Department to exercise the powers and duties set forth herein, and to occupy and maintain suitable offices, operate jail facilities and jail programs, and court detention areas, to provide employee training, acquire supplies, obtain and maintain equipment and vehicles, and to provide appropriate wages and fringe benefits to employees to perform these powers and duties.