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Ensuring Accountability, Safety, and Security in a Large Urban Jail
By Timothy O'Brien

Like many communities our size, Denver has had several high-profile cases of jail violence that have led to injuries or death. With this in mind, I recognized the importance of holding leadership in the Denver Sheriff’s Department accountable for improvements they assured my office and the people of Denver they would make. That’s why I commissioned a follow-up of a 2015 assessment of the classification and intake of inmates at Denver jails.
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However, BKD Enterprise Risk Services, the private audit firm I commissioned, encountered some challenges in the process along the way. Some difficulties were specific to the culture and operations of law enforcement and some could be encountered in any government agency. The team used creative information gathering strategies and a narrow focus to bridge the gaps. After months of work, the auditors were able to address the 27 findings related to inmate intake and classification and find more information worth noting to help the sheriff’s department improve.

The follow-up assessment completed in January of this year by BKD addressed recommendations originally made in a 2015 third-party report by Hillard Heintze for the city. There were 27 Hillard Heintze recommendations related to inmate intake and classification, use of force, staffing, data analytics and overall jail operations management. The 2015 report found the Department of Safety was not ensuring the Sheriff’s Department managed the jail effectively. A majority of the original 27 Hillard Heintze recommendations related to intake and classification were completed when BKD returned for the follow-up assessment. Seven were fully completed, eight were mostly completed and nine were partially completed. However, there was plenty of room left to improve the efficiency and transparency of the intake and classification process.


DENVER’S JAIL HAS A HISTORY OF PROBLEMS LEADING TO SIGNIFICANT PAYOUTS

The Denver Sheriff’s Department manages two secure jail facilities in the city. The department has a history of some problems related to excessive force and other jail management problems, which have led to lawsuits against the city and significant payouts. Between 2014 and 2016, the Sheriff’s Department recorded an average of 260 use-of-force incidents just related to the intake process. There was no measured decrease in the number of incidents in the years after the original Hillard Heintze report.

Our Assessment Found Room for Improvement in Protecting Deputies and Offenders Alike

The assessment found Denver’s jails could improve safety and reduce the risk of violence by improving the classification and intake system for new inmates.

In Denver’s jail system, when a person is arrested he or she is “classified” to determine suitable housing and ensure deputies overseeing the inmates have complete information about the individual. The assessment found some areas of concern regarding how long individuals are held in the general waiting area before receiving a classification.

According to the process, men and women are separated into two general holding areas known as “the pit” in the main jail downtown called the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center. In these areas, there is little physical protection for the offenders or staff if a person’s behavior is erratic.

BKD interviewed people involved in the process to find out more about the holding area and risks involved. They said it can take as long as a week to classify inmates and move them out of the holding area. The behavior of many offenders when they initially arrive could be erratic due to drug withdrawal, mental illness or anger about the situation. As a result, BKD found it would be in the best interest of safety for both deputies and inmates to minimize the amount of time offenders are left in the general holding area. In the open holding areas, there is a higher chance of misbehavior and confrontation between the accused offenders and the deputies.

The assessment process also identified concerns about flaws in the classification process which could lead to security concerns. The classification process involves interviewing incoming inmates and assigning them a security level. After that, the classification deputy uses information from the inmate interview as well as a recommendation from a computer program to decide where and with which other inmates each offender should be housed. This process relies heavily on the deputy’s professional judgment, and deputies do override automated classification recommendations from time to time. While overrides of the computer’s recommendation are rare, they seem to happen most often when a deputy assigns the lowest level of classification to offenders instead of the recommended level one above that one. You can see in the chart a comparison between the computer recommendations for classifications and the deputy’s final decision.

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This is worth noting because BKD’s assessment found no formal training in place for classification deputies to make these designations. Currently, classification knowledge is gained from years of experience and examples from other more experienced deputies. BKD recommended a new, standardized training, especially related to in-depth interviews when mental health concerns, gang affiliation and prior arrests might come up. The agency says this recommendation was implemented.

BKD did find improvement in other areas of deputy training, as recommended in the Hillard Heintze report. Deputies now receive training for interviewing the inmates during classification, which includes asking about gang affiliation, mental health and transgender issues.

The assessment also identified concerns with documentation of an inmate’s history and behavior. When a deputy is looking up an individual’s history of assault, for example, the current system allows the deputy to note “yes” or “no” for future reference. However, no details of the information used to assign a certain classification are recorded and passed on for future deputy knowledge and use. Since the time of the assessment, the department has been working to implement an entirely new system, which will, in part, address these recordkeeping concerns. That system was meant to be in place this summer, but it has not yet been implemented.

Deputy and Inmate Interviews Compensate for Lacking Data

Completing this third-party assessment presented some unique challenges, both for our team overseeing the project and for the third-party auditors who were not used to the culture of our jail system as a city employee might have been. The team reviewed dozens of policy documents and analyzed classification-related data, but they needed more information to compensate for incomplete or unreliable data.

BKD quickly found the jail management system was outdated once they began field work and the data the system retained was unreliable due to incomplete histories and unreliability of data entry. In the jail management system, there were more than 80,000 inmate records. The data file confirmed most housing classifications rely on background research and self-reported information about or by each offender. This created a problem, because as new information about an inmate was reported and recorded, old information would get overwritten and the inmates history used in decision-making might be incomplete or unreliable.

As a result, the assessment had to rely heavily on inmate and deputy interviews and testimonials, as well as reviews of post orders or policies, and deputy training plans. BKD interviewed 20 individuals holding key positions within the sheriff’s department. In both the Hillard Heintze report and the BKD assessment, the auditors also took the unusual step of interviewing the inmates themselves about their experiences in the process. Hillard Heintze noted the original concerns that inmates might not give reliable responses to questions from a representative of a government authority. However, inmates were reportedly willing to be open and honest about the classification and intake process, as well as the grievances process.

More Work is Needed to Continue Analyzing the Jail’s Weaknesses

BKD did not include an assessment of the jail’s use-of-force policy in its review, even though the original Hillard Heintze report did assess the jail’s policy and it was in the scope of work. The new assessment took a narrower focus while working around the data limitations and other complications during field work. The analytics BKD could perform were only as good as the data they received. The classification and intake process were more easily examined in this assessment, given the data and information limitations. Our office’s auditors recently kicked off a new audit specifically on use of force to fill in this gap in the assessment.

Since the time of the assessment, we have continued to see news reports of safety concerns at the jails. At the end of July, three deputies were injured while attempting to restrain an inmate who was banging his head in an observation cell. According to news reports, two of the deputies hit their heads and a third injured his wrist.1

The use-of-force issue is complex, it is not going away, and it is worthy of a full audit. The Department of Safety has reportedly implemented a new use-of-force policy, and now is the time to ensure it is implemented efficiently and effectively. My office will continue to use creative approaches to information gathering to assess where improvements could be made, in the interest of safety and security for everyone in Denver’s jails.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA, is one of the most highly regarded auditors in Colorado. He was elected as Denver’s Auditor to a four-year term in 2015. As Denver’s Auditor, he oversees both the Audit Services Division for the City and County of Denver and the Prevailing Wage Division. He is licensed in Colorado as a Certified Public Accountant, has an MBA from the University of Colorado, and holds the designations of Chartered Financial Analyst and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He has more than 40 years of auditing experience.


NOTES

1 Natalie Weber, “Three Denver Sheriff Department deputies were injured by inmate at downtown jail,” The Denver Post, August 1, 2018, https://www.denverpost.com/2018/08/01/denver-deputies-injured-by-downtown-jail-inmate/.