The union says staffing has fallen under 65 percent, though the department says that figure is higher.
The union representing Denver sheriffs says low staffing levels at the agency may compromise their ability to keep the city’s jails secure, and though Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins admits recruitment and retention are a challenge, he said the department is keeping facilities it oversees safe.
An open letter addressed to Mayor Michael Hancock, the Denver City Council, Public Safety Executive Director Murphy Robinson and Diggins released by the union this week spell out the union’s concerns. The letter is from Denver Sheriff Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 27 President Mike Jackson.
The letter says staffing has fallen under 65 percent of its authorized strength, but Sheriff Department spokesperson Daria Serna said the department is operating at 76 percent capacity. Serna said the department’s authorized sworn strength — basically, the number of sheriffs it’s budgeted to have — is 874. The department has 665 sheriffs as of July 7.
Serna points out an incoming 22-recruit class scheduled to graduate on Friday and start work next week will bring the department’s capacity to nearly 80 percent.
Staffing issues have been ongoing for years, Jackson said in the letter.
Diggins said in an interview with Denverite on Thursday the department has seen challenges related to recruiting and retaining sheriffs. Diggins said he had seen the letter and was planning on meeting with the union to discuss their concerns.
Diggins, who was appointed by Hancock last year and has been with the agency since 1994, said the department takes the safety and security of all facilities it oversees seriously.
“Through overtime and through strategically managing our facilities, we believe that we are keeping our facilities safe,” Diggins said.
In his letter, Jackson expressed disappointment, characterizing city officials as being largely unwilling to meet and engage with issues at the agency. It warns staffing issues are compromising the safety of the city’s jails and said city leaders need to work more closely with the agency. He said the union was encouraged by a meeting with Robinson, whom Jackson said helped resolve an issue related to the deputies’ vehicle parking.
Jackson said having sheriffs work overtime to make up for staffing is a “morale killer.” He said he doesn’t believe the city treats the department equally with police and fire. He noted during arbitration this March, the department lost benefits like additional pay for working holidays and a one-time $600 uniform allowance. The contract was approved by City Council in April.
“We don’t get treated the same way at all,” Jackson said on Thursday.
He said sheriffs leave because their retirement plan isn’t great and discipline for sheriffs who violate rules is too harsh. He said suspensions can prevent people from moving up the ranks, which is another reason why the job may not seem attractive to potential recruits.
“When you are trying to keep people from leaving, this is what people are looking at,” Jackson said.
Denver Police has some room to add cops in its ranks, but it’s operating at a much higher capacity: It has 74 vacancies as of May, and 1,522 officers, according to department spokesperson Jay Casillas. The Denver Fire Department has 1,037 firefighters and EMTs, and 39 vacancies, according to fire department spokesperson Greg Pixley.
A report from the Police Executive Research Forum in June showed both resignations and retirements in police agencies had increased substantially between 2020 to 2021, and hiring had decreased modestly. Serna said the sheriffs department is currently recruiting for its November 2021 academy.