For nearly three decades, Denver sheriff’s Deputy Mike Jackson has worked at the Denver County Jail on the far northeast side of town.
But on a recent overtime shift, he was sent to the city’s Downtown Detention Center — an unfamiliar facility with unfamiliar procedures — and was teamed up with three other deputies who also weren’t regulars at the downtown jail. One deputy usually worked in court, another came from training and the third was a firearms instructor, said Jackson, who is president of the Denver Sheriff Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #27.
And while Jackson knew how to supervise inmates, he didn’t know the ins and outs of procedures at the downtown jail — and neither did anyone else on his team that day.
“None of us know what is going on,” he said. “We’ve all been put on one floor and everybody is like, ‘Hey, do you know about this? Do you know about this?’ And nobody knows anything. In my 29 years that has never happened.”
Staffing levels have dipped so low at the Denver Sheriff Department that the agency is pulling deputies from all sorts of assignments to cover mandatory overtime shifts at the department’s two jails. And as staffing has dropped, overtime costs have ballooned, a long-simmering problem that only has gotten worse in recent years.
In 2020, the Denver Sheriff Department averaged about 85% of full staffing in sworn positions — deputies and uniformed leadership. That dropped to 79% in 2021, to 69% in 2022 and to 67% so far in 2023. Overtime costs, on the other hand, rose from $11 million in 2020 to $17 million in 2021 and $22 million in 2022, according to data provided by the department.
The sheriff’s department had 274 open sworn positions on Sept. 1 — nearly a third of the agency’s authorized full strength of 859 deputies.
The staffing shortage has cratered morale as deputies are forced to work longer hours and more mandatory overtime, Jackson said, and raised tensions in the jails, both because inmates are sometimes forced to stay in their cells due to limited staffing and because deputies are frustrated and don’t want to be at work.
“It’s never been this bad, ever,” Jackson said.
Sheriff Elias Diggins said the agency is pulling deputies from non-jail assignments to cover overtime shifts in the jails as part of an “all hands on deck” approach to addressing the staffing shortage. The sheriff’s department runs the two jails, provides security for Denver’s courts, operates a vehicle impound lot and handles state inmate transportation, among other operations.
Diggins denied that deputies the department shifted from jobs outside the jails lack the training for their overtime assignments.
“All deputy sheriffs, as their basic training, have worked in our jail facilities, so as they come back to work overtime, it’s revisiting those practices which they have already been familiarized with,” he said. “… There is no loss of safety, security or well-being for the people who are in our custody when you have deputies working in other areas who are coming back. To the contrary, many of them come back and it is refreshing for them to come back to working in the pods directly with the folks who are in custody.”
“They always tell us, ‘Well, a deputy is a deputy,’” he said. “But that’s not true. There’s always a system to everything… when you’re put out of position you don’t know those things, mistakes get made, and now you have an (internal affairs) case — all these things compound and are putting pressure on deputies to either call in sick or just leave the job.”
The department doesn’t have the authority to investigate crimes or make arrests, and relies on Denver police to respond to crimes committed inside and immediately outside the two jails, Denver police spokesman Doug Schepman said. Police were called to the sheriff’s department’s two facilities 307 times in 2021, 328 times in 2022 and 392 times so far this year, according to statistics Chief Ron Thomas shared during a public meeting in mid-September.
Deputies typically work four 10-hour shifts a week, but they can be required to work as much as 32 hours of overtime a week. Any time a deputy comes in for a 10-hour shift, they could end up being required to stay an additional four or six hours, Jackson said, which makes it difficult for deputies to plan their personal lives.
Sometimes, deputies will call in sick rather than risk mandatory overtime, he said.
“Christmas and Thanksgiving and Halloween, people still want to be involved in those things, and they know it’s impossible if they come to work to do that, so it’s better to stay away,” he said.
Sick leave taken by sheriff’s department employees peaked at 95,000 hours in 2020 and then dropped to 66,000 in 2021 and 60,000 hours in 2022. Call-outs are heavier around holidays, sheriff’s data shows — 252 people called out sick on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the day before in 2018, 100 on New Year’s Eve 2021 and 95 on New Year’s Eve the year prior, the data shows.
Deputies can, however, volunteer for overtime shifts and schedule those shifts two weeks in advance, Diggins said. Deputies told Pointypress they volunteer for overtime shifts in order to avoid mandatory overtime, which can be required with little-to-no warning.
“There can be a level of predictability, but, again, if folks don’t show up, the jail has to be staffed,” Diggins said. “All of our facilities have to be staffed. So someone has to do that. And sometimes, at the last moment, folks call in, but that is few and far between.”
A growing share of deputies is working more than 1,000 hours of overtime annually, Denver Sheriff Department data shows. Two dozen deputies hit that mark in 2020, which nearly doubled to 47 in 2021 and grew to 56 in 2022 — almost 10% of the average sworn workforce that year.
Diggins said that retention at the sheriff’s department is trending in the right direction, and the agency has started to grow its recruit classes as well.
In 2022, 100 Denver sheriff’s employees retired or resigned, compared to 113 in 2021 and 79 in 2020, according to data provided by the department. In the first eight months of 2023, 33 employees have resigned or retired.
Total departures from the agency — which include firings, medical disqualifications and deaths — have declined annually since 2021. The sheriff’s department saw 91 departures in 2020, 123 in 2021, 108 in 2022 and 40 through Sept. 1 of this year, according to the data.
The current recruit class has about 30 members and will graduate Dec. 1.
“When you look at the long-term outcome of what we are doing, increasing retention and having larger classes, we will hopefully begin to see the fruits of that labor and seeing our staffing numbers climb,” Diggins said, adding he hopes to see improved numbers in 2024 and 2025.
He also heralded the department’s efforts to boost morale and support deputies through the long hours, pointing to initiatives like bringing food trucks to the jails, installing massage chairs for deputies and paying retention bonuses and higher rates for overtime work.
But Jackson said the new recruit classes won’t offer deputies much relief — at least not anytime soon.
“There is no help. Nobody is coming,” he said. “We’ve been doing forced overtime for three years now.”
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