Record number of recruits readying for a culture shift
The “mega class” enters after a spate of expensive excessive-force cases.
Bridget Andrews sat near the front of the expansive classroom, another navy-blue shirt among row after row of men and women in the largest recruiting class — 83, about three times the normal size — in the history of the Denver Sheriff Department.
On Day 3 of training, a class on ethics, she began to see how the department’s “mega class” could not only provide an infusion of desperately needed deputies but also jump-start a culture change.
“As big as this group is, we could have an impact immediately,” said Andrews, a 48-year-old Air Force veteran. “A class of 80 is going to help staffing a lot quicker. We’re the cavalry — and we’re coming.”
Beset by an embarrassing spate of expensive excessive-force cases and steady attrition that created a personnel shortage, the department continues to reinvent itself since a scathing review last year by outside consultants. That probe found problems at virtually every level and produced hundreds of recommendations, with culture change a recurring theme.
But well before training began last week, a streamlined recruiting process brought in 1,937 applications. The department added five more background investigators and other resources to shave an estimated 30 days off the usual recruiting process.
It took its show on the road to communities from Arvada to Grand Junction, with a particular emphasis on courting candidates with military or police training in their background. The goal: Find people with maturity and experience who could build a culture of shared accountability — a quality in short supply, according to the consultants’ report.
Through a gantlet of faceto-face interviews, reviews and background checks, the department winnowed the applications to 109 candidates who received conditional offers.
Eighty-seven accepted. Five of them still await the results of drug and background checks — a glitch that reflects the urgent, accelerated effort to backfill massive shortfalls in manpower.
Capt. Jaime Kafati, commander of the training center, tucked in an industrial area north of Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, said the department launched training with a brutally honest description of what lies ahead — long hours, shift work, physical training and a succession of tests. Four recruits immediately dropped out.
Some others probably won’t survive the academy.
“We’re not giving badges away,” Kafati said. “We’re in a monumental cultural change — not just us, but law enforcement nationwide. It’s a culture of service. Our duty is to protect life. That’s the message we want to convey.”
One key emphasis for the new recruits involves a revamped approach to use of force, an area that recently cost the city more than $9 million in settlements and legal fees. As a result of conversations begun a few years ago, the traditional “warrior” mind set is to be supplanted by a different approach: “guardian.”
The shift surfaces in the ethics class, where the instructor employs examples of real-life scenarios in which Denver deputies “fell short of the mark,” as Kafati puts it. Those instances of excessive force, pulled from unflattering headlines, drive home the importance of the new philosophy.
In training that could extend as long as 20 weeks, recruits also will explore tactics geared toward defusing conflict whenever possible instead of resorting to force.
“Verbal judo,” said Kafati, invoking the vernacular for strategic communication skills. “It’s de-escalation at its best, redirection. We implement scenarios that may appear to be use-of-forcetype scenarios. But if the recruit opts to use force, they fail.”
Actors play roles of inmates or citizens, depending on the circumstances, and push the recruits’ emotional buttons. Later, debriefing examines whether they have developed the necessary communication skills.
Kafati, who has been academy commander since 2012, notes that the deputy candidates are told that while they’re given legal authority to use force, it may not be appropriate — and it could carry serious consequences for them.
“We tell the officers that their actions may expose them to criminal liability,” he said. “It’s a big burden. We explain to them what the job is going to entail, the responsibilities placed upon them. We still deal with folks who are very difficult to supervise, so we still have to take precautionary measures. There’s a dangerous element out there. But we have to assess those dangers.”
The emphasis, Kafati said, is on personal leadership and emotional intelligence. The sheriff ’s department also has partnered with community groups such as the Colorado Latino Forum and the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance to foster community engagement — a measure that addresses another deficiency outlined in the consultants’ report.
“It’s a lot different”
“It’s a lot different from when I started 25 years ago — even five years ago,” Kafati said of the current training. “Law enforcement has an old saying: At the end of the day, we go home safe. Here’s what we say now: At the end of the day, everyone goes home safe.”
Last week, new recruit Andrews looked around her and saw classmates young enough to be her kids — but her experience and maturity make her a model for this cohort. She knew exactly what she was getting into when she applied to become a deputy in a department undergoing a massive overhaul.
After six years in the Air Force and then management positions for a rental car company and a retailer, she was ready to move back into the public sector.
Her mother worked five years as a sheriff’s deputy in Texas, and Andrews recalls her own idealistic youth when kids aspired to wear the uniform of law enforcement.
Reinvigorated by the camaraderie of her historic recruiting class, she has embraced the physical challenge that reminds her of the military basic training she endured 20 years ago.
“I know we have to be fit to fight,” she said, “but the training is a lot more than that.”
Now, Andrews hopes her own 10-year-old daughter — the youngest of her three kids — can take pride in her effort aimed at helping a troubled department regain some measure of public trust.
“I’m so excited to be coming in at a time that we are looking at reform,” said Andrews. “It’s not my mom’s sheriff’s department anymore. It’s what we’re going to make it, how we’re going to make the community proud of what we do. And how we can be proud of it, too.”
Michael Henry teaches deputy recruits for the Denver Sheriff Department about ethics Wednesday.