Record num­ber of re­cruits ready­ing for a cul­ture shift

The “mega class” en­ters af­ter a spate of ex­pen­sive ex­ces­sive-force cases.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Simp­son

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.

Bru­tal hon­esty

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.”

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

Michael Henry teaches deputy re­cruits for the Den­ver Sher­iff Depart­ment about ethics Wed­nes­day.

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