$14M spent in 2016 de­spite hir­ing surge

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Noelle Phillips

Over­time costs at the Denver Sher­iff Depart­ment con­tinue to sky­rocket, reach­ing $14 mil­lion last year de­spite a hir­ing spree that added nearly 200 deputies to the ros­ter and pledges to change em­ploy­ment prac­tices that could curb ex­ces­sive spend­ing.

The sher­iff’s depart­ment is on track to spend nearly as much on over­time in 2017; the depart­ment paid $6.4 mil­lion for 133,933 hours of over­time dur­ing the first six months of the year, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by the Denver Depart­ment of Safety.

But of­fi­cials in­sist the depart­ment is get­ting on track and blame soar­ing over­time costs, in part, on manda­tory train­ing. Now that train­ing is com­plete and new sched­ul­ing prac­tices are in place, the depart­ment ex­pects to get over­time hours un­der con­trol, said Dae­lene Mix, a safety depart­ment spokes­woman.

“We re­ally be­lieve you’ll be able to see that sta­bi­liz­ing ef­fect as we head into 2018, for over­time,” Mix said.

Cor­rec­tions ex­perts warn the sher­iff is tak­ing a risk by re­ly­ing on over­time to run the city’s two jails. Ex­ces­sive over­time not only is costly to tax­pay­ers, it cre­ates a dan­ger­ous en­vi­ron­ment in­side the jails, with deputies work­ing too many hours in a high-stress job, said Mark Po­gre­bin, a crim­i­nol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Colorado Denver.

“You’re not alert. You’re ir­ri­ta­ble. You’re more im­pa­tient,” Po­gre­bin said. “You want peo­ple to work over­time from time to time, but it sounds like here it has be­come a prac­tice.”

In 2016, Deputy Gra­ham Dunn earned $111,081 in over­time pay, while three other deputies earned more than $90,000 each in over­time, ac­cord­ing to the safety depart­ment.

While Po­gre­bin hasn’t stud­ied

the sher­iff’s depart­ment over­time is­sue in depth, he said the depart­ment’s in­abil­ity to con­trol it is a prob­lem. Of­fi­cials haven’t jus­ti­fied why the ex­ces­sive hours are nec­es­sary, he said.

“Ev­ery year, it is a new ex­cuse,” Po­gre­bin said. “One year, it’s ‘We don’t have enough peo­ple,’ and the next year, it’s ‘They’ve got to be trained.'”

Sher­iff Pa­trick Fir­man and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of safety Stephanie O’Mal­ley re­port to Mayor Michael Han­cock, whose staff said he was not avail­able to com­ment on the is­sue. The mayor’s staff de­ferred ques­tions about over­time to O’Mal­ley’s of­fice, where Mix is the spokes­woman.

The sher­iff’s depart­ment’s over­time hours first jumped in 2010 when Denver opened the Down­town De­ten­tion Cen­ter. Its de­sign re­quires more deputies than the County Jail on Smith Road, but city of­fi­cials in­cor­rectly thought they could op­er­ate it with the same num­ber. The depart­ment is just now ad­dress­ing the staffing is­sue.

In 2014, the depart­ment’s over­time ex­penses — roughly $8 mil­lion — led some City Coun­cil mem­bers to ques­tion depart­ment lead­er­ship and their over­sight of spend­ing.

In 2015, con­sul­tants hired to do a top-to-bot­tom re­view of the sher­iff’s depart­ment la­beled ex­ces­sive over­time spend­ing an “op­er­a­tional red flag.” They rec­om­mended the depart­ment change its sched­ul­ing prac­tices and train su­per­vi­sors to man­age bud­gets to help curb over­time hours.

That year, the depart­ment spent $10.7 mil­lion for 213,000 hours of over­time af­ter in­terim Sher­iff Elias Dig­gins im­ple­mented manda­tory over­time for deputies, mean­ing they could not turn down a su­per­vi­sor’s re­quest to work ex­tra hours.

Fir­man abol­ished manda­tory over­time when he was hired in late 2015 and put lim­its on how much over­time each deputy could work in a week.

In 2016, Han­cock in­creased the sher­iff’s depart­ment bud­get by $24 mil­lion to help re­form the depart­ment, in­clud­ing adding deputies to the ros­ter. Last year, the depart­ment hired those deputies, in­clud­ing a much bal­ly­hooed “mega­class,” boost­ing its ranks to nearly 800 deputies. Still, the over­time hours climbed.

The sher­iff paid $13.9 mil­lion for 283,750 hours of over­time in 2016, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by the safety depart­ment. In com­par­i­son, the Denver Po­lice Depart­ment, which has about 1,400 po­lice of­fi­cers, paid $12.5 mil­lion in over­time in 2016.

The sher­iff’s depart­ment has strug­gled to main­tain proper staffing lev­els. It is about 60 deputies short of be­ing full strength, Mix said.

Six to eight em­ploy­ees leave the depart­ment each month, she said, and an­other 55 deputies, on av­er­age, are on lim­ited duty as a re­sult of in­jury or ill­ness.

“It’s been re­ally hard to get to where we need to be,” Mix said. “We’re try­ing.”

On Tues­day, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a Denver Post story about the over­time ex­penses, Fir­man sent an email to City Coun­cil ex­plain­ing the depart­ment’s spend­ing. In it, Fir­man said staffing re­mains a chal­lenge.

“While over­time use re­mains a fo­cal point, the Depart­ment rec­og­nizes that re­cruit­ing and em­ployee re­ten­tion are the larger, un­der­ly­ing is­sue and work is un­der­way to em­ploy strate­gies that will in­crease staffing lev­els,” Fir­man wrote.

Staffing short­ages saved the depart­ment $120,000 from its $107.7 mil­lion per­son­nel bud­get, Mix said. The sher­iff noted the sav­ings in his email to City Coun­cil. The sher­iff also said train­ing in 2016 boosted over­time spend­ing, re­fer­ring to manda­tory cri­sis in­ter­ven­tion train­ing for all deputies, an el­e­ment of the depart­ment’s re­form plan. Each deputy spent 40 hours in the train­ing, and other deputies were paid over­time to fill the gaps at the two jails, Mix said.

“We knew we were go­ing to have to do a record amount of train­ing,” she said. “We have re­ally tried to be hon­est all along that we would have to uti­lize over­time.”

In the past 18 months, the sher­iff’s depart­ment has made changes to its sched­ul­ing prac­tices, some­thing the con­sul­tants in 2015 de­scribed as dys­func­tional.

The depart­ment used a mix of work sched­ules that was in­ef­fi­cient and un­nec­es­sar­ily com­plex, the con­sul­tants said. They found that the depart­ment’s 10hour and 12-hour work sched­ules called for 25 per­cent more em­ploy­ees and rec­om­mended the depart­ment put all deputies on eight-hour shifts.

The depart­ment chose to switch to 10-hour and eighthour shifts, de­pend­ing on the po­si­tion, Mix said. The sher­iff and chief deputies be­lieved that sys­tem was a bet­ter fit for Denver’s jails, she said.

The depart­ment has made other changes: Deputies as­signed to one jail now can pick up shifts at the other jail. Civil­ians were hired for some of­fice jobs, which put more deputies into the in­mate hous­ing units.

Civil­ians also man­age sched­ul­ing, which frees sergeants and cap­tains to su­per­vise deputies. Those sergeants and cap­tains also were trained to man­age bud­gets and over­time, Mix said.

“On its face value, the over­time looks high,” she said, “but you have to look at the big­ger pic­ture, not just one piece of it.”

John Leyba, Denver Post file

The Denver Sher­iff Depart­ment hired nearly 200 new deputies in 2016 to boost staffing and re­lieve over­time at the city’s two jails.

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