Denver’s Citizens Oversight Board “extremely troubled” by “short suspensions” after Michael Marshall’s death

“The facts of Mr. Marshall’s death are very alarming,” board members wrote in an April 28 letter to Executive Director of Safety Stephanie O’Malley.

Michael Marshall died in the Denver County Jail in 2015. (Courtesy Marshall family.)
Michael Marshall died in the Denver County Jail in 2015. (Courtesy Marshall family.)
Michael Marshall died in the Denver County Jail in 2015. (Courtesy Marshall family.)

The 16- and 10-day suspensions issued to two deputies and a supervisor involved in the death of Michael Marshall, a mentally ill man who was in the Denver jail on a trespassing charge, are too light for the seriousness of the violations committed, according to the Citizens Oversight Board.

“The facts of Mr. Marshall’s death are very alarming,” board members wrote in an April 28 letter to Executive Director of Safety Stephanie O’Malley that was made public today. “We believe, based on prior documented discipline, that the relatively short suspensions imposed on three deputies last week by your office do not match the seriousness of the wrongdoing in this case.”

Michael Marshall, 50, died in 2015 after he was restrained by several deputies in a prone position for several minutes. He choked on his own vomit and suffocated. Experts say the common but risky tactic can be lethal, especially on those with medical problems and the mentally ill, whose distress is sometimes confused with resistance. An autopsy said the use of force contributed to Marshall’s asphyxiation, though he also suffered a heart attack and had underlying heart problems. His death was ruled a homicide.

In a very short press release issued Monday, the Citizen Oversight Board said O’Malley declined to discuss the case with them or respond to their letter.

Daelene Mix, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, said all three deputies had appealed their discipline, and her office could not comment at this time on any aspect of the case.

The Citizens Oversight Board is responsible for making policy-level recommendations regarding discipline and use of force, for addressing issues of concern to the community and for making recommendations regarding specific cases.

When the discipline decision was announced last month, Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell criticized the short suspensions and said he would review the decision and issue his own analysis. Darold Killmer, an attorney representing the Marshall family, said the deputies should have been terminated.

The deputies in the Marshall case received shorter suspensions than deputies who had committed “non-contact” infractions like leaving work early repeatedly, as Denverite reported last week.

In the letter, the members of the Citizens Oversight Board said punishments need to reflect the seriousness of offenses if the culture of the sheriff’s department is to change.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

As you know, the Citizen Oversight Board (COB) is made up of community members appointed by the Mayor of Denver to make recommendations regarding use of force and disciplinary decisions, among other things, to Denver’s Department of Safety. We write because we are extremely troubled by the disciplinary decisions concerning the death of Michael Marshall, released by your office last week, and we write to express our disappointment.

Throughout this case, we have been kept apprised of the investigation and disciplinary proceedings by Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell. We are aware of the many efforts by the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) to ensure that the investigation was conducted thoroughly, fairly, and without bias. We are also aware of the OIM’s many recommendations, which we support, on the appropriate level of discipline to be imposed against some involved deputies under the Denver Sheriff Department (DSD) disciplinary matrix.

The DSD’s disciplinary matrix acknowledges that Deputy Sheriffs hold a position of trust bestowed on them by the community, and they are given the authority to use force, including deadly force, when appropriate. With that power comes the responsibility to use it wisely. The community expects that when deputies engage in misconduct, the Department of Safety will impose discipline that matches the seriousness of that misconduct. The facts of Mr. Marshall’s death are very alarming. We believe, based on prior documented discipline, that the relatively short suspensions imposed on three deputies last week by your office do not match the seriousness of the wrongdoing in this case.

The DSD has been undergoing a top-to-bottom reform effort for several years, with a number of achievements that have been made public. We support those efforts, and the ongoing betterment of the DSD through change of the policies and training of the department. Some of us on the COB have even participated in the task forces and subcommittees associated with these reform efforts. Yet, to make a lasting impact on the culture of the DSD, the Department of Safety must also be willing to hold deputies accountable for serious wrongdoing. As the Citizen Oversight Board, we believe that your office did not live up to that obligation in this case, and we write to convey our disapproval of the disciplinary decisions issued last week regarding the death of Michael Marshall. Although you had to cancel your previously scheduled meeting with the COB on April 21, 2017, we look forward to discussing this matter with you on May 5, 2017 at the next COB meeting.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

Dr. Mary Davis, Chair
Francisco “Cisco” Gallardo, Vice Chair Mark Brown, Secretary
Pastor Paul Burleson, Member
Katina Banks, Member

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.