Denver Mayor Michael Hancock gives Elias Diggins a hug after the July 21 announcement that he would be interim chief, replacing Sheriff Gary Wilson. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The
Denver Post)

One of the more bizarre videos involving the Denver Sheriff Department is not one that shows senseless beatings or out-of-control deputies.

It is a YouTube video of a Nov. 20, 2013, press conference in front of the downtown detention center, where Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and city officials announced the sheriff's department's triple crown accreditation — an honor bestowed by the National Sheriffs' Association after a "rigorous self-evaluation."

"Today we celebrate the final word that the sheriff's programs and operations are among the top in the nation," Hancock said to polite applause.

On Dec. 3, just 13 days after the press conference, the Office of the Independent Monitor released a damning report that showed the sheriff's department had failed to investigate dozens of serious allegations of deputy misconduct over the previous 2½ years, including inmates' claims that deputies choked them, sexually harassed them and used racial and ethnic slurs.

Fast-forward to today, and the sheriff's department is still embroiled in an ever-deepening scandal with Sheriff Gary Wilson stepping down, his former second-in-command, Michael Than, being indicted on felony theft charges, and the city paying out $3.25 million to resolve a prisoner abuse case.


The juxtaposition is startling.

What happened? Why were city officials caught so flat-footed? How did we go from hearing city leaders laud the agency as one of the nation's best to acknowledging systemic dysfunction?

"We've uncovered a complex web, a deep culture we've got to pull apart here," Hancock told The Denver Post's Noelle Phillips recently after Wilson stepped down. "I don't know how it got this far. I think it's decades of a lack of attention, a lack of leadership."

Yet, on July 10, just five weeks ago, Hancock believed the leadership was on the right track and gave his full support to Wilson's plan to address the emerging issues. Hancock told The Post's editorial board about his "tremendous respect" and admiration for Wilson.

"As a leader, he is like, 'Mayor, we can fix these things. I want to fix these things,' " Hancock said, quoting Wilson. "He looked me in the eye. And I said, 'I am going to give you a chance to change this. I want to see a plan.' He brought a plan to me. I looked at it and said, 'I like that plan. Go get it done. I want this department turned around.'

"And that is exactly the message I want from the person I have sitting there. He is fixing it."

On July 21, Hancock called a press conference to announce Wilson's demotion. The mayor said he was launching a top-down review of the internal affairs unit and the administrative policies for disciplining deputies. He would bring in an outside firm to conduct the investigation. "Enough is enough," Hancock said.

When did enough become enough?

Perhaps it was the news that would come out on July 22, the day after Wilson's demotion, that the city would pay inmate Jamal Hunter $3.25 million to settle an abuse lawsuit. Or maybe it was the video leaked from the previous week that showed Deputy Thomas Ford punching and kicking an inmate during a recent booking process.

In an interview Thursday, Hancock told me he responded quickly to the Independent Monitor's report by eliminating the step that required complaints to go to the supervisor.

Now complaints go straight to the Internal Affairs Bureau, which opened the floodgates.

"We started to see more of them at my level, and of course the videos as well," he said.

Hancock said he began meeting regularly with Wilson and his team and monitoring the work groups being put in place to address the problems.

"Obviously, the further we went along, the more it became clearer to me that this culture was even deeper than even I had first realized," he said. "And then I began to make more radical changes."

Hancock said he began hearing concerns from community groups, talked with attorneys handling the Hunter case, and even heard that these problems in the jail reached back decades.

Videos tied to cases also began to surface, which he said "only expedited the sense of urgency to address some of these issues."

"It was clear to me that it was time to change."

Hancock said his job as mayor isn't to make knee-jerk decisions, and he wanted to be careful to make the right decisions.

"This is an administration that has implemented reform under my leadership before and we will do it again," he said. "We do it by staying focused and not being distracted by the chatter that is around us, simply by saying 'What is our vision? Let's go get it done.' "

Hancock has been a steady leader in office for three years, using his legislative skills gleaned from growing up in and around politics. He is fond of forming committees around issues, getting consensus and moving deliberately to resolution.

The jail mess seemingly caught him off guard. Perhaps the reporting structure isolated him from the problems. Some would argue his loyalty to Wilson was too deep.

Hancock is confident the process he established will reform the department.

Yet, critics have pointed out his executive steering committee is made up mostly of subordinates who have little experience in criminal justice issues.

The jail issue has been a stress test for Hancock. Time will tell whether his deliberate ways were the most effective at solving one of the city's worst problems.

E-mail Jeremy Meyer at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow him on Twitter: @jpmeyerdpost

Browse photography at Denver.Gallery.