DENVER — Overtime costs at the Denver Sheriff Department dropped in the past three years, though the city still spent $26,624 per day in overtime in 2019 to staff its two jails.
The department’s overtime costs for uniformed staff more than tripled at the beginning of the decade to more than $13 million in 2016 from $3.8 million in 2011. Since then, costs have fallen every year to the $9.1 million the department spent through Dec. 9 of this year.
The biggest contributor to overtime costs is the department’s difficulty hiring and retaining deputies, Division Chief Elias Diggins said. In December, the department was 115 deputies short of full strength, he said.
Jail across the country are struggling to recruit staff, said Diggins, who also serves as the president of the American Jail Association board of directors.
“We’re competing against the rest of the labor market,” Diggins said. “There’s a tendency for folks in 2019 and 2020 to shy away from public service, and particularly law enforcement careers. As we move forward we hope this begins to change.”
The department for years has struggled to rein in overtime costs and recruit staff. Mandatory overtimes means deputies have no time to recuperate from a demanding job in a stressful environment, leaving them fatigued and more likely to make mistakes, deputies have said.
At best, 85% of the department’s 865 uniform positions were filled this year. That number sometimes dropped to as low as 80%, according to department data. When the department does not have enough people volunteer to fill shifts, deputies are forced to work overtime, he said.
Despite the short staff, the department reduced overtime costs by imposing stricter limitations on what type of work qualified for overtime. Previously, some overtime had been granted for work that was not necessary to the function of the jails, Diggins said.
“One of the things we discovered is that there were times where liberty was taken by supervisors regarding adding posts,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that when they were running posts, it was necessary to do so.”
The two jails also close housing pods when their populations dip low enough to allow it. That frees up five deputies to take on other duties, Diggins said. Two of the pods at the Downtown Detention Center closed Thursday for this reason.
But overtime costs are expected to tick up in the spring when a new women-only section at the County Jail on Smith Road is scheduled to open. The jail — which is 18 months behind schedule — has an open design and a larger capacity that will require 32 more positions than the building it is replacing.
“We’re always going to work toward bringing overtime down,” Diggins said. “What we have now is a staffing level that requires us to have overtime.”
Staffing shortfalls have plagued the sheriff department since the opening of the Downtown Detention Center in 2010, said Mike Britton, vice president of the deputies union who recently retired from the department after 30 years. Constant mandatory overtime means deputies are unable to rest.
“What does that lead to? Fatigue. Stress,” he said. “You’re away from your family. What happens? Mistakes are made.”
One deputy caught this year napping in a supply closet during overnight shifts told internal affairs investigators the overtime shifts he had to work often exhausted him.
“There’s staff that appreciates the opportunity to work the overtime hours and there are staff that are feeling somewhat exhausted,” Diggins said. “We do everything that we can to make sure our staff is taken care of.”
Other government agencies have also struggled to recruit in the void of a strong economy. The Regional Transportation District is considering eliminating some routes to deal with a shortage of bus drivers and train operators.
One Denver Sheriff Department deputy, Lowell Moore, worked 1,363 hours of overtime in the first 11 months of 2019. That’s approximately 30 hours of overtime per week, from which he earned a total of $78,358 in overtime pay, not including his annual salary. Four other deputies each earned between $66,000 and $76,000 in overtime pay.
An audit of the jails this year by Denver’s Office of the Auditor found that the turnover in the department, especially among people with five to 10 years of experience, “Could lead to a reliance in the future on less-experienced staff as other deputies near retirement.” The audit found that 323 of the 786 deputies and sergeants employed in July 2018 had less than five years of experience, or about 41%.
“Voluntary resignations are a driver for turnover in sworn personnel, with personnel leaving the organization with increasingly fewer years of service,” the audit states.
The sheriff department is recruiting for an academy class to begin March 9. Starting salaries begin at $58,000.
“Recruits and employees are required to be flexible in their work schedules; available to work nights, weekends and holidays; able and willing to work in any DSD facility, willing to work amongst inmates and the public; and able to work within small and/or confined spaces,” the city job listing states.
But even decent salaries and benefits is not enough to attract recruits if working conditions are poor, Britton said.
“You can’t sell everybody just on money,” he said. “It’s not about money anymore. It’s more about a sense of direction.”