The Denver Sheriff Department spent an average of $46,697 a day on overtime wages in the first six months of 2021 to keep the city’s two jails running amid a staffing shortage that deputies say could compromise the integrity of the jail system.

At the end of July, the department had 180 unfilled sworn positions, meaning approximately a fifth of the department’s 874 authorized sworn positions are open, according to department data. The 694 deputies on staff include 22 brand-new employees who graduated from the academy on July 23.

Staffing shortages and the resultant costly overtime have plagued the Denver Sheriff Department for years. Audits and outside analyses have repeatedly flagged the staffing shortage as a major challenge and experts have said overworked deputies create a safety risk.

“The staffing crisis has begotten an overtime situation that is untenable,” Mike Jackson, president of the deputies’ union, wrote in a July letter to Mayor Michael Hancock and other city leaders. “Deputies are overworked, burned-out and fatigued, and it is impacting their emotional wellness. (That) coupled with a brutal working environment is the root cause of the high turnover. Deputies’ morale is unmeasurably low.”

Sheriff Elias Diggins, too, sees the staff shortage as the department’s biggest challenge though he denied that the shortage impacted the care of the people incarcerated in the jails. The department mandates overtime for deputies every day because there are not enough people to fill shifts, he said.

“We’re managing it well, I believe,” Diggins said. “We’ll continue to make sure that our facilities are as safe and secure as can be, for both the people who are in custody as well as the staff that are members of our organization.”

The low staffing has created a cycle, according to the sheriff deputies’ union. Low staffing leads to mandatory overtime. Overtime leads to burnout. Burnout leads to resignations, which leads to even fewer staff. That puts the department “in serious danger of compromising the integrity, safety, and security of the facility,” Jackson said.

It’s also expensive. The Denver Sheriff Department in the first half of 2021 has paid $8,592,420 in overtime to keep the city’s two jails running and provide other services like court security.

The year’s 2021 overtime payments put the department on pace to outstrip the $11 million in annual overtime it paid in 2019 and 2020. Overtime costs have trended upward since 2011, the year following the opening of the Downtown Detention Center. The department paid $3.8 million in overtime that year.

“It is absolutely not what we want to see, in terms of overtime numbers,” said Murphy Robinson, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety. “But when we have vacancies in the jail someone has to staff it.”

Some of those costs are made up by the savings from unfilled positions, Diggins said. The department’s expenses are in line with its 2021 budget, he said.

The availability of overtime hours means some deputies were able to more than double their pay last year. Four deputies made more than $80,000 in overtime payments last year and boosted their wages to more than $150,000, according to data from the department.

Department leaders are closing housing pods when possible to reduce the number of deputies needed at any given time, Diggins said. That was easier during the first months of the pandemic, when the jails’ average daily populations plummeted from about 1,800 to fewer than 1,000.

But the average daily population started to climb again in July 2020. On Wednesday, the daily population was 1,497.

The 2021 staffing levels are the lowest since at least 2017, but understaffing has been a problem for the department for years. A 2015 report issued by a firm hired to complete a thorough review of the department said the excessive overtime spending was an “operational red flag” and found the agency “does not have enough staff to provide a professional level of custodial care and support services.” A 2019 report by the Denver’s Office of the Auditor found that the department’s turnover “could lead to a reliance in the future on less-experienced staff.”

Jail leaders have made multiple changes in an attempt to fix the shortages, including training giant academy classes, rethinking scheduling practices and hiring non-sworn employees for some responsibilities. The city is also considering increasing pay and implementing other incentives like tuition reimbursement, Robinson said.

“It is a tough job,” Robinson said. “Being a deputy in the sheriff’s job is one of the hardest jobs in the city, if not the hardest job in the city.”

The deputies’ union hopes to address some concerns when they renegotiate their contract beginning in October, Jackson wrote, but added other problems with workplace environment and culture could be fixed outside the bargaining process.

Diggins wasn’t sure how long it will take to get the sheriff department to full staffing,

“I think it’s hard to predict,” Diggins said. “But we’re going to work hard every day to reach that goal and to get us to a place where our staffing levels are far better than what they are today.”

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