A Denver city employee who leaked information to the media about a sheriff’s deputy’s alleged misconduct was placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday.
Brittany Iriart, a former special agent with the U.S. Department of State who has worked for the city for about three years, was placed on leave for “breaching the rules of confidentiality,” said Kelli Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety. Christensen said Iriart also “made threatening statements toward staff.”
Iriart’s attorney, Laura Wolf, denied that Iriart made any threats, but said she did leak details about a case in which she was the original investigator because Iriart felt the city’s conduct was so egregious that it needed to be exposed. Iriart also testified Wednesday before the Colorado legislature in support of a police reform bill.
“My client leaked that there were problems with an internal investigation and the discipline recommended by that investigation because of her concern for public safety,” Wolf said. “That is an investigation whose results would have been made publicly available — based on the fact there was discipline that had been recommended and verified by the fact-finding process — until Denver overrode that decision at the highest level of authority to hide the abuse.”
The case in question involved a sheriff’s deputy who was accused of punching a man in a wheelchair after the man spit on him, according to Fox 31, which ran a story last week about the allegations. Despite video that appears to show the deputy throwing a punch at the man and knocking over the wheelchair, the deputy was cleared of all wrongdoing.
Now, the deputy has a second excessive force complaint, which Iriart said she had been charged with investigating until she was placed on leave.
Iriart alleges the case is one of several in which top city officials have overruled discipline recommendations from the Public Integrity Division, which is independent from the Department of Public Safety. She works there as an investigator in the administrative investigations unit.
In an interview Wednesday, Iriart claimed that factual reports on deputies’ actions have been altered in order to support lesser discipline or no discipline than originally recommended by the Public Integrity Division.
“I have seen, personally with my eyes, the originally sustained and justified reports and I’ve seen the final reports that are altered to fit the new findings,” she said, adding that she believes the changes are made after the reports leave the Public Integrity Division and are reviewed by top sheriff’s department and city personnel.
Christensen said reports are changed frequently throughout the investigative process.
“We believe Ms. Iriart is referring to draft documents that are subject to amendment or revisions as it goes through the multi-step process and review prior to becoming final, so we feel her allegations are untrue,” Christensen said.
Iriart said the changes she saw happened well after reports were drafted, after they’d been reviewed by many people and after the findings were presented at disciplinary hearings.
“So it’s somewhere at the end,” she said.
The city can deliver whatever discipline it sees fit, Iriart said, but she does not believe facts in the reports should be changed to support that discipline.
“What is concerning to me is the altering of facts,” she said. “You can’t do that.”
Iriart testified before state lawmakers Wednesday in support of the Senate Bill 217, called the Law Enforcement Integrity Act, which could bring sweeping reforms to policing in the state.
“I have seen that officers who engaged in conduct that warrants discipline, including inappropriate use of force, are being absolved of all wrongdoing,” she testified. “These officers are then returned to their posts, interacting with the public, having learned that they can act with impunity, that they can harm with impunity. It was a very difficult decision for me to come here today.”
Wolf said the city’s decision to place Iriart on leave shows that there is a problem within the internal investigations process and that cities should not be able to investigate themselves.
“To me this is a classic case of Denver using an abusive process to not only hide information from the public and put the public at risk, but then to take the people who are tasked with protecting the safety of our citizens and put their own jobs at risk for speaking out about what is actually happening internally with these review processes,” she said.
The Public Integrity Division is a civilian agency that investigates complaints against the Denver Sheriff Department.
The city announced the creation of the division in December 2018 as an attempt to fix the sheriff department’s backlogged internal affairs unit that was inefficient and insufficient. The Office of the Independent Monitor in 2018 recommended that a civilian agency oversee the department’s internal affairs after a review of how the previous system failed to properly investigate the death of Michael Marshall, who died in jail custody.
The division is also tasked with investigating complaints against mayoral appointees in the Department of Public Safety, including the police chief and the sheriff.
The division’s first leader, Eric Williams, resigned from the position in October following disagreements about how to make policy decisions. The city then named Dave Walcher, former Arapahoe County sheriff, to lead the division.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:51 p.m. to correct the date on which the administrative leave started.