By Doug McPherson
Elias Diggins was a 21-year-old deputy when he started in the Denver Sheriff Department in 1994. Nearly three decades later, he is the sheriff.
As sheriff, the Denver native has been lauded for creating a position in his administration that focuses on mental-health services. He has helped pave the way for the Denver jail system to become one of the largest psychiatric providers in Colorado. Diggins will give the morning keynote address at MSU Denver’s 2022 Commencement ceremony Dec. 16.
His journey to law enforcement began at Montbello High School in northeast Denver, where Diggins took special notice of the school resource officers.
“They were always impressive to me,” he said. “Their uniforms were sharp, and they were just nice people — they’d always talk to me.”
They made enough of an impression that when Diggins enrolled at Metropolitan State University of Denver in 1991, he chose to major in Criminal Justice and Criminology. Three years into his studies, Diggins decided to leave MSU Denver and join the Denver Sheriff Department.
Working in law enforcement bolstered his resolve to make it his life’s work. And he returned to MSU Denver to finish his degree in 1999.
Diggins has many fond memories of his time at MSU Denver. One Criminal Justice professor stood out: Richard Jackson, Ph.D.
“He always started his classes with this phrase: ‘Tell me something that’s happening in the real world,’” Diggins said. “He felt the classroom needed to translate into action when you’re in the world. That was especially true for urban environments like Denver. My degree has been invaluable in helping me in law enforcement.”
After earning his degree, Diggins rose through the ranks, and in July 2020 Denver Mayor Michael Hancock appointed him as sheriff. Diggins sees it as the highlight of his career. “I’ve been blessed to be in this position, to have been chosen by Mayor Hancock and to lead all the talented men and women in the department,” he said.
Diggins has a reputation for policing with empathy, which he attributes to personal experience. When he was growing up, his stepdad was in and out of prison. ‘’He’s elderly now and has served his time,” Diggins said. “But I know what it’s like to have someone you love incarcerated. So that’s part of who I am. It’s ingrained in me — it shapes everything I do.”
Diggins has also made mental health a cornerstone of his administration, creating a Cabinet-level position titled chief of mental-health services and hiring a licensed psychologist to fill the role.
“Over the years, I’ve seen an increase in the number of people who have mental-health conditions,” Diggins said. “We talk about the root cause of why people stay in the cycle, and often it’s because of mental-health conditions. So we need to focus on that and get them the treatment they need so that we can break the cycle and help them live better lives for themselves and for their families.”
He added that as he has grown into the role, he has worked to stay focused on real-world issues and, in particular, the human element.
“Law enforcement serves the community. We deal with people — that’s the business we’re in,” he said. “For the past 28 years, I’ve worked to recognize the humanity in people, and I encourage other officers to do the same.”
Doug McPherson is a Writer with MSU RED. This story originally appeared on MSU Denver RED.
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