The civilian watchdogs entrusted with investigating complaints about Denver police have become so discouraged by a lack of support from the city administration that resignations appear imminent. And that would suit the police--and some city officials--just fine.
"If they were to go away," city councilman Ed Thomas, an ex-cop, says of the commission, "they would not be missed by anyone."
The situation is expected to come to a head this week when Denver County Judge Andrew Armatas decides whether the panel, the Public Safety Review Commission, has the right to subpoena police officers' statements when reviewing complaints. The commissioners claim they have a legal right to do so, but that issue is being challenged by the Denver Police Protective Association, the police officers' union. The PPA has been fighting the commission every step of the way since its establishment three years ago. This might be the most critical battle to date.
"The issue," says commission chair Adrienne Benavidez, "is, can this be an effective oversight body or not?" If the commission is denied subpoena power and, therefore, access to statements and internal investigations, the answer clearly is no, she says. The only recourse for the commissioners, she says, would be to ask the city council or Mayor Wellington Webb to strengthen the commission's power.
Commission members, however, are not confident that the mayor would be willing to stick his neck out for them. Just last week, the commissioners met with Webb to discuss what they see as a lack of commitment to their goals by him and his top appointees.
"We do think the administration has not been as supportive as it could," Benavidez acknowledges. "When we see the police chief interviewed on television [about the issue of subpoena power] and he says basically that there's no real need for this commission, that sends a message--especially when there's been no statement about the subject, pro or con, from the administration.
"And the fact that the department and its officers refuse to respond to the subpoenas certainly indicates how they view the commission," Benavidez continues. "The mayor appointed [police chief Dave] Michaud, and though he might not be able to tell individual officers what to do, he can speak with Michaud about his support."
"I believe the mayor can certainly exercise greater leadership concerning the PSRC," echoes commissioner Tony Ogden. "That goes to his urging the chief of police to ask for cooperation from the police officers. He can do that, and it should be done publicly."
In addition, the two complain, Webb has yet to fill two vacant seats on the commission, one of which has been empty since January.
Webb says he'll get to the vacancies. As to the issue of power, well...
"The whole subpoena issue is one that the court will have to resolve," says Webb. "That's something we're not going to get involved in. I told them I would wait until the judge ruled before making any statement on that. But the thing I would say to them is that, one, I do think it's necessary that they be there, and two, I'll work to see that all the slots are filled so they can continue to fulfill their mission."
And perhaps after the commission has a full complement, the mayor adds, "we'll sit down with the manager of safety and the chief" to discuss their support of the board.
The existence of a civilian review board has caused controversy for several years. This latest version grew out of public meetings sparked in part by the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles and by a few high-profile accusations of excessive force in Denver four years ago.
The city had already seen two previous versions of a review board. As they had in the past, Denver police officials and the PPA fought hard against the present commission. But after a protracted fight, they relented and drafted a toothless version of a board--sans subpoena power--that Webb attempted to push through the city council.
The council, however, adopted a stronger version, the one that exists today. Councilmembers specified in their ordinance that the commission could "subpoena witnesses to make statements and produce documents and subpoena documents." The sticking point is, and has always been, whether the commission can subpoena police officers' statements. The Police Officers' Bill of Rights, a part of the city charter, severely limits release of such documents. Until this past summer, the commission skirted the issue by relying upon officers to sign a waiver to release the material.
The vast majority of the cases the board has seen to date haven't been the kind to attract much outcry from either the public or the cops. Rudeness complaints make up at least half of the commission's workload, which has stoked officers' view of the board as petty and unnecessary.
"They are completely superfluous," says councilman Thomas, who is retired from the Denver police. "Look at the issues they've been involved with the last couple years. On an overall scale, it's just mindless stuff. They're involved in parking-ticket complaints and jaywalking incidents."
Last year 63 people (of 425 complaints to the police department) were sufficiently upset with the results of the department's internal investigations that they requested a commission review. Of those cases, the department reversed its position on just one after the commission upheld a complaint. "Almost every one they looked at was handled properly," Thomas says. "It's a non-issue from my perspective. They're dying for a Rodney King case, and it ain't there."
The commission's ability to get police officers to cooperate has worsened significantly over the past year. The commission's "Do the Right Thing" campaign--in which it issued pamphlets and posters urging people to come forward with complaints--was viewed by police as an effort to solicit unwarranted criticism. And when, during a commission meeting, the board aired the name of an officer who'd been complained about (officers' identities are supposed to remain confidential), the PPA demanded that the entire board resign.
Top police officials have given tacit approval to such protests; the department no longer sends representatives to the commission meetings, and in one incident, department officials shredded an investigative file, preventing the commission from reviewing a complaint.
Officials also have stood by without comment when the PPA has urged noncooperation, which is what prompted the present showdown over the commission's subpoena power. This past spring the panel was reviewing a complaint by Denver gang leader Michael Asberry, who alleges that several Denver officers illegally tried to enter his house without a search warrant. But the commissioners were stymied when the officers, even those who were merely witnesses, declined to release the statements they'd given to internal investigators. Finally, in August, the commission for the first time issued subpoenas to three officers. The PPA took the issue to court, claiming that officers are exempt from the commission's subpoenas.
The fight is taking its toll on the five remaining commissioners, a politically and racially diverse group of community activists, all of whom volunteer their time. The judge's decision in this case--as well as Webb's reaction to it--may determine whether they are willing to keep working on what could be a lost cause.
If the judge comes down on the side of the PPA, Benavidez says, the mayor's support (and that of the city council) on their behalf is crucial. "Absent that," she says, "it would be tough to convince some of us to continue to do work for free with no apparent reason.
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