As the George Floyd protests continue to grip Denver, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen is under fire from members of the public, advocates and lawyers for the way that Denver police and other law enforcement officers operating in the city have dealt with protesters. The biggest criticism, which was echoed in a temporary restraining order issued by a federal judge, is that law enforcement has used less-lethal munitions in a way that has both injured protesters and violated their constitutional rights.
Westword spoke with Chief Pazen, who has been Denver's top-ranking police official for almost two years, to hear his thoughts on what has happened in recent weeks.
Westword: What have your officers done right during these protests?
Chief Paul Pazen: The officers, on balance, have done a great deal of good here. We cannot forget that some individuals have resorted to violence, resorted to damage and destruction of our beautiful city. It’s the women and men who have helped to protect not only the people of Denver, but also help protect this beautiful city.
Where do you think some of the officers may have been lacking?
We terminated an individual for a social media post that was escalating tensions. That’s not what we expect. We want to de-escalate all situations. We took swift action there.
Many of the other situations — we are doing a thorough investigation to include an independent review by the Office of the Independent Monitor to make sure that officers operated within policy and values, and if they didn’t, then they will be held accountable for that.
Judge R. Brooke Jackson believes some officers in Denver acted in a "disgusting" manner when handling protesters. What is your response to that characterization?
Our response is that we will comply with Judge Jackson’s temporary restraining order and that our focus is truly on keeping the people of Denver safe, and we will work to that extent, and we believe in accountability. Any member of our team that performed below those expectations, then they will be held accountable for their actions.
What about use of force for outside agencies? I’ve been confused myself, and I know a lot of members of the public and media have been about what use of force they’re operating under, what policy. I’m told that each one operates under their own policy and they choose when to use less-lethal munitions, when they want to. How are you, or are you working to get things under control in that regard? To make sure that things are all centralized?
Yes, and again, we are complying with the temporary restraining order. We’ve also embedded supervisors with all of our mutual aid partners to make sure that there is consistency. All use of force needs to be reasonable and appropriate.
Now, based on the judge’s order, all of the officers operating inside Denver, whether DPD or proxies, are going to have to operate under DPD’s use-of-force policy?
Under those guidelines that have been established. We have supervisors that have been embedded in those teams from the get-go. I do want to be clear that we need to do a very thorough and comprehensive review including that outside perspective, that outside review from the Office of the Independent Monitor. We need to see what went right and certainly what we can learn from in this unprecedented level of violence and unprecedented violence and unprecedented level of destruction that we’ve seen in our city. We are committed to that. We are committed to transparency to make sure that there are lessons learned for us to do better. That we will do that and we will take that approach of re-evaluating every single thing that we do, seeing if it makes sense and if it’s the right thing to do, and then make informed decisions based on data and information.
Just to nail down, when it comes to outside law enforcement agencies operating within the city, is something you want to explore whether, right off the bat, everyone should be operating under Denver’s use-of-force policy?
We have to take a step back and look at everything that we do and re-evaluate if it makes sense and see if there’s smarter practices, better practices, that we can incorporate in order to further make safe the people that make up this beautiful city.
Have you watched any of the videos submitted as part of the legal complaint?
I have seen several videos. I can’t say that I've seen everything. What I can tell you, I ordered every single one of the videos that come in to me to be investigated. Historically, unless we had an individual complainant, those would be handled under the service-complaint aspect of it.
But instead, showing that we need to review each of these incidents, we are initiating formal complaints that come in on every single video like that.
Tell me why you made the recent changes to the use-of-force policy?
This moment that we are in, this movement, this tipping point, we have to recognize what this is all about. I want to point out that there are people that are doing this work, the Center for Policing Equity, on ways that law enforcement agencies can do better from an equity and inclusion standpoint, as well as Denver’s Use of Force Committee, that’s made up of a diverse group of people with a lot of knowledge about these types of issues. These are recommendations that we’ve had an ongoing dialogue about. In fact, we just talked with the Use of Force Committee right before what we saw with the horrific killing of George Floyd and the protests that we saw here. These are some discussion items that we have been looking into. First and foremost, they’re the right thing to do and they make sense. Therefore, we implemented these policy changes. These policy changes strengthen a very strong and progressive use-of-force policy. This is as strong and as progressive as any police use-of-force policy anywhere in the country, and we will continue to evaluate, review, and look at data and information, and continue to build on smart practices, smart policies moving forward.
Would you be amenable to a decrease in the budget of DPD?
What I would like to talk about is really looking at more systemic types of changes and transformation instead of programmatic changes.
We need to look at policing in a different light. We need to move toward that public-safety concept and really include some of the public-health views and perspectives on this. I can tell you that we are making some of those changes. We are in the process of hiring seven case managers. We are building out our mental health clinicians. This is, again, taking that public-health view on public safety. We want to continue to work with the community to find better solutions.
The challenge becomes this year, 2020, we have over thirty homicides that have taken place in our city. That’s more than the pace that we were at last year. We still have some high levels of violent crime that are taking place. We have to work together in concert with our community, with these other systems — the health care system, certainly the legal system, but also the intersections with housing, the economic system that we all operate under — and figure out how we can reduce the level of violence and truly increase public safety by taking a broader look. It’s not just law enforcement-exclusive. We need to really explore these system-wide approaches that can help us keep the people of Denver safe.
So I take it at this stage, you’re not really ready to say whether or not you’d be in favor of a decrease?
What I’m saying is that we’re shifting by leveraging the Caring 4 Denver funds and hiring more case managers and more clinicians so it shows that our focus is truly on taking a public-health view of some public-safety challenges.
How did you get linked up with the group We Are Love Denver and Neil Yarbrough?
The genesis of my interaction with Neil was a conversation that started in Civic Center Park and continued there on the Capitol steps. I went out there to see it firsthand. It was emotional. I love this city, and I wanted to talk to our community members. I got to see different folks from our city who have come together to start cleaning up. I saw a mom who brought her small children, her two daughters out there. I saw parents who brought their teenage daughter out there.
We had conversations about what was happening, what was taking place. Neil and I shared a brief moment about this, and that was my first contact with Neil.
He invited me into a space, and I respect that. We want to work with any group and any organization to help us keep our city safe, and I think we’ve done that with many of the groups that we have worked with. We’ve worked with the Denver Justice Project, Together Colorado, our Use of Force Committee, the Center for Policing Equity.
We need to build on these relationships because our only path forward, our only path forward, is working together, and that’s what we hope to accomplish out of this. We hope to work together. We hope to build a better police department, a better city and a better community.