The process for selecting Denver's next police chief looked great on paper. Four public meetings were held, an email account was set up to take in community feedback, and a sixteen-member search committee, which included community members, was appointed to whittle down a list of finalists.
But police accountability advocates are balking at Mayor Michael Hancock's selection process, which they say merely gave the appearance of public engagement. They pleaded with the mayor for a candidate forum so residents could glean their own opinions and provide input before a decision was made. After resisting public pressure for a forum led by groups like the Denver Justice Project — co-founded by Alex Landau, who was brutally beaten by Denver cops — Hancock named Paul Pazen as Denver's next police chief in a hastily convened conference on Thursday, June 28 (which is almost exactly how he announced outgoing police chief Robert White's appointment back in 2011).
As it turned out, Pazen was the favored candidate of the Denver Justice Project and other organizations. Other groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, weren't initially leaning in any one direction, but wanted to press candidates on their positions in a public forum.
The outcome is not what most concerns them, advocates say. It's that residents and informed community members who have dedicated themselves to police accountability were kept out of the process at almost every turn.
"It is really kind of absurd to believe we would not get a chance to talk to the actual candidates for the people who want to be the head of one of the only agencies in Denver government that can kill you in the streets," says Roshan Bliss, a co-founder of Denver Justice Project, adding that the city only "half-heartedly" engaged with the public and flat-out refused his organization's call for a candidate forum because of how contentious it could be. "No shit," Bliss adds. "That's why we should have a forum. Just because it's a difficult decision doesn't mean you make it more quiet. That's the opposite of what you do in a democracy."
Hancock's office says that residents had plenty of opportunities to give their input about who the next police chief should be without a public candidate forum.
"The process led by [Department of Public Safety] Executive Director Troy Riggs and the search committee has been robust, thoughtful and extremely engaging with the community. To suggest otherwise, based on this one suggestion, is not accurate," says Amber Miller, Hancock's communications director.
The first component of Hancock's community-engagement campaign was the four public meetings that were held during the police chief application period. Residents, including police officers, were invited to three meetings between late May and early June to share what they would like to see in a police chief. The meetings were used by the search committee to compile a list of traits and priorities for a future chief. Those who couldn't make the meetings were asked to send their feedback to OurNextChief@denvergov.org.
Hancock's office admits to wanting to shield the final police chief candidates from public probing out of concern that it would "skew" the process.
"Community forums like this have been known to unnecessarily skew a selection process, as some will use the opportunity to campaign for one candidate over another, which is why you don’t see it used as a national best practice," Miller says.
The ACLU countered the city's claims and says there are no national best practices for hiring police chiefs. If the City of Denver was so opposed to candidate forums, then why did Hancock hold one in 2012 before appointing another head official within the administration, Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell? And in nearby Arvada, two finalists for police chief there rubbed shoulders with residents at a recent community open house.
"I'm not persuaded by it," says ACLU public policy director Denise Maes. "It seems like every time there is an issue like this...the community does seem to be overlooked in large part, and there always has to be this loud clamor knocking nonstop on the front door of the mayor's office to give the community enough input or a seat at the table. ... Why don't you hear the call from the community? I just don't get it. It dumbfounds me.”
Community feedback from those four public meetings was sent to a police chief search committee, the second phase of the mayor's campaign. The sixteen-member committee was tasked with interviewing about a dozen candidates, whittling the list down to a few finalists, ranking its top picks and sending those recommendations to Hancock for a decision.
Hancock has pointed to this search committee as proof that community members were courted at the highest level during his hunt for the next chief of police. But critics inside and outside the city have pointed at gaping holes on the search committee. For one, what were an oil-and-gas executive, the lawyer for a chain of computer-coding schools and a personal trainer doing on a committee to hire the highest-ranking peace officer in the city when the ACLU, which has frequently worked on public-safety reform efforts in Denver and whose employees have served on multiple committees in the past, doesn't have a seat at the table? One Colorado, which has long advocated for the LGBTQ+ community, was also appointed to the search committee, but policing issues are not central to that organization's work.
On top of that, not a single member of Denver City Council's six-member Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee was appointed by the mayor, while two councilmembers who aren't closely involved with law enforcement issues were. (Councilmember Kendra Black is involved in marijuana business, economic development and mobility issues, as is her search committee counterpart, councilmember Christopher Herndon.)
"Welcome to my world," says councilmember Rafael Espinoza, who serves on the council's safety committee. "Everything is up to the [mayor], and council...doesn't get into the negotiations or anything. I'm not surprised by [Hancock's dismissal of a candidate forum], because I've been experiencing it for three years, and it's the mayor's prerogative.”
The most glaring omission of all was the lack of representation from the city's Office of the Independent Monitor. The independent monitor's job is to investigate the Department of Safety, which includes the police and sheriff's departments, and to recommend discipline for officers and deputies who step out of line. And no one from the Civilian Oversight Board, whose members are appointed as community volunteers by the mayor's office to work with the independent monitor and make policy decisions on important policing issues like use of force and discipline, was asked to join the search committee. The Civilian Oversight Board meets quarterly with the police chief, sheriff and executive director of safety to talk about policing issues in Denver.
"I would want people [on the search committee] who are able to make informed decisions. They may have been on that committee. There weren't a lot of people on that committee who I knew. They may have been the best committee available, but I'm not the one who chose them. [I] don't know a lot of them,” says councilmember Paul Kashmann, chair of the city council safety committee, adding that he would have preferred more public engagement in the process for such an important position. "If you don't take the time and the effort to go that extra mile, then you're cutting yourself short."
Community activists are quick to note that the search committee wasn't strictly stacked with Hancock supporters or police department insiders. A couple of vocal critics were also selected to serve on the committee, including civil rights attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai, who has sued the police and sheriff's departments for excessive force and jail conditions, as well as the Reverend Terrence Hughes at the Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance, who became a vocal critic in the black community of Hancock's administration after homeless street preacher Marvin Booker was killed by deputies in a Denver jail in 2010. But having a few vocal critics on a committee to name Denver's next police chief wasn't reassuring to community members who were either kept at arm's length or brought in at the tail end of the process.
"When you get to pick which critics are part of a committee, it still doesn't achieve the kind of result you'd want, and regardless of who's on it, part of our issue is the complete lack of transparency...and how they were selected [by the mayor]. We didn't know anything about the committee until it was announced," says the Denver Justice Project's Bliss.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
It was only after the votes were cast and the finalists were named that Hancock decided to open his door to informed community voices. Independent Monitor Mitchell and the Civilian Oversight Board were invited to give their feedback on the candidates; Kashmann was one of about a dozen people who sat in on the final round of interviews that the mayor had with each candidate.
Hancock has been resistant to public input on safety issues, as when he and former executive Director of Safety Stephanie O'Malley initially chose not to include any community members on a committee to recommend reforms to the sheriff's department in light of a scathing 2015 top-to-bottom review by an outside consultant. After public backlash, Hancock appointed community members, including Maes from the ACLU.
For community members who were tapped at the very end of the current police chief search, providing feedback as the process was closing didn't have nearly the impact of being on a search committee from the start, framing the dialogue around how to vet each candidate, naming who did (or didn't) get in front of Hancock and ranking each officer for the final recommendation.
"I'm happy about the pick, but that doesn't change anything," Bliss says. "The process was still miserable, not transparent and really blame-worthy in lots of ways."