"In my mind, Denver has an old-style policing culture," says Joe Sandoval, a criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver who monitored police discipline issues first as a member of the city's Public Safety Review Commission and then as the first chair of the commission's successor, the Citizen Oversight Board. "It seems to me that there has been a conscious effort on the part of Hickenlooper, Al LaCabe and [DPD chief] Gerald Whitman to turn the Denver police culture around. But informally, the Denver police are known throughout the metro area by other officers as a place where they knock heads and take names later."
Richard Rosenthal, who's been the city's independent monitor since the position was created five years ago, thinks the recent attention does not reflect a police force out of control, but rather a very transparent citywide monitoring system. "In many other cities, the public would not become aware of accusations of excessive force," he says. "Such cases are dealt with behind closed doors, and quite often there is no public reporting. Denver has chosen to have robust, professional oversight and reporting. I am required to report publicly if I believe a [police administrative] decision is unreasonable, and that will get media attention." Rosenthal, for example, made it clear he disagreed with Perea's decision not to come down harder on the officers involved in the DeHerrera beating.
Whatever the reason, reports of police brutality in Denver are definitely on the upswing. For the past two years, David Packman, a Seattle man who spent a month in jail for first-degree assault before being cleared because of video evidence, has run the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project, tracking reports of police misconduct across the country. In September, he decided to look into the reports coming out of Denver. And while he determined that Colorado as a whole fell comfortably in the middle of the national pack in terms of reported police misconduct — in 2009, the state ranked 29th in terms of publicized misconduct incidents per law-enforcement officers — the city of Denver didn't fare so well. Between January and June 2010, Packman found reports of nineteen Denver officers involved in alleged police misconduct, placing the city the sixth-worst out of the 63 police departments with more than 1,000 officers that he tracked nationwide.
The stats got worse when he focused on excessive-force complaints. According to Packman's research, through June of 2010, seventeen officers had been associated with brutality complaints, a higher per capita number than in any other major U.S. city. Adding in the ten officers listed in the highly publicized police-brutality reports of this past August, Packman calculated that Denver had an "Excessive Force Rate" of 2,531 officers involved in excessive-force complaints for every 100,000 officers — more than ten times higher than what he'd determined was the national average.
"I think that surprises people, since Denver is a city that isn't known nationally for having a bad department," says Packman. "You'd think New York, Los Angeles or Chicago would have the most complaints, but that's not the case. Here you have Denver heading up the list."
As the depression started sinkin' in
Relieve my brow of the sweat beats perspiration through my skin
Reflectin' on the hard times that we're livin' in
My family and friends and my next of kin
I wanna believe that we're destined for a change
Strange, funny, how things remain the same, livin' in vain
Alex Landau still bears the scars of what happened to him that January night two years ago — scars beyond the knot of tissue that's formed on his right temple, the lack of feeling he has on one side of his face and the eye that now twitches when he's anxious. There are also the internal scars, the ones that fuel his nightmares of cops beating his friends, the ones that make him nervous whenever he thinks he's being followed by the police.
"The police were threatening his physical existence," says his mother. "I know that's very damaging, and there can be repercussions from that for years to come. It's been a very, very hard period for a long time." It's been hard on Landau's parents, too; Patsy says she now thinks twice before calling the cops. She doesn't have much hope for the DPD Internal Affairs Bureau's belated investigation, either.
"It is extraordinarily difficult to prove an excessive-force complaint against a police officer," says Independent Monitor Rosenthal. "For one thing, the officers have enormous discretion as to how much force they can use. For another, even if you have it on video, it's difficult to prove because of issues of perception and memory and biases among witnesses and conflicting testimony. That makes it extraordinarily difficult to reach a point where you can discipline an officer or terminate an officer.