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Alex Martinez, Manager of Safety, wants Civil Service Commission reform despite latest ruling

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Today is Alex Martinez' one-year anniversary as the head of Denver's Department of Safety -- and he says he has worked hard to start restoring the public's faith in city law enforcement.

But even with a promising ruling this week keeping a fired cop off the force, Martinez says he's not confident the city's Civil Service Commission is on track for necessary reforms.

Yesterday, we reported on the Civil Service Commission's decision to reverse a previous ruling that allowed Detective Jay Estrada to return to the force. Estrada, an eleven-year veteran of the DPD, had reportedly received information about a controversial hit-and-run accident and then lied to superiors who questioned him.

Because his lies were about a vehicle that ultimately was not determined to be involved in the crime -- which badly injured Laurie Gorham, who was pregnant at the time and lost her child -- a three-member hearing panel upheld a sixteen-day suspension for Estrada but overruled his firing this past February.

As the city's Manager of Safety, a position granted civilian authority over Denver police, fire and sheriff departments, Martinez strongly disagreed with the panel's ruling in February, arguing at the time that his office cannot tolerate deceptive conduct regardless of how it impacted the outcome of an investigation.

And more recently, Martinez criticized the Civil Service Commission for reinstating two police officers fired over a billy-clubbing and macing incident at the Denver Diner.

In an interview yesterday, Martinez, a former Colorado State Supreme Court Justice, tells us that while rebuilding the public's faith in these processes is a top priority of his office, he's not confident the Civil Service Commission will do its part to make meaningful reforms, even with the decision to keep Detective Estrada off the force.

"That's a positive outcome, but it took a year-and-a-half to get there," he says. "It's a sign of a system that didn't work well. Yeah, it's going to spit out results in our favor sometimes. And so I'm pleased to have the success, but it's merely an illustration for the need for reform. It's not itself a system gain. And if you look at Estrada or most of the deception cases...these are all cases where basically the commission didn't get what lying is.... Deception in the Estrada [case]...is simply perjury before the Internal Affairs investigation...and it's not that complicated."

Martinez has clarified language around "deceptive conduct" in the police discipline handbook, so that lies are treated as lies regardless of intent about the investigation.

The main gripe that Martinez -- as well as the City Attorney's office and Mayor Michael Hancock -- has with the Civil Service Commission is that it has been essentially conducting full-fledged trials at the hearing-officer level that often address complex legal questions and can lead to independent findings. Furthermore, Martinez says these findings often ignore thorough investigations conducted by the police department and the Manager of Safety's office. This creates inconsistent and (in his view) sometimes incorrect decisions. In addition, these processes can drag on for many years -- all of which furthers controversy and fosters distrust in the system.

The root of these tensions in many cases is tied to lingering resentments around allegations of misconduct and police brutality.

"I'm not confident at all," he says when asked if he thinks DCSC will listen to his concerns and make substantive changes. "That commission is independent. That commission will make its own decision. We're askers. If I could make the decision, it'd be done...but will they do it and to what extent is...the question. They will make changes. I'm confident they will make some changes.... The question is whether they go far enough."

Continue for more of our interview with Alex Martinez. Martinez says his basic hope for reform is to help create a process where the Civil Service Commission actually takes into consideration the facts that the Manager of Safety has determined.

"The manager puts forth what the manager reviewed...along with an order that explains how I saw it and why I reached that decision, and I propose that those things should be sufficient," he says, "Then the officer can respond to it, go forward and present anything additional."

In reference to the controversial Denver Diner case, he adds, "You can't fix the past.... The issue is, we don't want more of these cases like this.... Someone has to call the facts. In a criminal case, it's the jury. In our cases, it's the manager, then over-called by the hearing officers..... We want fewer of those incidents, and when we do have those incidents, we want them determined quicker."

Martinez's push to reform the Civil Service Commission, which oversees hearing disciplinary appeals, is part of his larger goal to streamline review processes and make them fairer and more uniform, he says.

"You get out there in public: They don't know the difference between the Civil Service Commission and the hearing officers and the police department," he says. "It's all the police's fault. And it all takes three years. We are Denver and we have to take responsibility for that."

His touts several initiatives of his office that he says support this goal.

In collaboration with DPD, he has redone the Internal Affairs Bureau, helping to appoint a new commander, who rehired all of the investigators using higher standards -- essentially building a unit with more detective experience.

Additionally, he streamlined investigations by helping to create a "conduct review office," such that the Manager of Safety's office is involved earlier in investigations with DPD. This contrasts with the past procedure, in which the Manager of Safety would do a lengthy, separate review after a complaint worked its way up in the ranks in DPD before reaching the manager's desk.

"Now, it's like one-stop shopping," he says of that conduct review office. "We've basically cut the timelines in half in those cases without losing any quality."

In his specific part of these reviews, cases that might linger at the Manager of Safety's office for many months are now reviewed in two weeks, he says.

It's time for the Civil Service Commission to also help make these processes more efficient and logical, he says.

We left a message with Civil Service and will update if we hear back. When we recently spoke with Earl Peterson, the commission's executive director, in regard to similar complaints from the mayor, he told us that in many ways he agrees with the Manager of Safety's concerns. He added that he plans on working with his office to implement changes.

Ultimately, speed in this kind of decision-making is critical, Martinez says, noting that if officers are reinstated after a long period of time when investigations are ongoing, the city has to give them back pay.

"You're talking about human beings -- police officers that don't know if they have a job or not for a year and a half," he says. "People get stuck in their lives. It's just not a fair thing to do to the public or to the police officers or to the police department."

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "James Holmes case: Leak fears inspire order denying access to evidence for victims' lawsuits"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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