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

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.

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Sam Levin
Contact: Sam Levin

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