Activism

Chief Pazen Praises Officers for Showing "Great Restraint" During Protest

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Colorado Capitol on May 28.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Colorado Capitol on May 28. Evan Semon Photography
In his first remarks regarding the anti-police violence protest on May 28 in downtown Denver, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen offered praise for his officers, who'd showed "great restraint," he said.

"They performed in an exemplary manner in order to control a very disruptive and dangerous situation," Pazen said at a press conference at City Hall today, May 29.

Denver police officers "became the target of people's rage and anger" during the protest, he noted.

The demonstration, which kicked off around 5 p.m. on May 28, began peacefully, with participants gathering outside the State Capitol and then marching around downtown Denver, holding signs and demanding justice for George Floyd. The 46-year-old Minneapolis man died on May 25, after being held down and detained by Minneapolis police officers, one of whom kept his knee on Floyd's neck as Floyd said, "I can't breathe." That officer has just been arrested on third-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

However, the Denver protest took a tense turn around 5:30 p.m., when gunshots rang out near the Capitol. Police are still investigating their origin.

And later in the evening, a driver trying to turn from Colfax Avenue onto Broadway was blocked by protesters. One man got on the hood of that car just as it began accelerating. The man soon jumped off the car, but the car then swerved toward the protester and struck him. Police are also investigating this incident, and asking for the victim in the case to come forward.

"Our investigation is focused on identifying the driver of this vehicle. We do have some pretty solid evidence with regards to that," Pazen said.

With tensions building, protesters spread out into other areas of downtown, at one point blocking Interstate 25. They also began getting into face-to-face confrontations with police officers. For Pazen, the tipping point came when officers were "having rocks hurled at them."

It was then that officers donned riot gear and started using what Pazen referred to as "less lethal force" to disperse protesters.

Police hurled tear gas canisters into the crowd and shot pepper-spray balls from paintball guns at protesters. This interaction between police officers and demonstrators lasted into the early morning.

Pazen noted that using this "less lethal force" made more sense than going hands-on in order to disperse the crowd. "To go hands-on is actually more combative," Pazen explained. "Going hands-on with folks can actually create more of a danger for community members and the public."

Emphasizing that his department respects people's "right to protest and the freedom of speech," Pazen said he blamed the chaos on "a few agitators in the groups that were throwing rocks, setting fires and causing damage to our business community."

After the press conference, Pazen expanded on those "agitators." They had not gone to the protest to demand justice for George Floyd, he said: "They're here for their own personal agenda."

Thirteen arrests were made during the demonstration, on charges ranging from burglary to criminal mischief and assault. Three police officers sustained injuries during the protest, including one who was transported to the hospital and is now "doing fine," according to Pazen.

Mayor Michael Hancock, who joined Pazen at the press conference, also expressed praise for the officers at the demonstration. "People yelling in your face, people hurling rocks at you... Our officers demonstrated tremendous restraint and discipline, and didn't allow the situation to escalate — and it could have escalated quickly," Hancock said.

Both Pazen and Hancock are anticipating that protests will continue this weekend, and the mayor had some words of advice for the demonstrators.

"We strongly encourage you to demonstrate peacefully," Hancock said.

Anticipating traffic problems from the protests, RTD has already canceled service downtown for the day. 
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.