Three Denver City Council members will introduce a proposal at a committee meeting next week to strengthen the Office of the Independent Monitor, the civilian oversight agency that investigates allegations of police and sheriff malfeasance, and the Citizen Oversight Board, which evaluates the OIM and makes law enforcement policy recommendations.
Brought forth by Paul Lopez, Paul Kashmann and Robin Kniech, the measure would primarily tighten the OIM and COB's powers by codifying processes and legal language. Its most striking suggestion, however, would overhaul how Citizen Oversight Board members are appointed.
The mayor currently appoints all seven members and can remove appointees at will. Under the proposed changes, two members would be added "for more diverse representation"; Denver City Council and the mayor would each make four appointments, and the Denver Auditor would get one. The update would also legally define how appointees may be removed.
Established in 2004, the Office of the Independent Monitor has proven instrumental in reforming Denver's law enforcement agencies. In December 2013, the OIM — then headed by relatively new Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell — released a report that took the sheriff's department to task over how it handled complaints against deputies; months later, in July 2014, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that Sheriff Gary Wilson was stepping down. And in 2017, the OIM issued a letter that essentially publicly coerced then-Denver Police Department Chief Robert White into strengthening his revised use-of-force policy.
Coupled with the COB, Denver's OIM is considered one of the strongest and most sound civilian oversight agencies of law enforcement in the U.S. But local police-reform advocates still see areas of weakness. The proposal would, for example, clarify the OIM's authority to publish special reports on relevant topics, such as the one it issued in March 2018 dedicated solely to Michael Marshall, a mentally ill inmate who died while in sheriff department custody.
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The proposal would also require agencies mentioned in any OIM or COB recommendations to respond in writing, as is required when the Denver Auditor's Office issues a report. A seemingly innocuous change, it would force the agency — whether the police, sheriff or fire department — to explain why it did or did not adopt the OIM's policy recommendations and also explain how accepted recommendations would be implemented.
The OIM would also be promptly notified of any interviews or other steps taken in an investigation (the ordinance that created the OIM gives the office the power to investigate but doesn't mention timeliness). And the office would be allowed to make recommendations in an officer's voluntary or negotiated resolution in a disciplinary case. Currently, the office can only make recommendations prior to the finalization of a disciplinary decision.
And in a nod to an incident last year, the proposal would clarify that the OIM has the power to investigate all law enforcement leadership, as opposed to just those who rose through the ranks. The OIM was removed from an investigation into Hancock-appointee White because the City Attorney's Office didn't consider the police chief a "uniformed" police officer.
Denver City Council's Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee will consider the changes during its January 16 meeting before they're brought before the full council for a vote.