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Denver Civil Service Commission "perplexed" by Manager of Safety's criticisms

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Last week, on the eve of his one-year anniversary as Denver's Manager of Safety, Alex Martinez told us that one of the next big goals for his office is pushing the Civil Service Commission to implement serious reforms -- and he said he's not entirely confident about how things will go. Commission head Earl Peterson says he's perplexed by the criticisms, especially because he'd just had a productive meeting with Martinez.

As the city's Manager of Safety, a position granted civilian authority over Denver police, fire and sheriff departments, Martinez has frequently been critical of the Civil Service Commission, which is responsible for administering testing processes for positions in those departments and also oversees hearing disciplinary appeals.

The problem, according to Martinez -- who also has the support of Mayor Michael Hancock and the City Attorney's office -- is that the Civil Service Commission has been essentially conducting full-fledged trials at the hearing-officer level -- and he believes the group is not equipped to do so. The commission, he said, has been addressing complex legal questions and often producing its own independent findings that ignore the lengthy investigations by the police department and the Manager of Safety's office. This results in inconsistencies and, on occasion, very wrong decisions, Martinez believes.

All of this ties back to longstanding concerns about police brutality cases in Denver. Martinez said reforming the Civil Service Commission's process is key to restoring the reputation of city law enforcement on the whole.

Which is why, Martinez told us, he's worried that the Civil Service Commission may not make the substantive changes he thinks are necessary. He feels DCSC will agree to some reforms, but is not sure it will go far enough.

Asked for response to these concerns last week, commission executive director Earl Peterson said he is surprised to hear that Martinez expressed any lack of confidence. When we reached him, he had just returned from a lengthy sit-down with Martinez that he saw as generally very positive.

"I'm perplexed, because we had a meeting today," he said. "Quite frankly, I was extremely pleased by the results of the meeting."

Peterson added, "He may have gone in with some reservations, but I hope he came out with a better feeling [about reform goals]."

The DCSC and Martinez are not going to agree on everything, he said -- but in his view, the two entities have visions for reform that are generally aligned.

Officials with the Manager of Safety's office offered no additional comments beyond our first interview.

Continue for more from our interview with the Civil Service Commission's Earl Peterson. "Would I tell you that the Manager's going to get 100 percent of what he is asking for? I'd said certainly the majority of it, maybe not verbatim...but we have to work through this collaboratively," noted Peterson, who agrees that the work of the hearing officers has become way too broad.

"We're gonna get away from this litigious process," he said. "This thing has turned into a monster that's developed over the years.... We're going to address that and the manager can rest assured."

Martinez wants to see the Civil Service Commission give much greater consideration to the Manager of Safety's lengthy review of cases, which he believes should generally be sufficient. His overall goal is to streamline the process, so that investigations don't drag on so long -- a source of controversy with cases like 2009 macing at the Denver Diner.

Peterson said he agrees, but added that DCSC must make sure the process for officers facing disciplinary hearings remains just.

"We do have a responsibility to make sure the officers...are treated fairly...and as a commission, we are going to hold them accountable for bad behavior," he said. "We also expect the Manager to provide good, solid rationale.... Any manager that terminates someone has to have good, sound justification."

Employees should also have a fair opportunity to respond if they disagree with the findings of the Manager of Safety.

Peterson said that, at the end of the day, "This office is not here to protect bad officers or terminate good officers."

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Eric Swanson: Mayhem concert assault nets seven-year prison sentence"

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

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