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Denver Diner case: Mayor Michael Hancock says reforms needed at Civil Service Commission

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Asked about the Denver Civil Service Commission's reinstatement of two police officers fired for a billy-clubbing and macing incident at the Denver Diner, Mayor Michael Hancock says it's time to re-evaluate the commission's disciplinary hearings process. His comments only add to pressure on the commission, which Denver's City Attorney slammed early this week, calling the reinstatement "deeply disturbing."

Officers Ricky Nixon and Kevin Devine were fired in April 2011 because of a 2009 incident at the Denver Diner, where they allegedly menaced four women with nightsticks, pulling or shoving them to the ground, spraying them with mace and more, despite an apparent lack of concrete evidence that they had committed any wrongdoings. Regardless, the officers were reinstated in January in a decision that the city appealed.

Nixon, who was also involved in the high-profile 2009 beating of Alex Landau, and Devine allegedly falsified reports and fabricated charges against the women in the Denver Diner case. But last week, the commission told the officers they go back to work -- a move that prompted lengthy criticism from Denver City Attorney Doug Friednash and Manager of Safety Alex Martinez, who both called for reforms.

Now, Hancock is weighing in, joining his colleagues in voicing concerns with the Civil Service Commission's decision and larger problems about how it operates and works with the Manager of Safety's office.

"We've been very disappointed with the rulings of the Civil Service Commission and really believe that we've got to take a look at the Civil Service Commission and the standards in which they use to make determinations around these discipline cases," Hancock said at a gathering of community newspaper reporters yesterday. "And in fact, the Manager of Safety and I are sending a letter to the commission. We believe there needs to be some rule changes that kind of open up the scope of the the things that the Civil Service Commission should take into consideration on these discipline cases. So I think that's first and foremost."

Hancock also said he is concerned with how the commission's membership is chosen. "The second thing we need to do is make sure that we...are staffing the Civil Service Commission with commissioners who have the capacity. These are very complex cases. They are being asked to do things that, quite frankly, they've not really been asked to do for a long time as a Civil Service Commission. So we need to make sure that we have...the right capacity on the board to help make these very complex, sometimes legally based decisions."

In Friednash's statement released earlier this week, the city attorney said, "In order to restore the public's confidence, it is critical to send a message that the City will not tolerate police officers who lie during their investigations to cover up their misconduct and avoid discipline."

In his view, the Nixon and Devine decision is problematic, because it recognizes the authority of hearing officers to ignore an investigation conducted by the police department and findings from the Manager of Safety's office.

The commission's Rule 12 gives very broad authority to hearing officers, and it's time that the commission utilize its rule-making capacity to change that, the city attorney said.

In his statement, Martinez said the commission's hearings have become "full-fledged trials," allowing them to make different factual findings than the Manager of Safety's office. Instead of reviewing the manager's decision, hearing officers have the power to make a separate and independent decision. "The fact that these recent decisions rested entirely on findings by contract hearing officers, ignored painstaking fact-finding in the Internal Affairs Investigation and by the Manager of Safety, and each took a year and a half after the Manager's orders, illustrate that the process created by the Commission in their rule-making authority is in desperate need of reform," he maintained.

Continue for more comments from the mayor and response from the Civil Service Commission. In his chat yesterday, Hancock reiterated the concerns of the other city officials, saying, "I stand with the Manager of Safety and the City Attorney's office, that we need to take a long hard look at the rules and the scope in which the Civil Service Commission allows themselves to look at some of these cases, so that we can have more congruence with regards to the discipline decisions that are being made with the Manager of Safety."

It's illogical that the commissioners don't look more closely at the Manager of Safety's work in its decision-making, Hancock said. "There are opportunities to have more leeway for the commissioners to look at what the Manager of Safety's looking at and to hear and to be able to read his reasons for the decisions he arrived at. And right now, their scope doesn't really allow them to do that. They don't take anything into consideration prior to them getting the case, and that's really strange to us. So we're going to work with the commission to try and change that scope and to make sure there's a continuity of review in these discipline cases."

One reporter at yesterday's roundtable asked Hancock to respond to criticisms earlier this week from police accountability groups, saying that the mayor was refusing to meet with them.

"I don't have any idea what you're talking about. I don't think to my knowledge, I've ever refused to meet with any police accountability groups," he said. When asked again a short time later, he added, "I have never said I will not meet with accountability groups. There's no reason for me not to do that. No request has been put before me."

Reached today for response on the mayor's comments, Earl Peterson, executive director of the Civil Service Commission, said that he has had discussions with the Manager of Safety's office and they've scheduled meetings in the coming weeks to review proposed changes.

"We've been listening all along. We did before and we're doing it again.... I know what the problems are and I concur with the Manager [of Safety] on a majority of his concerns," Peterson said, adding, "We have to be fair, unbiased and objective in what we're doing."

In Peterson's opinion, it's a problem that the commission has moved away from human resources. "This litigious way of doing things has been an accepted way of doing things.... It's apparent that we've got to get back to human resources."

In response to the mayor's concerns about staffing, he said, "We've requested outside counsel to help us.... We have received additional commitment from the city to provide legal support."

He added, "We're moving in the right direction and if we fall out of step, then I'll be on the phone."

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Fero's Bar & Grill: See the men arrested in quintuple homicide-arson (39-43)"

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

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