Law Enforcement

Denver Monitor Report Critical of Police Actions During Racial-Justice Protests

The report criticizes how the Denver Police Department handled the George Floyd protests.
The report criticizes how the Denver Police Department handled the George Floyd protests. Evan Semon Photography
A just-released report from the Office of the Independent Monitor criticizes the Denver Police Department for how it handled the George Floyd protests in late May and early June, but stops short of a sweeping rebuke of the way the DPD dealt with protesters.

The report is the culmination of a six-month investigation launched after a unanimous request by Denver City Council for Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell to look into allegations of excessive force by police at the protests downtown and in Capitol Hill. Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen and Public Safety Executive Director Murphy Robinson also voiced their support of an investigation.

"We have full confidence in the commitment of [Pazen and Murphy Robinson] to learning from these events and making the changes necessary to prevent similar outcomes in the future," the report states.

Mitchell and his team performed an intensive review of body-worn camera footage, street camera footage, police helicopter footage, radio communications, law enforcement documentation and internal policies. They also interviewed dozens of Denver police officers and command staff, as well as other city employees and community members. Additionally, the team surveyed academic research and best-practice literature related to law enforcement crowd control and use of less-lethal munitions.

The 55-page report (excluding endnotes and attachments) focuses on three areas in which the DPD had major issues during the first five days of the George Floyd protests in Denver: use of force, mutual aid from outside law enforcement agencies, and operational leadership.

The report notes that the department failed to track all the officers deployed in the field during the first days of the protests, as well as which less-lethal munitions were deployed...and by whom. The report also highlights the potential for serious bodily injury from rubber pellet grenades during crowd-control operations.

It criticizes the DPD for having no mutual-aid agreements related to crowd control with the eighteen neighboring departments that provided assistance, which created mismatches in use-of-force policies and which less-lethal munitions could be used during the protests.

Finally, the report suggests that DPD leadership failed to control overall operations during the protests.

“Supervisors of multiple ranks told us that they often received insufficient direction in the field and sometimes did not even know who the appointed operations chief was on particular days," according to the report. "They sometimes reported a lack of clarity about their strategic objectives, which led to confusion about when to advance on, retreat from, or hold specific pieces of ground downtown."

Mitchell's report is not as scathing as some activists who were on the receiving end of less-lethal munitions might expect. While the report notes that community members expressed their belief that Denver police "relied too heavily on less-lethal equipment and munitions or used tactics that exacerbated conflicts and led to more uses of force than would have otherwise been necessary," it also says that "others pointed to the large number of DPD officer injuries, the significant property damage in Denver, and the prolonged and dangerous protests in other cities as evidence that the force used by the DPD was largely necessary."

In light of some major documentation gaps, including a failure to track the use of less-lethal munitions, vague use-of-force incident reports, and alleged misconduct not necessarily captured on video, "it was impossible for the OIM to evaluate these competing claims or to resolve them with this report," the document states.

It does note, however, that the DPD's Internal Affairs Bureau has investigated over 100 complaints related to police conduct at protests, and that many of those cases remain open.

The report's sixteen recommendations for the DPD from the Office of the Independent Monitor are as follows:

1. Track less-lethal munition deployment during crowd control.

2. Maintain rosters of those deployed for crowd control.

3. Mandate that everyone working on the ground at protests wear body cameras and ensure compliance.

4. Specify use-of-force reporting and review during crowd-control operations and ensure prompt reporting of use-of-force incidents.

5. Make sure that supervisors issue multiple dispersal orders before using force to disperse crowds.

6. Record either audio or video of the dispersal orders.

7. Make sure that all officers display badges and badge numbers.

8. Only allow trained and certified officers to use pepper-ball guns and 40mm foam projectile launchers.

9. Create reporting mechanisms for these recommended internal use-of-force changes.

10. Prohibit the use of rubber-ball grenades during crowd control.

11. Create clearer standards for when flash-bang grenades can be used.

12. Limit direct firing of pepper balls to situations only where a person is "displaying active aggression or aggravated active aggression."

13. Create mutual aid agreements for crowd control with neighboring departments.

14. Require mutual-aid partners to adhere to Denver's use-of-force policy and to only use less-lethal munitions approved for use by DPD.

15. Schedule periodic training sessions with mutual-aid partners.

16. Assess internal operational issues that arose during protests, including lack of guidance issued to on-the-ground officers, problems with a single radio channel being used by police, and a desire by officers to increase crowd-control training.

The recommendations are designed to "help keep officers and community members safer in the event of future, similar protests in Denver," Mitchell says in a letter attached to the report. Name-checking Pazen and Robinson specifically in another comment, he adds, "Welcoming this level of scrutiny is not easy, and it demonstrates their strong commitment to public safety and building community trust."

Aside from offering findings and recommendations, the report also provides a look— in unprecedented detail — at what happened in Denver starting on May 28, just a few days after George Floyd was killed while detained by Minneapolis police officers.

"The first five days were characterized by peaceful demonstrations, as well as property destruction, fires, and violence that resulted in significant injuries to both officers and community members,” the report states.

The DPD was caught largely off-guard by the size and scale of the protests, according to the report. The department estimates that it sent out between 150 and 200 officers for the first day of demonstrations; many of these officers ended up clashing with protesters and deploying less-lethal munitions, such as pepper-ball guns and tear gas. By around 10:30 p.m. on May 28, hours after the protests began, DPD officers were reporting that they had run out of less-lethal munitions. DPD leadership then started requesting re-supplies of less-lethal munitions from neighboring departments.

On May 29, the DPD was already calling neighboring agencies to send in officers as reinforcements.

And on May 30, Mayor Michael Hancock announced a temporary curfew in light of the property damage and clashes between police and protesters. That day, 450 to 500 DPD officers and mutual-aid officers worked the protests, a marked increase over the police presence in prior days.

During those early days, the DPD was so concerned about its waning stockpile of less-lethal munitions that the Colorado State Patrol flew its plane to Wyoming to "purchase less-lethal munitions directly from a manufacturer, including some munitions that had been ordered by DPD," the report states. The DPD purchased over $200,000 worth of less-lethal munitions during the first five days of protests and also received "unknown amounts" of these munitions from fellow law enforcement agencies.

By June 1, the tenor of the Denver protests was beginning to calm; while demonstrations continued in the weeks that followed, they involved far fewer clashes between police and activists than in the first five days of protests.

Although the DPD had dealt with large protests in the past, particularly during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, it had never experienced anything quite like the initial George Floyd protests, the report notes. Those first five days brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets of Denver for demonstrations that were multi-directional and "developed quickly, without an obvious schedule."

The protests were also anti-police brutality in nature. “The challenges presented by policing mass protests are magnified exponentially when the demonstrations concern police conduct itself," the report suggests, citing research that shows "police tend to respond to demonstrations about policy brutality more aggressively than they do to protests with other messages, making arrests and using force at greater rates."

In fact, the DPD and mutual-aid officers arrested more than 400 individuals during the George Floyd protests. While many of these cases were related to curfew violations and subsequently dismissed, dozens are ongoing.

The OIM's report notes that 81 Denver police officers sustained injuries during the protests, mainly because of individuals throwing projectiles. Many community members were also hurt. Although definitely an undercount of the actual number of citizens injured, from May 28 through June 7 the Denver Health Paramedic Division received 125 calls for service in protest areas for non-law enforcement individuals; 74 of those calls resulted in transport to a hospital. Some of those transported were clearly injured while protesting, the report notes.

The City of Denver has already been hit by multiple federal lawsuits over use of excessive force by police during the protests. One of those lawsuits resulted in a stipulated agreement that restricts how the Denver Police Department can use less-lethal munitions during protests.

There was significant property damage throughout downtown Denver during the early protests, with private businesses reporting $2 million in damages, the city reporting $1 million in damages to city property, and the state reporting $1.1 million in damages to the Capitol complex. DPD also noted $76,000 in damage to police property, mainly vehicles.

Read the full report:
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a former staff writer at Westword, where he covered 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; he now lives in upstate New York.

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