Nick Mitchell, who has been the city's chief law enforcement watchdog since 2012 as Denver's Independent Monitor, is resigning. The Department of Justice has appointed Mitchell to oversee a court-ordered agreement "designed to correct systemic, unconstitutional conditions in the Los Angeles County jails, the largest municipal jail system in the world."
“I feel really proud of what we were able to achieve in eight and a half years together, and it’s with extremely mixed feelings that I'm leaving to take this new role,” Mitchell says, noting that he'll continue to live in Denver while working on the Los Angeles project.
While law enforcement can be a polarizing issue in Denver, over the years elected officials and community advocates alike have generally praised Mitchell's work, which has included high-profile investigations of in-custody deaths in Denver's jails and a recent report on the police response to the George Floyd protests.
"As I told the monitor, it doesn't make me happy in the least bit that he's leaving, but I have absolutely no trouble understanding why the Department of Justice would tap him for such an important consent decree over what is the nation's largest jail system," says Denver City Councilman Paul Kashmann, chair of the Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee.
"Nick had a tremendous reputation in the community, and I think this is a huge loss at this time, especially given his George Floyd protest report that was released just a little over a week ago," says Apryl Alexander, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver who serves on the Denver Citizen Oversight Board, which assesses the Independent Monitor's work. "The report was very thorough, comprehensive and balanced. He took the time to really integrate community voices. At this period of time, losing our current monitor is just a big loss to us."
Mitchell agreed to take the post overseeing reform in the Los Angeles County jails over the summer, with the requirement that he be allowed to first finish his investigation into how the Denver Police Department responded to the protests of late May and early June.
The report, released on December 8, painted a picture of a department that was largely unprepared for how to manage the protests, and then mishandled its use of less-lethal munitions during them. The report included a series of sixteen recommendations aimed at preventing a repeat of the way the DPD had responded; Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said he agrees with fifteen of the recommendations and partially agrees with the other one.
Even so, Kashmann says he senses an appetite on council to codify the recommendations so that implementing them isn't left to the discretion of whichever chief is in office.
Additionally, while not a recommendation made by the Independent Monitor, multiple councilmembers have hinted at a desire to pass legislation allowing the Office of the Independent Monitor to get automatic access to Evidence.com, which is where the DPD stores body-worn camera footage. Right now, the office can receive footage from Evidence.com, but only at the discretion of the DPD.
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who refers to Mitchell's departure as "a great loss for Denver," says she plans to bring "proposals to council to ensure that the Monitor’s Office is strengthened and properly resourced, and that a community process for selecting this critical position is codified into Denver’s charter."
Currently, the office oversees both large-scale investigations into alleged systemic law enforcement misconduct and individual complaints against officers and deputies. It does not have the ability to discipline law enforcement employees, which is left up to department leadership.
John Hickenlooper created the position of Independent Monitor when he was mayor. Richard Rosenthal, the first Independent Monitor, left the role in late 2011 to take on police oversight in Canada. When Mitchell took over in August 2012, the Office of Independent Monitor had just three employees.
"There was a legislative committee meeting at that time to evaluate potential new restrictions on the power of the OIM. There’s a neat contrast here. As I’m leaving, city council is having discussions about the potential expansion of the OIM," says Mitchell, who adds that his office encouraged law enforcement reform through both its high-profile reports and its internal discussions with the police and sheriff departments.
In the years since he took over, Mitchell says, he was able to shift the relationship between his office and Denver law enforcement agencies from adversarial and non-working to one that remains naturally adversarial but works.
"With the police department and sheriff department, it’s much improved. I have good working relationships, mutual respect, I think, certainly, with Chief Pazen and Sheriff [Elias] Diggins," Mitchell says. "It was much rockier in the beginning; the office was small and beleaguered and not particularly powerful in 2012. I didn’t always find that there was much respect for the work that we were doing from the Public Safety Department. At times it was extremely challenging. Over time, I think we’ve calibrated a better working relationship. The OIM is more persuasive and more powerful than it was back then. There’s mutual respect."
In 2016, Denver voters approved putting the Independent Monitor position in the Denver City Charter, which means that it can only be removed by another vote of the people. The OIM now has a fifteen-person staff.
After Mitchell announced his resignation, Mayor Michael Hancock was effusive in his praise.
"I want to thank Nick for his service to the people of Denver over the past eight years," he said in a statement. "He’s led ground-breaking work as the Independent Monitor for the city, and built an innovative, national platform for the monitor model that has continued Denver’s reputation at the forefront of public safety transparency and accountability. While this is a loss for the city, the foundation he built here for this critical work will benefit Denver for years to come, and can be considered a model for others across the country exploring implementing this position in their own cities."
Who should replace him? "I think they should look for candidates inside the city and outside the city," Mitchell says. "It should be a robust recruitment process. There needs to be significant community involvement in that recruitment to make sure that the right kind of candidate is selected."
The process requires the city to set up a candidate screening committee comprising the chair of the Citizen Oversight Board, a member of council, a current or retired judge appointed by the mayor, the executive director of Denver Human Resources, and "a person with extensive knowledge of internal police investigations or the monitoring of internal police investigations [who] has never been employed by the Denver police, sheriff or fire departments" and is appointed by the mayor.
This screening committee will then present three candidates to the mayor; they will also be publicly announced. After that, the mayor will appoint one of the candidates to serve as Independent Monitor, or ask for new candidates from the screening committee.
Denver's Municipal Code also notes that "the appointment of the monitor by the mayor shall not be effective unless and until confirmed by the city council acting by ordinance." Councilmembers are now trying to determine whether this clause indicates that the approval process is a mere formality or can actually be a vote following potentially contentious discussion.
"I believe what we're going to hear is that it's kind of a gray area," says Kashmann, who notes that he's already asked council's legal counsel to figure out what the clause means.
"When I was appointed, I had to go before council for a pretty cursory confirmation," Mitchell recalls. "I think they just asked me a few questions."
A ballot measure referred by Denver City Council and passed by voters in November created the requirement that council approve key mayoral appointees.
The Independent Monitor position was not included on that list.
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