Law Enforcement

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen's Resignation and the DPD's Ugliest Problems

Paul Pazen was sworn in as Denver police chief in July 2018.
Paul Pazen was sworn in as Denver police chief in July 2018. Photo by Kenzie Bruce
The timing of the August 31 announcement that Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen will retire speaks volumes about the problems associated with the Denver Police Department.

Since Michael Hancock, who named Pazen chief in 2018, is term-limited, the 28-year-old veteran of the department might have been hoping to hang around until at least July 2023, when the next Denver mayor will be sworn in. But the pressure on Pazen has been building, with myriad lawsuits filed over controversial police behavior during the 2020 George Floyd protests as well as the furor over a July 17 shooting outside the Larimer Beer Hall in which six innocent bystanders were wounded by police.

None of this was mentioned in the city's announcement about Pazen stepping down; although his retirement will be effective on October 15, Division Chief of Patrol Ron Thomas, Hancock's choice as successor, will assume day-to-day management of the department on September 6. But the list of accomplishments with which Pazen is credited still has a tinge of darkness: "During his tenure as Chief of Police, Pazen has overseen the police department during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery period, some of the most challenging times in Denver’s history, as well as the nationwide increase in crime and an unprecedented loss of over 170 uniformed officers," the release notes.

It's true that Denver is far from the only city to see crime increase after COVID-19 began spreading. But the local numbers are still reason for concern.

The crime statistic comparisons currently available on the DPD's website end in 2020. But they reveal significant increases in most categories of violent crime and property crime from January to September of that year, compared to the same period in 2019:
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation's crime-data site goes further, offering annual comparisons through 2021. This graphic reveals that violent crime in Denver continued to rise through that year as well:
Despite the growth in offenses, in June a DPD representative confirmed that arrests have been declining in most parts of the city — and both the COVID-19 response and staff shortages were among the reasons highlighted. "Due to vacancies, officers on leave (injury/military/etc.) and recruits still in training, there are fewer officers to respond to an increasing number of calls for service, which also reduces the amount of time officers have to conduct proactive policing," the spokesperson said.

Rather than dwelling on such matters, the retirement release points out that "Pazen has been an advocate for improved and comprehensive training of officers and alternative police responses, including expansion of the city’s co-responder program and introduction of the nationally acclaimed STAR program." He's lauded as well for introducing "new initiatives to divert those charged with low-level offenses away from jails by hiring resource navigators and worked to launch the city’s Assessment Intake Diversion (AID) Center, scheduled to open in the fall," and also earns praise for using "a data-driven and precision-policing approach" to "curb violent crime in 'hot spot' areas of the city where it has been occurring the most often."

Claims like this aren't always backed up by the numbers. For example, during the DPD's February sweep of Union Station, an area where crime concerns had been mounting, 43 people were arrested or cited. But a recent Westword analysis revealed that the overwhelming majority of the alleged offenses were minor and many of the cases had been dismissed or were in limbo six months later.

Nonetheless, such law enforcement actions around Union Station have continued, and the resulting arrests now total well over 1,000 since the crackdown began. Yet in a presentation before a Denver City Council committee last week, members of Hancock's administration contended that they're looking for ways to address the situation with more "compassion."
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Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen as seen in an interview conducted during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
9News via YouTube
The announcement of Pazen's retirement includes this statement from Hancock: "Chief Pazen has had a distinguished career with the Denver Police Department, and over his nearly three decades in law enforcement, he has served the residents of our city at nearly every level of the department, including its highest rank, with integrity and a community-focused approach to policing. I want to thank Chief Pazen for answering the call to serve, and for his leadership of our community’s police department during these difficult past few years in the life of our city and our country."

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann offers her own remarks: "Chief Pazen is a dedicated public servant who ushered in...and launched many new programs like STAR and LEAD which are serving the people of Denver well. He was committed to improving relationships between the police and the community. His concern about the recent rise in crime led to a targeted focus on hot spots and emphasis on removing illegal guns from our streets. My office has enjoyed working with him for the last several years. On behalf of the Denver DA’s Office, I thank him for his dedication and leadership and stand ready to support Division Chief Ron Thomas once he is confirmed."

The word "interim" isn't included with Thomas's new title, but with a new mayoral administration on the horizon, there's not a lot of long-term security to that job.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts