When the Smoke Clears: Denver Police Commit to Transparency, New Policies

When the Smoke Clears: Denver Police Commit to Transparency, New Policies
Evan Semon Photography
With complaints pouring in from members of the public, the Denver Police Department has been adamant that its officers have only used certain types of “less-lethal” munitions approved under the DPD’s use-of-force policy when trying to disperse demonstrators around the Capitol during the George Floyd protests.

Pepper balls, pepper spray, tear gas, foam bullets and smoke. That’s all, according to the DPD.

However, while spokespeople with both the DPD and the city have stated clearly which weapons Denver officers have employed, they’ve offered confusing, contradictory and sometimes even incorrect information about not just the scale of help the DPD has gotten from other law enforcement agencies during the protests, but what less-lethal munitions those other agencies have used.

Last week, for example, Westword learned that, despite the claim by Denver police that loud noises heard by protesters were just fireworks coming from the crowd, a spokesperson for the Adams County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that its deputies had been using flash-bang grenades during the Denver protests, confirming the accusations by some protesters.

In addition to the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, at least a dozen other law enforcement agencies are working with the City of Denver.

Asked whether a bean bag round found on the streets during a protest was fired by Denver police officers, a DPD spokesperson had responded that the department does not use bean bag rounds. The spokesperson did not mention that another agency could have fired that round — which was indeed the case.

And this time the complaint hit closer to home: The Denver Sheriff Department has deployed both grenades that emit rubber pellets when they explode and bean bag rounds, according to a department spokesperson. That was during the first few days of protests in Denver, when “rioters” targeted deputies and vehicles with “rocks, bottles, and other projectiles” while deputy sheriffs were trying to transport arrestees to the downtown jail, the spokesperson explained.

During the protests, the Aurora Police Department has also used bean bag rounds, rubber pellet grenades that emit tear gas, and rubber pellet grenades that not only emit tear gas, but also have a flash-bang component.
The lack of clarity from the Denver Police Department on which weapons are being used has created confusion among both members of the public and reporters, who’ve seen their claims met with skepticism from Denver city officials on social media.

On May 29, the day after the protests began, Theresa Marchetta, director of strategic communications for the mayor’s office, criticized the media on Twitter, writing, “FACTS: flash-bang devices, rubber bullets, rocks, bottles- NOT law enforcement. Uncover the truth.”

She added, “The people destroying our city & inciting violence are NOT peaceful demonstrators or police officers. Investigate.”

Fact: Marchetta’s tweet was misleading, since it implied that “law enforcement” was not using munitions such as “flash-bang devices.” And even if DPD officers were not using those weapons, it would have been nearly impossible for protesters to tell the affiliation of law enforcement officers in riot gear moving toward them on the streets around the Capitol.

Marchetta later clarified to Westword that her May 29 tweet was in reference to Denver police, and that she was sharing “what was confirmed by Denver Police that night and confirmed by DPD’s Use of Force policy.”

But this emphasis on the DPD’s use-of-force policy, which was adopted several years ago after considerable community discussion, has only added to the confusion. As recently as June 5, the DPD had said that which less-lethal weapons other law enforcement agencies decide to use, and when, was not within the department’s purview.

“Each department that has assisted us during these protests has used their own less-lethal equipment. They follow their policy as to when they deploy different types of less-lethal options. Ultimately, the decision to use any of their less-lethal options is up to them,” said Tamara Lenherr, a spokesperson for the department.

And despite the fact that Denver police supervisors were embedded with the outside law enforcement teams helping the city during the protests, the investigation of a potential case of law enforcement misconduct, as well as any subsequent discipline, was up to the agency that was the focus of the complaint, according to Murphy Robinson, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety. That made filing complaints difficult, since protesters often had no idea which agency was involved.

But those policies all changed on the night of June 5, when a federal judge ruled that the Denver Police Department and the thirteen other local law enforcement agencies assisting the DPD during the protests must work together in limiting how often and when they deploy less-lethal munitions against protesters.

Ruling on a class-action lawsuit brought by four plaintiffs who’d been at the Denver protests, Judge R. Brooke Jackson of the U.S. District Court of Colorado mandated that the DPD and fellow law enforcement agencies operating in Denver cannot use chemical weapons or projectiles unless an on-scene supervisor “specifically authorizes such use of force in response to specific acts of violence or destruction of property that the command officer has personally witnessed,” according to a temporary restraining order.

“The Denver Police Department has failed in its duty to police its own,” Jackson wrote, adding that some of the actions of law enforcement officers operating in Denver during the protests had been “disgusting.”

The ruling also orders that “non-Denver officers shall not use any demonstration of force or weapon beyond what Denver itself authorizes for its own officers. Any non-Denver officer permitted to or directed to be deployed to the demonstrations shall be considered an agent of Denver such that Denver shall ensure such officer is limiting their use of force to that authorized by [the City of Denver].”

In other words, the Denver Police Department is now responsible for making sure that other law enforcement agencies operating in the city abide by Denver’s use-of-force policy regarding less-lethal munitions.

Late on June 7, the Denver Police Department announced new policies created in collaboration with the DPD’s Use of Force Committee and “through consideration of recommendations from the Center for Policing Equity.”
Those changes update language to clarify the existing policy of not allowing chokeholds or carotid compression technique with no exceptions; to require officers to report to a supervisor if they intentionally point any firearm at a person, and to have such reports documented in a report; and to have the DPD’s Metro/SWAT unit activate their body-worn cameras when executing tactical operations.

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen says that his department will also be complying with the judge’s temporary restraining order, including the section about making sure that all law enforcement agencies observe Denver’s use-of-force policy.

“We have to take a step back and look at everything that we do and re-evaluate if it makes sense and see if there’s smarter practices, better practices, that we can incorporate in order to further make safe the people that make up this beautiful city,” Pazen says.

Aside from facing a legal challenge in federal court, the DPD is also dealing with pressure from Denver City Council, which has formally requested that the Office of the Independent Monitor, which looks into law enforcement misconduct in the city, investigate the way that the department has used force at protests.

Both Pazen and Robinson have expressed support for the proposed investigation. (The Department of Public Safety oversees the police as well as the sheriff’s department, which admitted to using rubber pellet grenades and bean bag rounds.)

“We are committed to transparency to make sure that there are lessons learned for us to do better,” Pazen says.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers 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.