Denver's New Police Chief Paul Pazen on Use of Force, His Legacy

The Denver Police Department's new chief, Paul Pazen.
The Denver Police Department's new chief, Paul Pazen.
Kenzie Bruce
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Denver's newest police chief is all about the thin blue line. The symbol that law enforcement uses to explain its role as the line of defense against complete anarchy adorns Paul Pazen's watch — and his wedding ring.

Nicknamed "Smiley" by Mayor Michael Hancock because of his cheery disposition, the Denver Police Department veteran has served on the force for 24 years, most recently as the popular commander of District 1. At Pazen's swearing-in ceremony on Monday, July 9, Hancock even quipped he'd gotten "angry" letters from residents in the district because they had lost him to the promotion.

Pazen is leading a very different police department than the one his predecessor, Chief Robert White, the first outsider chief appointed in Denver since 1950, stepped into nearly seven years ago. White implemented more modern, community-based approaches to policing that brought DPD more in line with departments around the country. Pazen is tasked with bringing some of those changes to fruition, including the new use-of-force policy, which will instruct officers on how to respond to emergencies. (That policy has yet to be made public.) Pazen stopped by Westword on Wednesday, July 11, for thirty minutes to discuss implementing the policy, his take on police and sheriff's department watchdog the Office of the Independent Monitor, and how he plans to approach his job differently than White did.

Westword: Have you encountered anything that gives you anxiety or keeps you up at night about this job yet?

Paul Pazen: No, not at all. I am so honored to be given this opportunity. I'm passionate about this city and the people that make up this city, so this is the opportunity of a lifetime to affect the people I care about in a positive way. It’s more excitement than stress or anxiety. We have a great team, and we’re going to enhance our team, get them the training and equipment and support they need so that way they can help us deliver the vision that we have to help our people.

So, no nerves, no anxiety, about anything?

I know it sounds silly. I know I should say, "Yes, I’m worried about this, or the phone call at 2 a.m. and who's going to answer it." No, not at all. I’ve been very fortunate. I've had amazing mentors both inside the department and outside the department. The outside influences have been just as strong, just as powerful. There are some amazing leaders that were part of the city team that helped shape and form me, and folks from the nonprofit world that helped shape and form me. And there are activists that have helped shape and form me, just like there are amazing leaders within the Denver Police Department, folks that were able or took the time to share their knowledge with me, who have helped me. To me, it's a culmination of all of that. It's bringing in the different sides of things. I kind of come from a different angle. I'm a community guy that happens to be the chief of police, not a chief of police who wants to embrace community policing. I already have this stuff. That's who I am to the fabric, and that's because of the influences, the folks that created me this way. I’m not making it up when I say that the people of Denver shaped me and helped me. When you grow up on the Northside in the ’90s and ’80s, you're exposed to a lot. When you grow up to a single mom and attend an underperforming inner-city school, your likelihood of being a statistic is greatly enhanced. But it was people, community members, neighbors, nonprofits, that helped me all along the way, and an extremely strong mother that wouldn’t put up with any BS. That’s how I got here, and you can never lose sight of that. That's the lens I see things through. I spent five years in the United States Marine Corps with discipline and amazing leadership. Marine Corps doesn't get credit enough for how it shapes leaders, but what you learn there is an incredibly strong foundation that you can build upon. Then I have 24 years in the police department of mentors that have helped me. It's putting both of those worlds together. That was a long answer for one question.

We're probably mere days away from getting the use-of-force policy revision...

A lot of work has been done in preparation for this. We're talking nineteen months, countless meetings, several venues for community to have input, people with very strong views and positions that were part of this committee that helped shape this. A lot of research.

How involved were you in the use-of-force policy discussions?

I was not part of the committee, but I was made aware throughout the process. Chief White shared with us as steps were taken.

I'm guessing you've seen the latest draft. I'm curious as to your thoughts on the final product.

My focus will be the implementation and training. It’s critical that we implement it the right way and train it the right way...that we train to its intent. I've had discussions with the police academy and the commander of the academy, and we're going to be very intentional on how this is rolled out. It's not just hitting send on an email and telling officers, "Good luck figuring this out." It's going to be the exact opposite. There's supervisor training in this as well. I've asked them to really look at different ways that we can do it, including scenario-based ways that we can roll out this training to avoid the gray areas. That's what we need to do. Use of force is not something that any police officer wants to get involved in, much like citizens would like to avoid these types of situations. There's a strong emphasis on de-escalation, and I'm going to ensure that training reflects that, as well, in keeping people safe ultimately.

You mentioned gray areas, which are one of the most contentious points of the policy and I think policing in general. Walk me through what a gray area is and how this policy will specifically address a scenario like that.

This is one of the most rewarding jobs you will ever have. It's also one of the most challenging jobs you will ever have. In reality, our officers...there is gray area. There's not a specific checklist that says you show up to a domestic-violence situation and do items one through twenty and get things resolved. Implementation and training of policies and ensuring that we are acting and responding consistently with values we have is how we're going to do this and avoid those gray areas. It's a gray area on every single contact. We're dealing with human beings. We may handle twenty domestic-violence situations in a day, but it doesn't mean that all of the parties involved are going to act or respond exactly the same way. Ultimately, it's ensuring that we're doing things consistent with our values, overall purpose and strategy.

What mindset do you hope an officer has when he or she walks into a situation like that?

We're going into volatile situations all the time. And we as human beings, police or not, want clarity; we don't want ambiguity. We want to make sure people understand and know what expectations are. I know a lot of work has been put into this policy. A lot of people have really thought out what needs to be in there, and defining specific roles and actions, but that training component is so critical, and that's my charge. I'm telling you, we're going to do it the right way. We're not just going to roll it out and say, "Here you go." It's going to be very comprehensive, and the situations you discussed — volatile situations — we're going to ensure that our officers at two o'clock in the morning, in any part of the city, have a deep understanding of what those situations are and how they can best resolve those situations in conjunction with a decision-making model that's aligned with our values.

How do you train officers like yourself, who have been on the force for twenty-plus years, about this policy?

Everybody’s going to get training. It's not just for supervisors or brand-new officers. Training is going to be consistent. Anybody who will respond or could potentially have a use-of-force situation present itself, everybody’s getting training. We're not doing something for the recruits in the academy that's different than officers that have been on street for twenty years.

What is your philosophy on the Office of the Independent Monitor?

I might have a slightly different take than what you're expecting.

Accountability is critical for all of our city agencies, not just the Denver Police Department. We're accountable to our citizens, the people of Denver. Each of us is accountable for every action that we take. We want to be transparent in those efforts. That's how we're able to identify and address problems that come about. If we're not transparent in that, things get swept under the rug, and a situation may escalate and cause us all kinds of problems later on. We need to make sure that we're identifying these issues and we're dealing with them as quickly as possible, and hopefully we're proactive [and] preventing them in the first place. That's the overall tone or philosophy that's important for public agencies to adhere to, particularly law enforcement agencies where public trust is critical to us doing our job.

I have a good working relationship with the monitor himself and that office. When I talked about proactively preventing issues from happening, we have collaborated to proactively reduce many of the negative interactions between young people and adults, meaning low-level issues where officers contact young people because somebody had called the police on them. We've had instances in the past where those have turned into complaints or use-of-force issues. But if we can do a better job engaging with young people and the police department on the front end and establish know-your-rights and know-your-responsibility rules, as well as teaching officers adolescent brain development and implicit bias — all of those things that go into youth decision-making and some of those trigger points — we can reduce the number of low-level contacts that turn into citizen complaints or use-of-force incidents. I have been a shoulder-to-shoulder partner with that office and that staff on trying to come up with solutions to prevent those use-of-force issues from occurring in the first place.

I spoke with [Denver Department of Public Safety Executive Director] Troy Riggs, and something that he said that I thought was really poignant was the fact that he wanted to get to a level with [Independent Monitor] Nick Mitchell where he can pick up the phone, and if they disagree on something, they can talk it out. Is that something you would also strive for?

I agree with the executive director. I think that we can focus on the areas where our missions are aligned. Ultimately, the Office of the Independent Monitor, they're for transparency and accountability. We just got done talking about how the police department needs to be accountable and transparent. We can align on a lot of things. There are plenty of areas where people can have disagreements or not see things a certain way, but we can't let those define our relationships. It's critical, especially when I talk about the Bridging the Gap: Kids and Cops program. Those are solutions. It's easy to sit at the back of the room and point out everything that's wrong. But when you can't collaborate and come up with solutions that help people...we're helping young people. We train all of our officers as part of [the Bridging the Gap] program. Two-hundred-and-sixty-plus have been trained in effective interactions with youth. They're learning...their role as gatekeepers in what's termed the "school-to-prison pipeline."

These are solutions to keep kids on positive tracks. It's also solutions for officers. Officers don't want complaints and don't want use-of-force issues. They want to avoid those situations, as well. If we can collaborate on things like that and help our community and our goals align, that's great. Are there are going to be disagreements from time to time? Absolutely, but they cannot erode the relationship when we have such important work that overlaps and is intertwined.

Do you think that the chief of police should fall under the investigatory purview of the OIM?

The challenging part of this is what we just spoke of — those relationships, right? I am accountable for my actions just like any other member of the police department. There's also a structure that's in place. The independent monitor is an appointee of the mayor, as am I, and when we're talking about structure, sometimes that can create some sticky points with long-term collaborative relationships. I'm directly aligned with the mayor and Troy Riggs when it comes to appointees reviewing other appointees.

Something notable in your disciplinary record is that you were suspended for eight hours for "failure to shoot." Walk me through what happened and what, exactly, that means.

I'm glad you asked this question. The way that comes out, it sounds ominous: failure to shoot — what does that mean? That's the title that we've used for decades. I can't remember it being anything different. It should be "missed a qualification," not "failure to shoot." Failure to shoot sounds, like, "Oh, you were supposed to engage somebody out on the street" or something. But that's not the case. The language could be more precise. Basically I missed a target practice. Every officer is required to go to the range.

The use-of-force policy is going to emphasize de-escalation. Is that something you feel equipped to preach on?

We want to de-escalate all situations. We would prefer to talk somebody down and never have to go hands-on, never have to use force whatsoever. Again, we're dealing with human beings, and sometimes folks are not willing to do that.

This is a big issue for a lot of people in the community who have seen situations like Paul Castaway's, for example, where, instead of trying to talk down somebody who's going through a mental-health crisis, a gun was used. How equipped do you think officers are to talk somebody who's going through a mental health crisis with a knife in their hand down from the ledge? Is that something you all work through routinely?

Time and distance are things that can help. Barriers are things that can help. Each situation is different. We have to ensure that we're looking at the totality of the circumstances when we're dealing with it. Immediacy is different in all situations. We deal with people in crisis all the time. It's unfortunate in our society that we are a safety net that is helping folks when they are in crisis, whether it be with substance abuse or mental health. Sometimes people are armed, and sometimes people are not armed. But our first goal is de-escalation. However, a totality of circumstances can create a challenging situation for officers on the street.

Have you given any thought to how you're going to differentiate your approach to this job from how your predecessor approached this job?

Chief White created a strong foundation. Again, this is not BS; I'm not just saying it to say it. We have a very solid foundation. Reforms over the last six and a half years have really helped us, and it would be a shame for any chief of police to go backwards. We're not going backwards. This gives us an opportunity to do some great things for our city. It goes back to your very first question about being nervous. If we were in a different place, maybe I'd feel that way. But I am confident that Chief White's legacy and reforms have been good for us and give us an opportunity to really push the envelope and stretch ourselves for the betterment of this city.

Can you give some examples of how you're going to push the envelope?

I'm super-excited. I will tell you that the base of our foundation is built upon prevention of crime and treating people with respect and dignity. That was the mission of the police department under Chief White. We've made a lot of headway in those areas. Now we have the opportunity to add reduction of social harms. We're going to use data so we can help the most vulnerable in our community, so we're not just preventing crime, but also the fear of crime.

Use Broadway as an example. We'd have to drill down on crime on this street year-to-date to find out if it's up or down, but it really doesn't matter if an officer showed you a piece of paper with crime trending down if you don't feel safe walking to your car at the end of the day. Does that that arrow pointing one way or another impact you if you have a park that our crime stats are saying crime is down in but you don't want to cross the street and enjoy the amenities there? Social harms involve not only crime, but the fear of crime, as well as those issues we've talked about that can sometimes cause contention in the city and its relationship with the police department, and that is the mental health and substance abuse side. We're talking about solutions. We talked about the OIM and how we're figuring out solutions that can help us prevent use-of-force issues. It's the same thing. If we can strengthen that safety net with traditional and non-traditional partners that can help us with mental health issues and substance-abuse issues, we are even more effective.

We're going to use data, we're going to drill down on the Census tracts on this, for precision policing. I can go on for hours. Our precision-policing model is one of those strategies. We've got some other big pieces on the horizon, like branding public safety — that's going to be revolutionary. I'm so excited about it because I know it's going to work.

What do you mean by "branding public safety"?

That's a couple of hours. We're going to have to come back for that one. It's going to be a big deal. We have a solid base, and the next part is going to be reducing social harms, and we're going to get there with precision policing, collaboration and innovation. That's how we get there. Our long-term, down-the-road goal is, we're going to transform public safety. I'm just telling you, it's going to be great.

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