Denver Police on Use of Force Draft Policy, Community Meetings Controversy

Additional images, video and more below.
Additional images, video and more below. Thinkstock file photo
The controversy over a new Denver Police Department draft policy about the use of force flared up again last night at a contentious community forum at the Shorter Community AME Church, where activists, faith leaders and other community members let Denver Police Chief Robert White and other officials know how unhappy they are with the way the document was assembled and presented.

Unlike the Denver Sheriff Department, which employed a diverse task force in the rewriting of its own use-of-force policy last year, the DPD didn't invite civic organizations, the Office of the Independent Monitor or even police union representatives to participate in developing the draft. And while the department encouraged members of the public to weigh in on the not-yet-finalized proposal (and they can still do so, using the e-mail address, no community meetings were originally scheduled.

This last fact has frustrated groups such as the Colorado Latino Forum, which launched a petition titled "Demand That the Denver Police Department Include Community Voice!" In the introduction to the petition, Lisa Calderón, the forum's co-chair, is quoted as saying, "We are talking about policies that can directly impact people’s lives during a police encounter, yet we have no voice in this process. Any public policy that was created in secrecy will lack legitimacy with the community."

As the heat rose, Chief White changed course, and now three community meetings about the policy have been scheduled, beginning on January 24; the complete details are below.

In advance of these get-togethers, DPD Deputy Chief of Administration Matt Murray spoke to Westword about the complaints and the department's response. But during the conversation, which took place last week, he focused on the policy, which he sees as the sort of progressive leap many critics will ultimately embrace if they give it a fair shake.

Interspersed with the transcript of our interview with Murray are slides from a DPD PowerPoint presentation about the policy that contrast "Traditional Policing" with "Dynamic and Innovative Policing." This material is followed by the complete draft and a video of Chief White's use-of-force-policy press conference earlier this month.

By the way, Murray emphasizes that his references to a couple of high-profile cases in the following conversation are meant to illustrate his points in a general way instead of alluding to the police agencies involved or the specific incidents themselves.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
Westword: What was the sequence of events that led to the new policy?

Deputy Chief Matt Murray: It's probably more complicated than most people think. As Chief White said at his press conference, he's typically hired to make transformational change. As he was looking at the Denver Police Department and talking to the community, he saw what he hoped would be the evolution of the culture. To do that, he had to do a lot of other things, and we're still in the middle of that. This is what had to happen on the horizon to get to that cultural shift.

It wasn't like an incident or an event or his displeasure at reading something. It's just that this had to come in line with the rest of the policy he was implementing through other changes in the organization.

Chief White mentioned the culture during the press conference — but since he took the job, he's been talking about the need for a culture change. Is this an indication that either the culture hasn't changed since he came aboard or that it hasn't changed enough?

First of all, it's not just the Denver Police Department, and he made that clear. He thinks policing in America needs changing, and we're a traditional byproduct of that same culture. And that's a really important point for us. He doesn't want Denver police officers to read this article and think, "The Chief believes we're broken," because he doesn't. What he feels is that the traditional form of policing, of which Denver was very representative, had to evolve. We're in the process of that, and I feel he would say we're not there yet, but we're definitely on our way. A lot of things have changed, and we can see ways that the culture has changed.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
Have the changes been too slow for Chief White? Does he feel things haven't changed quickly enough and that this new policy will help them change more quickly?

He's a very impatient guy, so nothing can happen too fast for him. But I wouldn't say he feels disappointed that the culture hasn't changed enough. This was a critical part of that big change. But it's kind of like building a building. You have to build the foundation before you can put up the facade, before you can put up the drywall. Everything has to happen in order. You can't do the electrical for a house first, or else all your wires will be hanging outside. So things had to happen in a certain order, and we're at that point now.

The other thing I would tell you is, in November of 2015, Chief White sent me to Scotland. I went with PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum, and we were looking at how the United Kingdom deals with armed suspects when they don't have guns. How are they able to successfully accomplish this? And we've also been a very active participant in a national conversation about this. Events outside of Denver and outside of our control have also been pushing this narrative, but it's very consistent with our philosophy.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
Regarding your trip, what did you learn, and what techniques do you see as being translatable to the Denver Police Department?

On a personal level, I would say it was the most impactful thing I have ever seen, witnessed personally. When you're the product of traditional American police training — and again, that's not a judgment, it's not bad, it's just the way it is here — you watch officers employing a completely different strategy and yet coming to successful resolutions. And that can be kind of mind-boggling. One of the things you have to say right away when you talk about this is that they don't have many guns in Scotland, and they'll be the first ones to tell you that. So of course we don't want officers going to face people with guns and not use appropriate force to protect themselves and everyone else. That's not what we're saying. But PERF found that in 2015, 26 percent of all the police shootings in the United States were officers shooting at someone with something other than a gun — so a car, a knife, a bottle, whatever. You name it: 26 percent of our shootings dealt with something other than guns. And that was where PERF was spending a lot of their time and why we went to Scotland — to find out how to deal with those statistics. That's part of the cultural shift, and for me it was very important.

When you began moving forward to create the draft policy, were there specific areas of focus? Items that were top of the list to address?

Yeah, and the truth is — and this makes the whole controversy over the rollout kind of interesting — we've been changing policy leading up to this for months. For probably over a year. We added a policy of duty to render aid, we added a decision-making model. These have been building up to the use-of-force policy and are frankly very critical — how you respond to suicidal parties, how you respond to excited delirium. Now you can't go up to a guy who's swallowed drugs and choke him; we treat that as a medical call. So that policy was changed. We've been changing policies we thought were really critical leading up to this overall effort for quite a while.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
Why do you think the new policy was greeted with such an outcry in certain quarters?

I think you have to be careful, because I don't think there is a huge public outcry. I think there's a small group that's unhappy with the release of the policy, and that I know of, they haven't made a single complaint about the policy itself — and I'm the one who collects those. The truth is, we offered a chance for feedback, we provided a mechanism to do that. Obviously there were people in the community who weren't happy with that, so now we're going to have community meetings. But the big focus should be on the policy, and there are people around the country and on national news who are looking at this policy — not the way it was rolled out, but in what it reflects and the limits it places on officers and the evolution of police work. Our hope is that people will see it for what it really is, which is a really good move forward.

In retrospect, do you feel that community meetings and more of an opportunity for the community to participate and comment should have been built in from the beginning?

It's hard to say. It's possible, and we're certainly doing community meetings. But what we couldn't do was write this policy by committee. That's because there are at least a dozen policies that are directly impacted by this policy. And you can't have a committee have all the understanding of how these are all interrelated. The time it would take to do it certainly wouldn't have worked for Chief White, and I don't believe it would have worked for the community. We need to get this done.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
What are some of the most important changes in this draft policy?

Chief White has talked about officers making a decision to act because it's necessary, not because it's legal. It says right off the bat that the law is still the law, and we're going to abide by the law, but we're going to have a higher standard.

The best way to help people understand that is the chase policy. It is legal in Colorado to chase someone with a car who's committed a crime. But it's against Denver policy unless there are very specific situations that are occurring in that case. So Denver has chosen — and the metro chiefs have chosen — to make policy more restrictive than the law. That's what this does when it comes to the use of force. So that's really important. We're asking officers to not do what the law allows, but do what's really necessary. And to do that, you have to have critical thinking, which is why we introduced the decision-making model. The idea is to get officers thinking about these things — and if they slow down, we believe they'll make better decisions.

We also have — and it's going to start at the end of this month, on the 30th — a forty-hour mandatory ethics course that includes one day of community service for every single employee of the Denver Police Department. It's going to take about three years to complete that. The concept is that as they're going through this decision-making model that's centered around ethics, and with that training, people will generally make the right decisions rather than just reacting to a situation they're faced with.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
What are some of the other policy shifts that you think are particularly key?

Chief White put together a PowerPoint presentation about the policy, and part of what he was trying to show with it is that it's extremely complicated and there are a lot of moving parts. They're all occurring simultaneously, and they all have to work together. But there are certain things at the foundation.

The chief talks constantly about the difference between legal and necessary. It might be legal to give you a ticket because you broke the law, but is it necessary? If you look at the Eric Garner case [Garner died in Staten Island circa July 2014 after a police officer put him in a chokehold], your average citizen is saying, "Hold it. He was selling loose cigarettes, and now he's dead." Police officers say, "At step six, he did this and we did this, and at step eight, he did this and we did this." That's how they were taught to think, that's how they were taught to react, and that's how they were taught to write reports. That's why the police are confused by the traditional model and what people are expecting them to do — because they're doing what they were trained to do. They're not bad people.

We're saying, "We've got to do things differently. Is it really necessary to gang-tackle this guy and choke him out and get him on the ground, to arrest him, when he was selling loose cigarettes?"

Another fascinating example, and one we use in all our training, is the traffic stop involving Sandra Bland [in 2015, Bland hanged herself in a Texas jail cell after being arrested following a minor traffic violation]. When you look at our policy, it talks about reasonable, necessary, appropriate. If you apply that step by step to the Sandra Bland incident, you can ask, "When the officer pulled her over for no signal, did the officer have the legal authority to do that? Yes. But was it necessary?" And then people begin to make their decisions. But as you go through the list of things he did, when you get to the part where he tells her to put out a cigarette in her own car, it's almost universal. Everybody says, "He didn't have the legal authority to do that." And if you think back on that case, that was the line in the sand. He didn't stop, he kept pushing the issue, and he was trying to enforce a law he didn't have a legal authority to enforce — because there is no law that says you can't smoke in your own car.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
You can see how applying these principles, if you can teach people how to think in this way, will prevent a lot of headaches and provide a much better service to the community. That's what's legal and necessary.

Could you talk about changes in regard to standing your ground?

We have often taught, "Don't give up ground. Don't retreat." What happens, especially if you're dealing with someone — and we often are — who may have mental-health issues or alcohol issues or impairment issues, is that standing your ground may escalate the situation. They don't view that as "I want to work with you." What we saw in Scotland and what a lot of police departments are doing across America is that they're much more dynamic and they adapt. You don't just go home. It's really important that people realize we're not saying we're not going to enforce the law. We're not just driving away. But we may have moving perimeters. We're going to slow things down and get more resources in there, appropriate resources, so we can deal with the situation. There shouldn't be a line in the sand. If you need to move back a little bit, move back a little bit, or move forward. Use your head.

We talk about the word "rigid," and that's not a good way to be. If you ask people, "What do you hate about the cops?," they'll almost always tell you that: "They're rigid, inflexible." But what they really mean is officious. You may have been pulled over by someone who didn't treat you with respect. We all have a vision of what that looks like: an inflexible, rigid person who doesn't even want to listen to you. And that's not how we want to police. It certainly doesn't ingratiate the community with us.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
There's a video out of an officer out of California: Elton Simmons is his name. He's written over 25,000 tickets and never had a complaint. I think CBS News followed him around, and people were thanking him because he treated them well. He treated them like people. He was respectful, he was friendly. That's part of what we're talking about. A lot of this centers around respect and the way we communicate.

How do you contrast enforcement with prevention under the new policy?

There was heightened violence in the 1990s; there was all across America. A lot more violence, higher murder rates. We had the Summer of Violence in 1993. And the reaction was, the police are going to fight crime. That was the term used: "fight crime." But we're adapting from that, and the military is, too, when you think about the hearts-and-minds campaigns.

If you fight crime, what you typically do is you find some kind of crime, you swoop in, and then you come back out. Well, that's not really community-based. The new way is to have a relationship with the community so you're viewed as part of the community, and you can come up with solutions with the community to issues that they're facing.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
Do you feel, when you have community meetings, that people will see these kinds of concepts as good ideas rather than simply opposing all of them because of the way they were originally presented?

I hope so. One of the people I went to Scotland with was a commander in Baltimore named Sheree Briscoe. She's the commander in the district where the riots occurred. She had a really interesting community meeting where she went in and said, "These are your problems. How are you going to fix them?" And when faced with that kind of question, the response was, "You're right. There really are only a few options available, and we can work together to work with those."

It's not like we came up with this policy and imposed it on you. We asked people to tell us what they thought. We want to know, and if there are ways we can do it better, we want you to let us know. There are some in the community who feel we could have done that better, but we're asking the community to give us feedback, just like we did with body-worn cameras.

What kind of feedback have you gotten thus far?

As of last Friday [January 6], about 75 percent of the responses we received were from police officers or police officers' families, and the big issue we saw in them was, "We need our shooting-into-cars policy to address a situation like Nice, France, or Germany, or Israel. We need to be able to shoot into cars if the cars are being used to kill people on the mall." So that's kind of a theme in the ones from the officers.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
The policy against shooting into moving cars is one of the precursor changes that you alluded to earlier, and thus far, I'm not aware of any incidences when officers were injured or killed as a result of that change. But are officers concerned that it doesn't address a terrorist attack?

Yep. Now, I think there's plenty of evidence in American policing to suggest that not shooting into cars is safer for everybody, including the officer. We now teach officers, "Get out of the way." But do the officers raise a good point about this? Perhaps, and that's why we're seeking input. When we get done taking all the public input, we'll figure out the best way to address that — or maybe it's already been addressed. But it's legitimate, and we appreciate that officers are bringing it to our attention. Never did we think we'd be able to create the perfect policy. This truly is a draft. We're trying to get lots of minds and thoughts on that. Diversity of thought is going to make a much better policy.

What kinds of responses have you received from the general public so far?

I'm actually going to read some of these to you. "I don't live in Denver. I'm a retired Marine patrol officer, and you, Chief White, are a disgrace." That's one. Here's one that says, "Shoot suspects in the leg." Here's one that says, "This is all about bleeding hearts. You need to get over yourselves." But so far, there have been no citizen comments that are substantive about things in the policy that they want to have changed.

Courtesy of the Denver Police Department
They're more emotional reactions to the concept of a policy change rather than specific things in the policy?

Yes, so far. I suspect that will change, though. I think people who are more thoughtful and who will spend time with this are more likely to send us an actual, substantive response.

In advance of the public meetings, would you encourage people to read the policy closely and really think about what they like about it and what they might want to change?

Yes. If these meetings are people giving us productive, constructive feedback about how to improve the policy, we're going to have a better policy. If these meetings are an opportunity to castigate the police department and rehash frustrations or incidents from the past, we'll spend all our time listening to that and very little will be accomplished about moving the policy forward. It's not that we don't want to hear that from people, but this is truly their opportunity to change the policy for their police department. If people come prepared to talk about the policy, we'll probably get a lot better policy.

Community meetings schedule:

5 p.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday, January 24, Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver, 3333 Holly Street
9 a.m.-noon Saturday, January 28, Elevate Denver Church, 2205 West 30th Avenue
10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, February 4, Red Shield Community Center, 2915 North High Street

Denver Police Department Use of Force Policy: Draft

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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.
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