Denver Government

Police Chief Agrees With All but One Oversight Report Recommendation

The Office of the Independent Monitor studied police response to five days of protests this spring.
The Office of the Independent Monitor studied police response to five days of protests this spring. Evan Semon Photography
Following the release of an Office of the Independent Monitor oversight report critical of the way the Denver Police Department responded to the George Floyd protests, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said that he agrees with all but one of the report's recommendations.

"I do take accountability and responsibility for our department’s actions. We will use this report in order to improve," Pazen said during a December 8 press conference. The report, published by the Office of the Independent Monitor after six months of investigation, criticizes the department for its use-of-force management and how it deployed less-lethal munitions at the protests, sought support from outside law enforcement agencies without having policy agreements in place, and exhibited leadership failings.

The Office of the Independent Monitor offered sixteen recommendations for the DPD, to ensure that it changes how it responds to protests, and perhaps can evade future lawsuits like the multiple federal filings already piling up against the department.

Pazen said he took issue with one recommendation: the suggestion that the DPD require outside law enforcement agencies assisting it during protest responses to adhere to Denver's use-of-force policy and only use less-lethal munitions approved for use by the DPD.

"It’s certainly a challenge, because we would be asking officers from multiple departments to learn our policy, learn our training," Pazen explained. "There’s part of this that is beyond our purview. We can’t dictate that jurisdiction A or jurisdiction B would adhere to this exact policy, but we will be working together to ensure that we can become in compliance with these recommendations."

Eighteen outside law enforcement agencies, as well as the Denver Sheriff Department, assisted the DPD during the first five days of Denver protests in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. Each agency had its own use-of-force policy, some of which were less restrictive than Denver's. The agencies also brought various less-lethal munitions to use while working in Denver, including some not authorized by the DPD.

In a statement responding to the one recommendation with which Pazen took issue, the DPD noted that "Colorado law has now clarified conduct in response to protests and demonstrations, and we believe that language — which all jurisdictions must comply with — accomplishes what this recommendation is attempting to address."

In June, the Colorado Legislature passed SB 217, a sweeping law-enforcement reform bill that Governor Jared Polis signed into law.

Part of SB 217 regulates how law enforcement can use less-lethal munitions at protests in the state. In particular, the law prohibits police using less-lethal munitions from targeting people in the head, pelvis or back, or shooting indiscriminately into a crowd. The law also requires that police issue a dispersal order, repeat that order if necessary, and give time and space for people at protests to leave before using chemical irritants like pepper spray or tear gas.

Senator Julie Gonzales of Denver took the language for that section of SB 217 straight out of a temporary restraining order granted by Judge R. Brooke Jackson in early June, in response to a lawsuit related to the DPD's use of less-lethal munitions at protests. That temporary restraining order was later transformed into a stipulated agreement between the DPD and a group of plaintiffs that filed the original suit.

The stipulated agreement, which remains in effect, includes this: "Non-Denver officers shall not use any weapon beyond what Denver itself authorizes for its own officers." That directive supports at least half of the recommendation to which Pazen objects.

Even so, it does not require outside law enforcement agencies to operate under Denver's use-of-force policy when assisting with crowd control at protests here — and at least for now, Pazen will not require that, either.

Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell will present his office's report to the Citizen Oversight Board, a law enforcement watchdog in Denver, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, December 9. Find more information here.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.