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After Michael Marshall's Death, Citizens Want Change at Office of the Independent Monitor

Michael Marshall
Michael Marshall
Family photo via The Colorado Independent
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Denverites called for more government accountability on Thursday, March 22, when Denver's Independent Monitor, Nicholas Mitchell, laid out his independent review of the widely publicized death of Michael Marshall, who died in police custody on November 20, 2015, after being arrested for trespassing.

Marshall choked to death on his own vomit after deputies with the Denver Sheriff's Department used excessive force — against the advice of a nurse in the detention center — to restrain the five-foot-four, 112-pound Marshall while he was in leg irons, handcuffs and a restraint chair. After being rushed to the hospital, he remained in a comatose state for nine days before being taken off life support. The Office of the Independent Monitor released eight recommendations this month in light of Marshall's death, which put the Denver Department of Safety on the defensive in its heated response in a letter dated March 12.

The Office of the Independent Monitor is a government accountability agency that provides civilian oversight for the Denver Police Department and Denver Sheriff's Department to ensure both are working in compliance with the law, internal policies and national best practices. Both of those law enforcement agencies fall under the Denver Department of Safety.

Though Marshall's family settled with the City of Denver for $4.65 million and a promise by the city to reform its jail policies, Denverites are still calling for change. "Never again" is a sentiment that rang clear at the Thursday meeting, where Citizen Oversight Board member Pastor Paul Burleson called to strengthen the office by making it truly independent and granting it subpoena powers through a city charter amendment. The last charter amendment regarding the OIM was in 2016, when voters overwhelmingly approved writing the OIM into city charter, enshrining its powers and ensuring the agency's permanence. The Citizen Oversight Board is appointed by the mayor to assess the effectiveness of the OIM.

"There needs to be some changes in the charter to actually make the Office of the Independent Monitor independent, with subpoena powers. I think that's incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to make that happen," Burleson said during the meeting, where Marshall's niece and sister were in attendance.

Attendees were broken up into three groups to discuss the Michael Marshall report and improve accountability from the Department of Safety, but they soon homed in on strengthening the OIM. Some of those policy suggestions included moving appointment and removal powers of the independent monitor from the mayor to city council, guaranteeing minimum funding for the office and giving the OIM the power to enforce disciplinary actions against officers. No policy has been formally recommended to Mayor Michael Hancock by the board, which assesses the effectiveness of the OIM. It's unclear when any recommendations will be formally presented.

Only two of the seven officers involved in Marshall's death were ever disciplined. Of those two, one was a captain who silently watched the incident from a distance, and the second was a sheriff's deputy who restrained Marshall. (He joined the Denver Police Department while he was under criminal investigation by the Denver District Attorney's Office and before an investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau. No policy is in place to bar hiring of DPD candidates under criminal or administrative investigation.) The captain and deputy were given ten- and fifteen-day suspensions, respectively, though both were overturned on appeal last year by a Career Service Board hearing officer days after a settlement was reached by Denver officials with the family. The decision to overturn those suspensions is now pending on a second appeal to the Career Service Board, which is a five-member civilian board that hears City and County of Denver human-resources cases on appeal.

"The current state of affairs is that there was no discipline for any of the personnel who were involved in this incident," Mitchell said in his presentation Thursday night.

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