Protest Watch

George Floyd Protests: Why Denver Cops Finally Agreed to Changes

At 5:52 p.m. on June 7, the Denver Police Department announced three new policy measures: one regarding chokeholds, a second on reporting about drawing a weapon, and a third on body-worn cameras. In doing so, the DPD followed a familiar pattern of moving forward on reforms only after pressure from outside events — in this case, the ongoing protests in downtown Denver following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police — made it clear that changes would be coming, whether the department wanted them or not.

A prime example of this pattern involves seventeen-year-old Jessie Hernandez, whose death has been invoked by demonstrators in recent days. Hernandez was shot and killed by Denver police in January 2015 while behind the wheel of a stolen car in which she and some friends had been sleeping — a wholly unnecessary tragedy that provoked widespread community outcry. The following June, the DPD announced that it had instituted a rule against shooting into a moving vehicle, but only after the cops involved in ending Hernandez's life had been cleared of wrongdoing. Denver eventually paid a $1 million settlement over the incident.

A shift in the wind is even more undeniable now than it was five years ago. Heavy-handed Denver police tactics after nightfall during the early rallies and marches protesting Floyd's death led Representative Leslie Herod to introduce sweeping accountability legislation last week — and on June 5, federal judge R. Brooke Jackson issued a temporary restraining order against the use of "chemical weapons or projectiles of any kind against people engaging in peaceful protests or demonstrations" by law enforcement authorities, except under extraordinary circumstances.

Against this backdrop, the Denver Police Department announced that as of today, June 8, "officers will report to a supervisor if they intentionally point any firearm at a person, and a report will be created to improve data collection and evaluation of these incidents" — an approach that police-reform advocates have been suggesting for years.

In addition, the DPD "updated language to clarify the existing policy of not allowing chokeholds or carotid compression technique with no exceptions" — a rule that was a long time coming, too, as evidenced by the way a complaint against Officer Eric Sellers was handled a decade ago.

On December 28, 2009, according to a 2011 report by then-Independent Monitor Richard Rosenthal, Sellers was working off-duty in a LoDo bar when a complainant, volunteer firefighter Jared Lunn, told him a man had punched him in the face and thrown his pizza on the ground. The officer responded by telling Lunn to leave because he was drunk.

As he headed to a friend's car in response to this order, Lunn said something to the effect of "a job well done." To that, according to Lunn's pal, Sellers replied, "Oh, you want to play that way, motherfucker," grabbed Lunn from behind and put him in a chokehold. Sellers then took Lunn to the ground, handcuffed him and taunted him for several minutes as a "pussy" and a "faggot." Lunn was only allowed to leave after he apologized.

For these actions, and for lying about them afterward, Sellers didn't lose his job, despite Rosenthal's belief that his behavior warranted termination. Instead, former Denver Manager of Safety Ron Perea handed Sellers a 45-day suspension that was eventually whittled down to 40 days because of a series of technicalities.

As for body-worn cameras, the DPD has announced that from now on, members of its SWAT unit will activate the devices "when executing tactical operations."

Nick Mitchell, Rosenthal's successor as Denver Independent Monitor, called for this to happen routinely in 2017; back then, he recommended that the department "assign BWCs to all uniformed officers who interact with the public, regardless of rank, and whether they are working on- or off-duty, including officers in specialized units such as Metro/SWAT." A big reason for this argument: Of ten Denver officers involved in shootings in 2014, two of them, or 20 percent, were assigned to SWAT.

Why didn't the DPD take this advice? In a 2017 interview with Westword, Commander James Henning told us that "for security reasons, we want to keep those tactics confidential. We don't want to give away all our secrets."

Given that Denver SWAT assaults on protesters lately have been broadcast live on local TV and splattered across social media, this argument is moot.
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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.
Contact: Michael Roberts