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Occupy Denver: ACLU demands formal investigation of police conduct, pepper ball guns

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This morning, the ACLU of Colorado requested a formal investigation of the Denver Police Department's conduct with Occupy Denver during the past six and a half months. The complaint, delivered to Police Chief Robert White and the Office of the Independent Monitor, cites both First Amendment freedoms and evidence of pepper spray and pepper ball injuries in its argument to ban the guns for use in crowd control altogether. The request is also making its way to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Although the complaint letter (on view below) involves several months of background research, it focuses predominantly on one specific altercation: On October 29, protesters and police officers battled in Civic Center Park after a handful of occupiers erected tents in its trees and on its grass. The feud over the city's anti-structure, anti-encumbrance ordinances grew heated quickly, and more than 100 officers dressed in riot gear entered the park to enforce the laws. Twenty people were arrested and more were injured.

During one hour of the protest, the Colorado Street Medics treated 45 protesters for injuries. The ACLU also cites evidence of wounds from police batons and destruction of private property, but its complaints directly target pepper ball guns. Philip Becerra, who has since left the occupation, was struck with a pepper ball between his eyes, and photographer Andrew Cleres was shot out of a tree with the same ammunition. (For more information on both incidents and the day's events, refer to our earlier coverage.)

Although the ACLU became concerned with police conduct at the occupation in mid-October, the event "elevated those concerns," says Mark Silverstein, the Colorado chapter's legal director.

The official complaint he and other ACLU staff spent months researching takes most of its evidence from video and statements provided by the Denver Police Department itself.

"Based on that evidence alone, these pepper balls guns are being used in a reckless, extremely dangerous manner," Silverstein says. "We're calling on the department to investigate these cases of firing pepper ball guns at demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights, especially in a crowd of moving people that is retreating from the police. If the use of the guns violates DPD policy, we're asking they be held accountable."

And if it doesn't, says Silverstein, then the ACLU is requesting a change in DPD policies. Last year, the ACLU mailed a different letter to the Department of Justice asking officials to conduct an investigation of the DPD based on alleged violations of civil rights. That 26-page letter has not yet earned a definitive response, and it will be joined by this follow-up. In the meantime, the Colorado Progressive Coalition has also launched a campaign to push the DOJ to investigate the DPD.

Notably, many of the chief officials involved in the system were not installed in their posts until after the October 29 event. For them, the ACLU intends this proposed investigation as both a test and a precedent-setting standard.

"We've been saying for a while that the public has lost all confidence in the DPD's ability to police itself," Silverstein says. "Now we have a new mayor, a new chief of police, a new manager of safety and a new head of Internal Affairs. This will provide a test of the new team's seriousness about restoring public confidence. Will Denver officials undertake a transparent and credible investigation of these allegations of serious police misconduct?"

Yesterday, Police Chief Robert White announced the creation of a second new government position aimed at improving and streamlining the internal review process. With the creation of a Conduct Review Department, led by Commander Michael Battista, he said he hopes to increase consistency of structure while encouraging the public to place greater trust in the department.

""This will position our department for the public to see we are objective and fair," White explained. "We can manage ourselves."

Read the ACLU's letter in full: ACLU Occupy Denver Complaint

More from our Politics archives: "Police department creates new position to cut down layers of review, streamline process."

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