Occupy Denver: Independent monitor criticizes police, Department of Safety over protest tactics

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Occupy Denver may no longer be making headlines, but at least one city official is still talking about the protesters -- specifically law enforcement's role in a violent confrontation. A recent report from the Office of the Independent Monitor, the city's official watchdog, says Denver Police and the Department of Safety should have done more to review their tactics after a situation when officers and civilians faced great risks.

In response, the manager of safety argues that Denver did better than most cities that faced Occupy Wall Street protests.

As we reported last month, the most recent OIM report -- the first ever from Nicholas Mitchell, the independent monitor selected over the summer -- offers an update on the status of officer-involved shootings under investigation, among other details about the DPD and the Denver Sheriff's Department.

The independent monitor is charged with keeping an eye on investigations of police and sheriff personnel, writing reports and making recommendations to the heads of those departments, as well as the city's manager of safety.

In a section Mitchell titled "Missed Opportunity For In-Depth Tactics Review," the independent monitor describes the challenge that Occupy Denver posed for law enforcement in the city in the fall of 2011.

He focuses his attention on October 29, one of Occupy Denver's most violent days, in which many were arrested and several ended up in the hospital. One protester was shot in the face with pepper bullets.

Mitchell writes:

On the afternoon of October 29, 2011, Denver Police responded to Civic Center Park to provide security during and after an Occupy Denver march and rally. A highly-energized crowd was erecting tents in Civic Center Park in violation of municipal ordinance. Officers were faced with a difficult decision -- whether to immediately engage members of the crowd to ensure that the tents come down, risking confrontation -- or wait and allow the crowd to disperse before enforcing that ordinance.

The decision was made to immediately address the ordinance violations, and a small group of officers made verbal requests that the tents be dismantled. Although officers made these requests for voluntary compliance, many were outfitted with helmets and other riot gear, which sometimes provokes crowd response. Many demonstrators became physically aggressive, and there were confrontations between protesters and police. The small group of officers was surrounded, and DPD issued an emergency citywide call for additional police assistance. Officers deployed O.C. spray and pepperballs, among other less than-lethal force options, to maintain a perimeter or skirmish line. Several civilians were injured during the ensuing melee, and many in the crowd were affected by the O.C. spray and struck with pepperballs, including one civilian struck in the face.

Continue for more of the independent monitor's criticisms. City officials argued that Occupy Denver, which attempted to camp in public, was a huge public safety nuisance for the city -- playing a role in the controversial ordinance against camping that passed last spring.

During Occupy Denver's most active months, Mitchell notes in his report, the DPD conducted regular debriefings about the protests -- but, he argues, the events of October 29 were serious enough that they merited a "more detailed examination of the tactics used to determine whether different methods could prevent similar confrontations in the future."

That's why he recommended a comprehensive tactics review, which he argues could help improve the responses to similar tense situations going forward.

DPD has a so-called "Tactics Review Board" that can assess these kinds of incidents and meets on a bi-monthly basis if cases require it. That board is charged with reviewing tactics to determine "compliance with existing policy and procedure...[and] the need for revisions to policy, procedure or training."

The events last year would have been a good opportunity for reflection on crowd control tactics, the report notes, citing the timing of DPD's engagement with demonstrators shortly after a rally, the use of riot gear when seeking voluntary compliance with police requests, the small number of officers used and the role of less-than-lethal force.

Mitchell says he was disappointed that the Department of Safety declined to accept his recommendation to employ the tactics board to do a review in this case.

Reached by phone, Mitchell told us he has nothing more to add beyond what's in the report.

Alex Martinez, the manager of safety, however, has quite a bit to say about the criticisms. As the head of the Department of Safety, which oversees police, sheriff and other public safety agencies, Martinez has said he is pushing serious reforms to increase transparency and improve the public's trust in Denver law enforcement. A lot of this discussion is in the context of police brutality.

Martinez writes to us that a tactical review a year after the fact is unnecessary and argues that Denver is "one of the most successful cities in the country in striking a balance between supporting the protestors in exercising their First Amendment rights while protecting the health, safety and welfare of all of our citizens."

But, he says, his department remains open to Tactics Review Board analysis in appropriate cases going forward.

Continue for the full statement from Martinez and the full report from the independent monitor. Alex Martinez' statement:

Importantly, we are grateful to the many police officers who worked hard and with great restraint during Occupy Denver to protect the safety of the protestors and the public. Indeed, Denver was one of the most successful cities in the country in striking a balance between supporting the protestors in exercising their first amendment rights while protecting the health, safety and welfare of all of our citizens. At the time of these events, the Safety and Police Departments coordinated with various other city agencies and departments on a regular and systematic basis to discuss best practices and tactics. Denver also debriefed on a regular basis, including after the sole incident in question. The timely policy and tactics review of DPD's actions during Occupy Denver were regular, ongoing, detailed and comprehensive.

An additional tactical review more than a year after the incident in question is unnecessary due to the exhaustive, contemporaneous and continual tactical review of the management of Occupy Denver, and our interests in devoting resources to moving forward with major restructuring and retraining in DPD, and continuing to improve the disciplinary process. That said, we will not hesitate to conduct a timely Tactics Review Board review in appropriate cases.

The full report from the Independent monitor. Occupy Denver is referenced on pages fifteen and sixteen. Office of the Independent Monitor

More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Wall Street enters the classroom at UCD next semester"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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