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Six Changes Activists Want Made in Denver Police's Use-of-Force Draft Policy

Denver police at a 2014 protest. Additional photos and more below.
Denver police at a 2014 protest. Additional photos and more below.
File photo
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On Saturday, January 28, the second of three community meetings concerning the new Denver Police Department use-of-force policy draft will take place in west Denver; see the details below.

Critics have excoriated the document in part because it was assembled without input from community members or Denver's Office of the Independent Monitor. The latter has now shared its thoughts about the draft in a letter to Denver Police Chief Robert White that praises the department's overall efforts even as it points out numerous "deficiencies" in the current proposal.

In the meantime, the Denver Justice Project has released a list of six changes or additions the organization would like to see in the draft policy.

Issues include using deadly force as a last alternative, requiring that officers tell superiors every time they point a gun at a suspect, and defining precisely what the DPD means by "reasonable."

Here are all six, as fleshed out by commentary from DJP co-founder Roshan Bliss. Afterward, Bliss talks in general about the draft as a whole and blasts what he sees as the department's alleged marginalizing of the Independent Monitor, whose letter is also summarized and shared here.

Denver police at a 2014 protest.
Denver police at a 2014 protest.
File photo

1. Explicitly require officers to attempt or exhaust all other remaining, less severe alternatives before resorting to using deadly force

"We don't want police officers to use deadly force unless they have to," Bliss says. "Basically, we just want the Denver Police Department to make sure they're training their officers to always try something less than lethal before they kill someone or do something that could kill someone. And the draft says the opposite. One section reads, 'This policy does not require that an officer attempt to select or exhaust each option before moving to the next level of force, so long as the force employed is necessary, reasonable and appropriate.' We read that as explicitly saying they don't have to try other things first, and that's a problem. Maybe they understand it differently in the DPD world, but they really need to make this clear if that's what they mean."

2. Expressly prohibit the use of force on a civilian as punishment of any kind

"This should go without saying," Bliss maintains. "Police aren't supposed to punish people. That's what courts are for. We want to make this clear, as it is in the Denver Sheriff's policy — that force shouldn't be used as punishment for talking back or running away. Force isn't supposed to be punishment. It's supposed to be used to detain people who are breaking the law as an introduction into the justice system. Officers aren't supposed to hurt people because they don't like what they're doing. And a lot of people in Denver and other cities will tell you that police are using force because they're angry and want to discipline somebody."

3. Specifically require officers to attempt to provide life-saving first aid to people they have shot or
seriously injured on the scene at the earliest possible time

"There's a whole section, section fifteen, about providing life-saving aid, but to us, it's not clear enough that an officer is required by the DPD to give aid to someone they've shot and disabled — suspects who are no longer a threat and are bleeding on the street and might die," Bliss maintains. "And we want it to be crystal-clear. As long as there's no longer a threat, the first thing they need to do is provide medical aid rather than rolling them over, putting on handcuffs, patting them down and doing other things that could exacerbate their injuries and cause their death....

The late Jessie Hernandez.
The late Jessie Hernandez.
File photo

"I understand the safety concerns, and if the police shot someone in the hand, for example, they're going to handcuff that person first," he continues. "I can understand that. We're talking about critical injuries, where it's clear someone might die within minutes. I think even the police would say that in those situations, where someone has been shot multiple times, that person isn't going to prioritize fighting the cops. I don't think that's a practical thing to believe anyone bleeding out on the street is going to try to do. Think about the case of Jessie Hernandez, where this young woman was dying of three gunshot wounds — but before trying to stop her bleeding, before applying pressure, they did all of these other things when there were much more pressing needs. They're supposed to be about the preservation of life, and that's what they need to do first and foremost."

Continue for three more changes or additions that the Denver Justice Project wants made in the Denver Police Department's use-of-force draft policy, plus an overall take and the document itself.

Denver police at a 2014 protest.
Denver police at a 2014 protest.
File photo

4. Offer a definition that average people could understand about what is to be considered “reasonable” in the policy’s requirement that officers use force that is “reasonable and necessary”

"They say several times all throughout the policy that force needs to be necessary and reasonable, but the average citizen doesn't know what a police officer considers to be reasonable," Bliss allows. "And in the definition section, it uses the word 'reasonable' in the definition of 'reasonable and necessary' two or three times. [The definition reads: 'A standard which requires officers to use only that degree of force that is reasonable and necessary under the totality of the circumstances to safely accomplish a legitimate law enforcement function. Reasonable and necessary force is an objective standard, viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.'] So we want them to actually provide a definition of 'reasonable' that civilians should be able to understand, and not just people who have been initiated into law enforcement circles. Or at least what police think is reasonable. They need to tell us what they think 'reasonable' is."

5. Require comprehensive reporting on all incidents where officers use force, including threats of
deadly force (for example, reporting instances where an officer threatens a civilian with a firearm) on pain of formal discipline

According to Bliss, "It's been proven across the country that when departments have a policy of requiring reporting on all incidents where officers use or threaten to use force, they have lower uses of force. So we're asking the DPD to make sure that every time their officers use force, they have to report it — actually let someone know when they get back to the office that 'I used force two or three times' for these reasons. And that includes threats of deadly force. If a Denver police officer finds it necessary to point their weapon at someone, that's a threat of deadly force. We want to know about that, too, so we can track when force is being used and in what situations.

"The section of the policy about reporting is basically only about inappropriate force and the duty to report it, and we commend the DPD for having that," he goes on. "But for context, the Aurora Police Department has the exact policy we're calling for. Anytime an Aurora officer points his service weapon, he has to report that, and if they don't, they're violating policy. It's a national best practice, a way of making sure we keep our communities and officers safe. I can see no reason not to have a policy like that."

6. Include an official Use of Force Continuum or Matrix that defines/limits the types of force and/or
weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance

"Campaign Zero did a really comprehensive study on the uses of force," Bliss says, "and they found that having a use-of-force continuum that officers are trained on does a lot to reduce uses of force — and there's something at the end of the draft that looks a lot like a use-of-force continuum. But at the top of the graphic, it says, 'This graphic does not represent a force continuum.'"

[Here's the graphic.]

Six Changes Activists Want Made in Denver Police's Use-of-Force Draft Policy
Courtesy of the Denver Police Department

"As we've seen across the country, departments with formal, acknowledged use-of-force continuums have fewer excessive-force incidents and fewer deaths, and that's what we want," Bliss stresses. "So this is a gimme. Just make a continuum and help officers understand what is appropriate and when."

As a whole, Bliss sees the draft as "incomplete, because it doesn't include the real, substantive input of the community, of the people who are living in neighborhoods that have especially high rates of police contact, and of the Office of the Independent Monitor."

He concedes that "there are things we're happy about. We're pleased about the introduction of what we call the Paul Castaway rule, which says you can't use deadly force against someone who's only a threat to themselves. [As we've reported, Castaway was shot to death by a Denver police officer in 2015 during a bout of mental illness. An attorney who represents the Castaway family in a lawsuit filed over the incident argues that he was 'effectively murdered.'] And we're also happy about the change in policy about shooting into moving vehicles."

Nonetheless, Bliss remains frustrated by the limitations placed on community input in relation to the draft. (No citizen groups were consulted prior to the completion of the document, although afterward, Denver residents were invited to e-mail their views to the department. An outcry over this approach led to the scheduling of the public meetings.) In his view, "our community is full of outside-the-box thinking, and those things should be part of creating this new use-of-force policy. The process of community input should be about transforming the relationship between police and our community and really building a relationship of trust and collaboration. That's why we were so disappointed with Chief White and how he's just foregone this opportunity and instead doubled down on the relationship of distrust and working without the community."

Bliss adds that "in refusing to involve the Office of the Independent Monitor, which is Denver's only police oversight body, we think the chief is going against the very clear mandate that came out of this year's election. The Denver Justice Project supported Question 2B, which put the office into the Denver city charter — and it passed by a 74-26 margin. That's a landslide, and it was Denver's way of saying we want more community oversight of police and more involvement of independent agencies in how police and sheriffs and law enforcement operate in our city. So for the police chief to come out the month after that and ignore the community's desire and demand for more oversight is disturbing. The message it sends at a time when the community is already worried about the authoritarian tendencies being shown by our new presidential administration — which the police union in Denver endorsed — makes it a very bad way to start the new year. "

Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell.
Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell.
File photo

Regarding the letter to Chief White from Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell, it begins with praise. "I commend you for identifying the need for a revised use of force policy to better serve officers and the community," Mitchell writes, adding, "By including principles of de-escalation and force avoidance, the Draft Policy makes admirable statements about the DPD's philosophies associated with the use of force."

Next, Mitchell shares his concerns. In his words, "there are also noteworthy deficiencies in the Draft Policy. First, some of its key provisions are vague and poorly defined, including its overall standard for when force may be used. Second, notwithstanding that ambiguity, the Draft Policy's overall use of force standard is less restrictive than the standards of a number of other large U.S. police agencies. Third, other key provisions in the Draft Policy do not adhere to national standards, including the definition of 'deadly force.'"

The letter includes a bulleted list of "essential topics" that "are not substantively discussed in the Draft Policy." Note that several of them echo concerns voiced by the Denver Justice Project.

• Clear notice that the use of inappropriate force may subject officers to discipline, possible criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.

• A specific explanation of when each less-lethal force option may be employed, including Tasers, police service dogs, 40 mm projectiles and Orcutt Police Nunchaku, and when their use is prohibited.

• Comprehensive guidance on what kinds of force must be reported, the level of detail expected within force reports, and particulars about the processes by which uses of force will be administratively investigated and reviewed.

• Guidance related to "positional asphyxia," including the instructions for ceasing the use of restraint positions that may increase the risk of asphyxiation once time and circumstances permit.

• A prohibition on the use of chokeholds, which are restricted by Colorado Statute, but not discussed in the Draft Policy.

• A prohibition on the use of force against persons who are only verbally confrontational and do not impede legitimate law enforcement functions.

• A requirement that, when time and circumstances permit, officers allow individuals the opportunity to submit to arrest before force is used.

• A disclose of what types of information will be released and when, in response to police shootings, which the Obama Task Force made clear must be included in any use of force policy.

• A prohibition on the use of force in retaliation or to punish; and

• Definitions of numerous terms that are used in the Draft Policy, including "force," "use of force," "de-escalation," "inappropriate force," "chemical agents," "environmental factors," "impact tool," "dangerous animal," "tactical options," "less lethal munitions" and "turtling," among others.

Below, see information about the next two community meetings, followed by the Independent Monitor's letter and the use-of-force draft policy.

Meeting schedule:

9 a.m.-noon Saturday, January 28, Elevate Denver Church, 2205 West 30th Avenue

10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, February 4, Red Shield Community Center, 2915 North High Street

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