After a troubling report on how Denver police handled protests, city councilmembers on Wednesday floated the possibility of writing legislation to solidify police policy changes into the city code and strengthening the role of the Office of the Independent Monitor.
Several councilmembers also asked who would face consequences for the broad policy violations Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell identified in his report, like improper record keeping and the repeated failure to issue dispersal orders before using force.
“Who really is accountable when you have a line of 30 officers and a sergeant and a command center?” Councilwoman Robin Kniech said.
Mitchell presented his report Wednesday to the City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee and said his office would continue to look into the policy violations. He said decisions to deploy weapons like tear gas and foam bullets were sometimes made by supervisors and other times individual line officers were deciding when to fire.
“Without rosters, without body cam video, it has been extremely difficult in many of these situations to identify who is responsible,” he said.
Councilmembers also asked whether they could help ensure the Office of the Independent Monitor has complete access to the website where Denver police upload their body camera footage. Mitchell wrote in his report that his team did not have access to the full database and instead Denver police sent individual video segments.
“I think as a legal matter we’re probably entitled to have it,” he said. “We don’t as yet. It’s probably time for that to change.”
Although Denver police Chief Paul Pazen agreed to nearly all of Mitchell’s policy change recommendations, councilmembers on Wednesday floated the idea of writing some of those changes into city code.
“(Policy) can really change with the stroke of the pen by whoever happens to be the chief at the time,” Mitchell said.
While Mitchell’s report did not delve into how the curfew affected protests, he noted that the decision to impose a curfew created more possibility of conflict. Less violence happened after police decided to stay further away from protesters, he said.
“The less opportunity for conflict, the less conflict there was,” he said.
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca asked Mitchell if the Office of the Independent Monitor should have more authority to conduct disciplinary investigations, which right now are handled by the Denver police Internal Affairs Bureau. Mitchell said he’d be open to further discussions about the possibility.
All speakers during public comment criticized the police department and many asked for further investigation and discipline.
“If there are no consequences, nothing will change,” Blair Sagan said.
The Denver Police Department was not the only agency that made mistakes while policing protests this year, said Ed Maguire, a professor at Arizona State University who studies how police react to protests.
“I think we saw a lot of overreactions and I think we saw a lot of violations of civil liberties” across the country, Maguire said.
The mistakes and policy violations Mitchell pointed out in his report — like failing to issue clear dispersal orders and a lack of clear strategy understood by line police officers — are common problems in policing demonstrations, Maguire said.
“We often see U.S. police at these types of events kind of making stuff up as they go along, which can really set up a discombobulating response,” he said.
Police across the country continue to make the same mistakes year after year in part because training for a large-scale protest is often not departments’ top priority, especially in cities where such demonstrations happen only every few years. Department leadership often changes over between such large events and institutional knowledge is lost.
“The idea of planning for something that might not happen for 2 years, or 5 years or never might not seem as important,” Maguire said. “This ends up getting back burnered. This ends up being crisis-driven reform.”
Pazen is scheduled to appear before the City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee in the next weeks to discuss the report, committee chairman Councilman Paul Kashmann said.
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