Few Denver police officers sanctioned for treatment of protesters

Internal investigations into how Denver Police treated protesters during last year’s racial justice protests are nearing completion, and few officers will be punished due to the chaotic protests that have sparked prosecutions and a report scathing from the city police watchdog.

The Denver Police Department’s Office of Internal Affairs opened 123 cases in connection with the protests that dominated city streets in late May and June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Protesters called for an end to racism and for the reform or abolition of the police, and law enforcement responded in large numbers to the crowd of thousands. The Denver Police response to the protests came under scrutiny after hundreds of protesters and passers-by were struck by police projectiles, engulfed in tear gas or struck with pepper spray.

Of the 123 cases, 108 have been resolved. Two officers were suspended for improper use of force, one received an oral reprimand for violating body camera policy and another received a written reprimand for violating social media policy, department data shows .

Fifty-nine cases – nearly half of those completed – were turned down, meaning the case was closed on a preliminary examination before a full investigation began, according to Department of Justice data. Denver Public Safety, and more than half of the denied cases, 28 of 59, have been closed because investigators could not identify the officer involved.

Twenty-four files were closed because the complainant did not respond to investigators, and others were closed because the officer was exonerated or the alleged behavior did not warrant a full investigation. The cases were also turned down because the officer was from another department or because body camera images refuted the claims.

Fifteen cases remain open, 12 of which are under review by the Office of the Independent Auditor or the Review Office. Three remain under investigation.

Police Chief Paul Pazen, in an interview last week, described the review process as thorough and comprehensive, noting that District Attorney Beth McCann has not brought charges against officers in connection with any cases related to protests.

“We have held people accountable for the violations,” he said. “And we will continue to look for ways to improve as a department. “

The police chief noted that the protests last summer were an “extraordinary situation” and that the department had “handled the protests and demonstrations very successfully for many, many years”.

“It was at a different intensity,” Pazen said.

One of those who attended last year’s protests, however, expressed dismay at what she saw as a lack of discipline for police officers who clashed with protesters on the streets.

“I’m really disappointed,” said Dr Apryl Alexander, a professor at the University of Denver who initially joined a class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU in June 2020 after seeing officers fire tear gas at groups of protesters. without warning. (She has since withdrawn from the prosecution.) “It is unfortunate that we cannot hold the system accountable for the misconduct pointed out in the (Office of the Independent Observer’s) report.”

The lack of repercussions is not surprising, she said, but it makes it all the more crucial for what she called the necessary changes coming from SB-217, the sweeping bill on police accountability that Governor Jared Polis promulgated in the summer of 2020. The law requires, among a myriad of other changes, that all uniformed officers in the state wear body cameras and give the attorney general the power to prosecute departments and officers.

Katina Banks, a member of the Denver Citizen Oversight Board, said she was surprised there had not been more complaints from protesters reported to the city. The board first requested the data and will now analyze the numbers and see if any changes in disciplinary policy or procedure are needed.

“My feeling is that we need to have further discussions with (Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen) and the Department of Public Safety about these numbers and to understand their implications and what we may need to do differently. in the future, ”she said.

The Office of the Independent Observer, which serves as the city’s police watchdog, criticized the lack of documentation from Denver police officials in its investigation into the department’s response to the protests. According to the December report, department heads did not keep lists of officers deployed for the protests or where those officers went. Many officers did not complete detailed use of force reports or turn on their body cameras.

The Independent Observer’s investigation revealed that the absence of this documentation made accountability difficult, if not impossible.

Pazen promised sweeping changes in the department’s handling of future protests after the report was released.

Denver Police have also been the subject of a series of lawsuits in district and federal courts related to the officers’ actions during the protests.

Last month, 50 protesters sued the town, alleging that police officers used tear gas, projectiles and other weapons against them as they peacefully demonstrated or observed. Other prosecutions involved people claiming to have lost part of their sight after police shot them in the eyes with projectiles.

A 21-year-old delivery driver told the Denver Post last year he was heading for his car on May 30, 2020, when a law enforcement officer in the back of a Department of Denver police fired a projectile in his face without warning and blinded him with one eye.

“The actions of the Denver Police Department during the George Floyd protests have consequences – it is one of those consequences,” attorney Birk Baumgartner, who initiated one of the lawsuits, said last month. . “You can no longer violate the Constitution as a police force and city without repercussions. “

Pazen is expected to speak at the Citizen Oversight Board meeting on October 15. The board, which has two vacant positions, is soliciting questions from the public for Pazen. The board can be contacted at [email protected] or 720-913-3150.

“The Citizen Oversight Board is interested in hearing from the community what they think of these numbers and what questions they have,” Banks said.

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