Few Denver police officers disciplined over treatment of protesters at last year’s racial justice demonstrations

Few Denver police officers disciplined over treatment of
protesters at last year’s racial justice demonstrations 1

The internal investigations into how Denver police treated protesters during last year’s racial justice demonstrations are nearly complete, and few officers will be disciplined in connection with the chaotic protests that sparked lawsuits and a scathing report from the city’s police watchdog.

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

Protesters called for an end to racism and the reform or abolishment of policing, and law enforcement officers responded in large numbers to the crowds of thousands. The Denver police response to the protests drew scrutiny after hundreds of protesters and bystanders were struck with police projectiles, engulfed in tear gas or hit with pepper spray.

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

Fifty-nine cases — or nearly half of those completed — were declined, meaning the case was closed during a preliminary review before a full investigation began, data from the Denver Department of Public Safety shows, And upwards of half of the declined cases, 28 of 59, were closed because investigators could not identify the officer involved.

Twenty-four cases 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. Cases were also declined because the officer belonged to another department or because body camera footage disproved the allegations.

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Fifteen cases remain open, 12 of which are being reviewed by the Office of the Independent Monitor or the Conduct Review Office. Three remain under investigation.

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

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

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

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

One of the people who attended last year’s protests, however, expressed dismay at what she perceived as a lack of discipline for the officers who confronted demonstrators on the streets.

“I’m definitely disappointed,” said Dr. Apryl Alexander, a University of Denver professor who initially joined a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU in June 2020 after witnessing officers launch tear gas into groups of protesters without warning. (She has since withdrawn from the suit.) “It’s unfortunate we can’t hold the system accountable for the misconduct reported in the (Office of the Independent Monitor) report.”

The lack of repercussions is not surprising, she said, but it makes it all the more crucial for what she called needed changes coming from SB-217, the sweeping police accountability bill that Gov. Jared Polis signed into law during the summer of 2020. The law mandates, among myriad other changes, that all uniformed officers in the state wear body cameras and gives the attorney general power to prosecute departments and officers.

Katina Banks, a member of Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board, said she was surprised that there weren’t more complaints from protesters reported to the city. The board first requested the data and will now analyze the numbers and see whether changes in disciplinary policy or procedure are needed.

“My sense 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 Monitor, which serves as the city’s police watchdog, criticized Denver police leaders’ lack of documentation in its investigation into the department’s response to the protests. Department leaders failed to maintain rosters of which officers were deployed to the protests or where those officers went, according to the December report. Many officers did not complete detailed use-of-force reports or turn on their body cameras.

The independent monitor’s investigation found the lack of this documentation made accountability difficult or impossible.

Pazen promised sweeping changes to the department’s handling of future protests following the release of the report.

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

Last month, 50 protesters sued the city, alleging police officers used tear gas, projectiles and other weapons against them as they demonstrated or observed peacefully. Other lawsuits included individuals alleging they lost some of their sight after police shot them in the eye with projectiles.

A 21-year-old delivery driver told The Denver Post last year that he was walking to his car on May 30, 2020, when a law enforcement officer riding on the back of a Denver Police Department truck fired a projectile at his face without warning and blinded him in one eye.

“The actions of the Denver Police Department during the George Floyd protests have consequences — this is one of those consequences,” attorney Birk Baumgartner, who brought one of the lawsuits, said last month. “You can’t violate the Constitution as a police force and a city without repercussions anymore.”

Pazen is expected to speak at the Citizen Oversight Board’s Oct. 15 meeting. The board, which has two vacancies, is soliciting questions from the public to ask 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 their thoughts are about these numbers and what questions they have,” Banks said.

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