Denver police Chief Paul Pazen on Wednesday night fielded questions from the public on how to prevent law enforcement wrongdoing and about his department’s response to seven days of demonstrations in the city protesting the death last week of George Floyd at the hands of officers in Minneapolis.
“We must hold ourselves accountable for our actions and pledge to do better,” Pazen said during the virtual event broadcast from inside police headquarters as protesters marched through downtown Denver. “The community deserves to have a police department that holds itself accountable and holds its officers accountable.”
The community conversation comes as Pazen’s department is facing increasing scrutiny for its use of force in response to Denver’s protests. Officers have fired tear gas and less-lethal rounds — including pepper balls — into crowds.
Denver City Council members have called for an investigation into the police response and Nick Mitchell, the city’s independent law enforcement monitor, says he has fielded hundreds of complaints in connection with the demonstrations.
“Tonight is the first, the first in a series of many conversations,” Pazen said.
Pazen was asked questions for an hour by Neil Yarbrough, a young black man who has helped organize Denver’s protests. The day before the two marched together through the city.
Pazen said the demonstrations are a movement that can’t be ignored and that it’s just the start of conversations about change. He called the protests “a tipping point.”
“The fact that we have thousands of people from all walks of life that are willing to put their lives at risk to come together shows how important this is,” he said, referencing the fact that coronavirus remains a threat. “Certainly this is a message. This is a message that we have to listen to.”
Pressed for specific changes he wants to make, however, Pazen didn’t have much to provide. Asked about what policing would look like if the U.S. could start over from scratch, for instance, Pazen said “I don’t have the answer.” But he vowed to work with demonstrators to come up with solutions and said racism has no place in the Denver Police Department.
“I think this is a great first step to us having some real change,” Yarbrough said.
Wednesday was the seventh straight day of protests in Denver. Scores of demonstrators marched through the city and rallied at the Colorado Capitol, calling for police accountability and an end to brutality at the hands of law enforcement.
Mayor Michael Hancock joined protesters for the first time on Wednesday.
“This is an amazing, peaceful, successful demonstration of raising the voice around freedom and justice and togetherness,” Hancock told CBS4 as he marched through the city, his arms locked with protesters. “I’m proud of the demonstration going on tonight.”
Pazen said he is thankful that demonstrations over the past several days have been mostly peaceful after violent clashes broke out over the weekend between officers and protesters. Buildings and businesses were vandalized, fires were set and people — protesters and officers — were injured.
Police appeared to change their strategy to avoid demonstrators on Monday and Tuesday nights, and as a result there wasn’t a repeat of the skirmishes that happened in preceding nights.
“It’s certainly not our intent for the tear gas, the pepper ball or the less-lethal munition to impact peaceful protesters,” Pazen said. “It’s important that we make space to hear the voice of the people.”
For the most part, Pazen said, he has seen his officers respond well and bravely to the protests.
“I also see things that I’m not proud of, and that takes away from the great work that the vast majority of our officers are doing,” he said.
Pazen condemned an Instagram post by an officer that showed him and two colleagues dressed in riot gear with the caption “let’s start a riot.” The officer, Thomas McClay, was fired.
“It’s inexcusable. It’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do. What was said in that post really served to escalate tensions,” Pazen said. “That cannot happen.”
Pazen also said he supports an effort to change Colorado law to require officers to intervene if they see a fellow officer using unnecessary force. George Floyd died after Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes and other officers who were present did not intervene even as Floyd pleaded for his life and said he couldn’t breathe.
“We saw this on the video. Any one of those three other officers could have intervened,” Pazen said. “We need to make sure that doesn’t happen here.”
The so-called “duty to intervene” law is part of a sweeping package in a bill introduced Wednesday by Democrats at the Colorado legislature. The measure would also require all officers to wear body cameras, make it easier for people to sue law enforcement for wrongdoing and dictate that the state collect race-related policing data on interactions with the public.