The independent watchdog for Denver’s law enforcement agencies announced Thursday that he will open an investigation into the Denver Police Department’s actions during recent protests against police violence.
Nicholas Mitchell, the city’s independent monitor, wrote in a letter to City Council that his office would look into police officers’ “use of physical force, chemical agents, riot gear and surplus military equipment, as well as its handling of community complaints regarding alleged officer misconduct during the demonstrations.”
The investigation comes in response to calls from council members and others to investigate how officers have responded to more than two weeks of protests over police misconduct and the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died at the hands of police in Minneapolis and whose death has spurred a nationwide movement for law enforcement reform. The protests in Denver were largely peaceful, but, during nighttime clashes with some demonstrators, officers made hundreds of arrests — the vast majority for curfew violations — and also frequently used tear gas, smoke grenades, pepper balls and foam bullets to disperse the crowd.
The protests also have prompted legislation at the statehouse, where lawmakers have proposed bans on carotid pressure holds and requiring police officers to wear body cameras.
Mitchell previously has said his office received hundreds of complaints about police actions during the Denver protests.
“Given the length of the demonstrations in our city, conducting this investigation will require us to review hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of HALO and body-worn-camera footage, radio transmissions, and community generated video, digest a large volume of documentary evidence, and interview command staff, line officers, and community members,” Mitchell letter to City Council members said.
Mitchell’s investigation comes with some notable limitations, though.
The Denver Office of the Independent Monitor was created in 2004 following citywide outcry over the police killing of a 15-year-old developmentally disabled boy. As the office put in in its most recent annual report, the office “is charged with monitoring the disciplinary systems in the Denver Police and Denver Sheriff Departments, … making policy recommendations to those departments, and conducting outreach to communities throughout Denver.”
Though the Denver City Council strengthened the office’s powers slightly last year, its function is primarily to provide transparency regarding police actions and discipline. The office does not have authority to enact its recommendations or force changes within the department, though its voice carries weight within city hall.
Also, by being limited in its review to just the actions of the Denver police and sheriff departments, the independent monitor’s investigation won’t cover a significant amount of the actions taken by law enforcement during the protests. As Westword has meticulously detailed, more than a dozen other law enforcement agencies helped Denver police in their response to the protests.
Those agencies each had their own use-of-force policies for when to deploy crowd-control measures. And the tools they used also differed. For instance, while Denver police denied using flash-bang grenades to disperse the crowd, members of at least two other agencies did, Westword reported.
Independent monitor investigations are also not quick affairs — the office has only 15 employees. But Mitchell wrote in his letter to City Council that his team will work as quickly as possible — and has received pledges of cooperation from Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen and from Murphy Robinson, the executive director of the city’s Department of Public Safety.
“While I expect the investigation to be time and labor intensive, I assure you that our small staff will move expeditiously,” Mitchell wrote, “and we have already drafted our first request for documents and information, which we will issue to the DPD shortly.”