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Denver police used excessive violence, didn’t turn on body cameras during George Floyd protests, report says

The lack of a plan fueled chaos and increased the rift between law enforcement and a traumatized community, said the report issued by Denver's Office of the Independent Monitor.

A Denver Police Department officer sprays pepper spray at a protester walking on Colfax Avenue near the state Capitol during the third day of protests against police brutality on May 30, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

By Patty Nieberg, The Associated Press/Report for America

Denver police didn’t have a cohesive plan for handling large racial injustice protests that erupted last summer following the death of George Floyd, according to a report made public Tuesday by Denver’s independent police monitor.

The lack of a plan fueled chaos and deepened the rift between law enforcement and the community, said the report issued by Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, which provide oversight of police.

Demonstrators clash with police at the Colorado Capitol on May 30, 2020 for a third day of protests in Denver in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Officers were given last-minute training for nonlethal munition, and some officers didn’t turn on their body cameras despite department policy mandating they do so, the report said. (Read the entire report here)

Other law enforcement agencies were called in for assistance to maintain peace during the protest, but that added to the confusion on the ground, the report found.

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The challenges of properly responding to the protests May 28-June 1 were “magnified exponentially” because the demonstrations focused on police conduct, the report said.

Denver was one of many cities around the country where protests flared up following the police killing of George Floyd, when a white officer pressed a knee into his neck while taking him into custody in Minnesota.

“The damage to trust between officers and the community that resulted from the GFP (George Floyd Protests) is impossible to quantify,” the report stated.

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Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said the department’s lack of preparedness for the protests was due to the “unprecedented nature” of the events, but also said he takes full responsibility for the department’s actions.

Pazen said there are 50 investigations looking at possible officer policy violations. He added that one officer was “severely disciplined” for demonstrating “outside of our (the Denver Police Department’s) values with a social media post.”

More than 400 arrests were made during the protests and Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock implemented an 8 p.m. curfew, the report found.

During the tumultuous protests lasting five days in late May and early June, Denver paramedics responded to 125 emergency calls with 74 resulting in hospital transfers, the report said.

Since the protests, three lawsuits have been filed against the police department, city and county alleging serious injuries suffered by protesters because of law enforcement actions.

In a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, plaintiff Zach Packard is seeking compensation after he was hit with a projectile, knocked unconscious and suffered a fractured skull and jaw, two fractured discs, and bleeding in his brain.

The report made 16 policy recommendations for improving police responses to protests after a review of interviews, documents, video and provided by Denver police.

Pazen said he agrees with all of the report’s recommendations and that department will make the report public on their website along with a timeline for each policy to be implemented — “that way the community can see and hold us accountable for implementing the recommendations.”

Denver police did not keep records how much non-lethal munitions they used during the five days of demonstrations, the report said.

But police records showed that the department had an inventory of 30,000 pepperball rounds, 200 gas and smoke grenades and 150 pepper spray cans and that the department started running out of its inventory on the first day of the protests.

In subsequent days of the protests, Denver police reached out to neighboring suburban police departments in Aurora and Englewood for more non-lethal munitions and bought $202,000 of additional non-lethal munitions from a Wyoming manufacturer.

Some Denver officers who were authorized to use non-lethal munition were given “emergency field training” due to a lack of certified officers, the report found. Pazen defended the department’s actions due to the violent nature of the demonstrations, but added that changes to mass-protest policy and future trainings are being implemented.

“We did not have that luxury when we’re still trying to keep people safe, when we needed every officer that we could get out in these areas in order to prevent future violence, in order to prevent future destruction that we were seeing and we have since worked to rectify that situation,” Pazen said.

Denver police also could not say precisely how many extra police were assigned to the George Floyd protests, the report said.

But by the third day of the demonstrations, there were between 450 to 500 officers from other departments helping Denver police — which the report found muddied communication between agencies, the report said. 

The officers from the other departments worked under different policies for use of non-lethal munitions and for crowd control tactics, complicating the situation, the report said.

“Every command officer we spoke to during this review said that the protests were extremely difficult to manage, with many calling them the most challenging situation they have faced in decades on the DPD,” the report stated.

As tensions escalated over the days, people in the crowd directed their anger toward individual officers. Denver police reported that officers suffered 81 injuries, mostly from rocks, projectiles and fireworks hurled at them by demonstrators.

 


 

Monitor’s Recommendations

  • The OIM recommends that the DPD disallow the use or rubber-ball grenades during crowd control operations. The OIM further recommends that the DPD articulate clear and specific standards for when rubber-ball grenades may be used, by whom, and when their use is prohibited in its Operations Manual.
  • The OIM recommends that the DPD articulates clear and specific standards for when NFDDs (noise-flash diversionary devices, also known as “flash bangs”) may be used, by whom, and when they are prohibited in its Operations Manual.
  • The OIM recommends that the DPD revise its standards for pepperball use during crowd control situations to limit direct-fired applications to only circumstances in which a person is displaying active aggression or aggravated active aggression.
  • The OIM recommends that the DPD develop mutual aid agreements with neighboring jurisdictions that address potential crowd control assistance. These agreements should adhere to best practices, including but not limited to specifying the circumstances under which assistance may be requested and provided, acceptable request methods, forms of assistance to be provided, and an agreed upon command and control structure.
  • The OIM recommends that during future mutual aid deployments in Denver, the DPD require its Mutual Aid Partners to adhere to DPD’s Use of Force Policy, and to utilize only types of weapons and munitions approved for use by DPD.
  • The OIM recommends that DPD seek to participate in periodic joint trainings and exercises with its potential Mutual Aid Partners to ensure a unified and consistent response during future mutual aid deployments in Denver.

 


 

A sequence of images taken on May 30 in downtown Denver showing a Denver police officer seemingly blindsiding a protester carrying a camera with pepper spray. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


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