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In this Monday, July 18, 2016, photograph, Denver Police Department officers head out to their patrol car after role call for the swing shift in District 6 in downtown Denver. After more than two decades of making officers patrol on their own, the city of Denver has revived two-officer patrols following the killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Denver Police Department lacks effective policies for community policing and has struggled to address low retention and recruitment efforts, challenging the city’s efforts to build trust with residents, an audit released Thursday by the Denver Auditor’s Office found. 

Developing a plan to hire more officers, particularly female officers, was among 16 recommendations Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien made for the department “to ensure that it has the staff needed to adequately perform necessary services for the communities it serves.”

The audit also found that the police department should expand physical therapy services and create on-site mental health services. 

Chief Ron Thomas agreed to implement the recommendations in the auditor’s report, which suggests making the changes within 60 to 90 days.

“We will continue to be a learning organization, continue to grow, certainly informed by your report,” Thomas said in a meeting Thursday morning with staff of the city and county of Denver’s audit services division.

Without better recruitment and retention efforts, the department will remain understaffed, and without a comprehensive strategy for community policing, the department’s efforts to build trust “will remain siloed” across the city, the auditor’s office said. That will make it harder for Denver officers to heal their relationships with the people they serve. 

Read the full Denver Police Department Operations and Staffing audit >>

Community policing

Despite community policing being a documented priority for the department, police lack an effective program, the audit found.  

Best practices recommend that officers spend no more than 60% of their time responding to emergency calls. DPD recommended that officers spend 35% on self-directed activities, such as proactive community policing, 35% on responding to 911 emergencies and other service calls and 30% on administrative duties, like writing reports. 

Data from 2017 to 2021 shows that the department met its community policing goal in 2018, but not in the years since and continues to spend too much time on 911 calls. 

The department said officers haven’t met those goals because of an increase in calls at a time the agency is struggling with staffing shortages. 

“Because officers must spend more time responding to 911 calls, the department is having to be reactive — leaving less time for officers to proactively create a ‘felt presence’ within the community, as recommended by policing best practices,” the audit found. “When residents cannot regularly interact with police in a way that fosters positive relationships, the public’s perception of police will continue to be poor and community-police relations will remain strained.”

Thomas, who was sworn in to lead the department in October, said DPD recently hired a community relations director and three community engagement program managers to bolster outreach efforts. It has also held six community crime prevention meetings across the city and the communication unit has developed a mobile-friendly data collection tool that allows any officer who is engaged in a community event to better track the number of individuals they interact with and concerns raised by the community.

As of January, DPD did not have a detailed and comprehensive strategic plan, the audit found. 

Recruitment efforts

The department should form a plan with specific steps to improve hiring and retention and commit to making regular progress updates, the audit suggests. 

In March 2022, the department had only 1,364 officers, 100 fewer than budgeted for. DPD typically loses between 70 to 80 officers a year, but in 2021, the department lost 165 including 65 through retirement. 

The department has made steps in recent months to improve recruitment, Thomas said. Last month, it started training 57 recruits, “by far the largest class in the history of the Denver Police Department,” he said. 

Police also recently received a $200,000 state grant to hire a marketing firm to assess DPD’s recruitment strategy and find new ways to reach underserved demographics, Thomas said. 

DPD also plans to add recruitment numbers to its online dashboard, which allows the public to view data on use of force incidents and 911 response times. 

Low retention

Retention and low morale are persistent challenges for Denver police.

The officer turnover rate has increased to 9.5% in 2021 from 5.4% in 2019. In 2022, the rate fell slightly but was still high compared to 2019 and 2021.

Through interviews with uniformed officers, auditors found that burnout, poor leadership, low staffing and officers not feeling valued affected the department’s turnover rate. They also found that officer salaries at local police departments across Colorado often are higher than DPD’s pay. 

Since 2017, female officers have resigned at a disproportionate rate from DPD and although female officers made up 19.6% of the department’s patrol staff in 2022, 23.4% of resignations as of November were by women, the audit found.

Police should also develop diversity goals to help ensure the department reflects the Denver community. 

Thomas said 20% of DPD’s staff has been on the force for 20 years or more and that the department has started addressing the issue, including developing a mentoring program and a partnership with the University of Denver. He also said 30% of the current academy class are women, marking progress toward the department’s goal of adding more women to its ranks.

Improve officers’ access to mental health services, physical therapy

The Denver Police Department should partner with the Department of Public Safety to expand its physical therapy program and develop in-house mental health services for police officers, the audit recommended. 

Denver is one of the few cities without integrated on-site mental health services and while addressing this would be an extra cost to the city, it could help officers identify concerns earlier and get the help they need, according to the audit. 

Inconsistent processes to monitor officers’ time worked

DPD monitors how many hours officers work, but the audit found that many officers exceeded the department’s 64-hour per week limit.

After analyzing thousands of timecards, auditors estimated between 4,588 and 11,918 — or between 23% and 60% — of the police department’s weekly timecards from January 2017 through mid-October 2022 showed that officers were working longer hours than allowed. 

The department hasn’t documented its process for reviewing timecard violations on a weekly basis, which could cause officers to work more hours than they should, the audit found. 

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...