Report highlights Denver PD’s poor communication and recordkeeping, use of force during protests

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DENVER – The Denver Police Department was ill-equipped to handle the size and scope of the George Floyd demonstrations in the city this summer and failed to follow some of its own policies and other best practices surrounding the police response and recordkeeping requirements, according to a report released Tuesday by the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor.

The report from the independent city office tasked with ensuring transparency and accountability from Denver’s two law enforcement agencies found shortcomings within the police department’s staffing of the demonstrations, use of force against protesters, body-worn camera usage, and planning and coordination with the outside agencies – particularly during the first five days of the protests when most of the action occurred.

While the report says that the demonstrations were “unlike any other in Denver’s history” and acknowledges the difficulties faced by the department and officers on the ground, it points out multiple perceived missteps made by the department during the response. It also makes more than a dozen recommendations about how the department can be better prepared for future demonstrations of such magnitudes and be better in line with its own policies and national best practices in responding to them.

The OIM review also uncovered two dozen more instances of officers’ questionable use of force during the demonstrations that were referred to the department for further investigation. Those come on top of more than 100 complaints that were filed against officers – more than 50 of which whose investigations remain open with internal affairs, according to the report.

The demonstrations in the city further deepened the rift between police officers and some in Colorado, according to the report, but also led lawmakers to pass a sweeping police reform bill in the weeks following the initial – and most virulent – days of protests.

“Some DPD officers who we spoke with described physical or emotional after-effects from policing the GFP that linger to this day. Similarly, some community members have described anger, trauma, and a loss of confidence in the police based on their experiences,” the report states. “The damage to trust between officers and the community that resulted from the GFP is impossible to quantify.”

The OIM report says that Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen and Executive Director of Safety Murphy Robinson “have indicated that they have begun making changes” after the demonstrations and subsequent fallout.

“We have full confidence in their commitment to learning from these events and making the changes necessary to prevent similar outcomes in the future,” the report states in its conclusion.

In total, more than 400 people were arrested during the protests, which went on for weeks, including more than 300 during the first five days from May 28-June 1 – though many of those charges were dropped by prosecutors. Millions of dollars in property was damaged downtown, at the state Capitol and surrounding areas. Hundreds of officers from DPD and 18 other agencies worked the demonstrations, and the department spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on munitions. There have been three lawsuits filed and more than 50 notices of claim filed against the city relating to officers’ use of force against demonstrators, and dozens of injuries were reported in what started as a spontaneous rally outside the state Capitol and turned into one of the largest waves of demonstrations ever seen in Colorado.

Underprepared

The Denver demonstrations started around 5 p.m. on May 28 – two days after the first protests in Minneapolis and three days after Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers who were arresting him over allegations he used counterfeit money – one of whom put his knee on Floyd’s neck for minutes before his death.

While DPD had handled large crowds and protests before – including the 2008 Democratic National Convention and 2012 Occupy protests – the report says that the “unexpected nature” of the George Floyd protests left the department with only an estimated 150-200 officers for the first day and 100-150 officers on the second day.

“Although the protest largely developed organically, numerous people organized and social media posts drew many people downtown. DPD officers were caught off guard by how quickly the protests swelled and the anger of some in the crowd,” the report says.

The quickly growing crowd – which eventually split into at least two different groups that headed in opposite directions – and limited staff led to one of the first decisions made by leadership that was later criticized by officers and supervisors: To combine communications into one radio channel.

That decision eventually led to officers and the command center being entirely unable to communicate at times, with the single channel tied up constantly with officers trying to speak with one another.

Two other issues quickly presented themselves, according to the OIM, though only one may have been seen as a problem by DPD at the time. First, and of most concern to DPD supervisors in the midst of the protests, officers were quickly burning through the less-lethal munitions provided to them for crowd control. They had burned through the supply they started with just hours after the protests got underway – including around 30,000 pepper balls, according to the report.

And second, which was of more concern to OIM investigators looking through the aftermath, the department was not keeping rosters of which officers were working and where – a problem which was exacerbated when the department quickly on the second day called in other nearby law enforcement agencies for help in the initial days of the demonstrations.

The first issue – being short of munitions like pepper balls, foam bullets, OC spray, smoke grenades, rubber-ball grenades, and flash-bang grenades – was resolved fairly quickly.

The department ordered $202,341 worth of pepper balls, 40mm foam rounds, CS grenades, smoke grenades and OC spray from May 29-June 1 – which included the Colorado State Patrol flying its plane to Wyoming on May 29 to pick up orders of gas grenades and 40mm rounds directly from the manufacturer, according to the report. DPD also obtained an unknown number of additional less-lethal munitions from their mutual aid partner agencies.

But even though they got ahold of the munitions required, some officers who used them still lacked training. Five officers told the OIM that they were “trained” on either pepper ball guns or 40mm launchers when they arrived at the protests and were allowed to use them without the proper certifications.

Clashes, arrests, missing video

Another part of the issue – according to the report – with the munitions was officers and supervisors were not keeping track of their inventory or usage. While there was an inventory of what was available before the demonstrations started, there was no log made of what was used during the protests and after the new purchases, according to the report.

“Given the lack of tracking, the DPD is generally unable to account for the number of munitions deployed by individual teams or squads,” the report says. “Nor is it able to account for the total amount of each type of munition deployed during the GFP.”

And according to the report, the munitions were far from the only thing officers failed to track.

The department failed to keep a list of its officers working the demonstrations for the first four days, which the report says should have happened after the first day and would have led to more transparency during the investigation, the report says.

But since staff logs were not kept, there were varying answers from those interviewed about how many officers were working from the department each day and also issues further down the road in the investigation in trying to recover body camera video or further probe use of force by officers at the demonstrations – which the report says was the “largest source of public controversy.”

The report says that gaps in the department’s policies and practices resulted in a “substantial number” of officers having no body camera video despite being involved directly in the protests when they should have had their cameras on.

In total, the OIM received 1,218 body camera videos from 226 officers who worked the protests. But the report details days like June 1 – when a roster of 150-200 officers was made – and only 38 officers had body camera video that the department produced to the OIM.

That missing video led to further concerns from the OIM when it took into account that 124 people were arrested that night, leading the report to note that many arrests during the protests may not have been recorded.

“We are aware of no reason why more of these 124 arrests were not recorded, as policy required,” the report states, also noting that there were other days – for which no roster of officers was kept – that the number of body camera videos available seemed to be far below the number of officers working that day.

Some officers said they had issues attaching the cameras to their riot gear, and the report notes that officers of higher ranks do not have to wear body cameras. But the report found only about 28% of DPD officers working on May 30 were of those ranks or positions.

The lack of body camera video was only one of the issues with documenting the protests and hundreds of arrests made, according to the report. Among the things not included in DPD’s Crowd Management Manual is information about reporting use of force, and many reports were not filed by officers until nearly two weeks after the incidents, the report says.

“The lack of timely reporting about use of force significantly complicated our attempts to evaluate how, when and where force was used during the GFP,” the report states. “…These issues seriously limited the utility of these statements in evaluating individual uses of force to determine whether or not they were compliant with DPD policy.”

How and when officers used their less-lethal munitions against demonstrators, and when and how dispersal orders were given, is also called into question by the OIM report. It says that DPD’s compliance with its own policies to document in writing and on video their dispersal orders given to demonstrators was “inconsistent at best” – noting that there were no documented written statements and that the department often relied on body camera video to document dispersal orders.

The report says that upon review of hundreds of hours of video, orders to disperse were heard “only in a minority of situations” and that those situations often did not show any exigent circumstances that would have allowed officers to use less-lethal munitions without an order.

Furthermore, according to the report, officers’ orders sometimes did not comply with department policy.

“They sometimes lacked information about dispersal routes and did not warn protesters that by remaining, they would be subjected to force and arrest,” the report says. “Often, we did not see officers allowing enough time and space for protesters to comply even if they wanted to. This created the risk that some protesters who might have voluntarily complied were unnecessarily exposed to less-lethal munitions alongside those engaging in unlawful and dangerous behavior.”

Officers hiding their names and badge numbers was also a transparency issue involving many departments during the George Floyd protests across the country. The report does not directly say how many officers were accused of doing such in Denver but says that of the 56 complaints filed regarding officers that have already been closed, 20 were declined in part because investigators were unable to identify the officers.

“These declined complaints contained potentially serious allegations, such as officers firing pepperball rounds into a car of people trying to leave the GFP or unnecessarily throwing an NFDD (flash-bang) into the yard of a private residence,” the report says. “It would be far better to resolve such complaints on the merits of the available evidence rather than declining them because the involved officers could not be identified.”

In all, the report found it was “impossible” for the OIM to resolve whether actions by some protesters put officers in enough danger to use the less-lethal munitions as often as they did or whether officers relied on them too heavily.

It notes that 81 DPD officers were reported injured, which it says speaks to the notion of violence toward officers, but also that some officers used their less-lethal weapons in ways “that were extremely troubling.”

Examples given were using pepper balls and OC spray against people not engaging physically, using chemical and explosive munitions after people had already dispersed and using explosives “extremely close” to protesters – some of whom were on the ground or injured.

The report says the exact number of protesters and bystanders injured “is impossible to determine” because many injuries went unreported. But Denver Health paramedics responded to 125 calls for service in the protest area not involving law enforcement, 74 of which resulted in people being taken to the hospital.

The OIM referred 24 more body camera videos to the department for further investigation on top of the dozens of other investigations into use of force still active with the DPD Internal Affairs Bureau from the protests, though some of them involve alternate angles of videos already under investigation.

“Given that investigations may be opened into some of these videos, we will not comment on their particulars in this report more than what we have said above,” the report from OIM says. “We will, however, update the public on these videos and the results of any investigations in future OIM reports.”

Recommendations

The report makes at 16 recommendations to the department on ways to better prepare for any future protests and strengthen its protocols and training to avoid the missteps identified within.

Many of the recommendations involve better planning and coordination with its mutual aid agencies in the surrounding area, updating its Operations and Crowd Management manuals to more-clearly lay out protocols for officers surrounding use of force and recordkeeping during demonstrations and more crowd control training.

The department changed some of its policies surrounding use of force in the weeks after the initial days of the protest as well, and the signing into law of Senate Bill 217 further engrained some of the protocols officers and departments must follow when interacting with the public.

But DPD did not have written mutual aid agreements in place with several of its partner agencies during the protests, which led to confusion and a lack of consistency about what officers and deputies from various agencies were allowed to use during them, and differing reporting protocols.

Denver Citizen Oversight Board Chair Al Gardner said in a statement in response to the report that it raised new questions that needed answering regarding transparency.

“These are military grade munitions being used against citizens expressing their First Amendment rights,” Gardner said. “The OIM’s report raises important questions about what is appropriate use of force in response to protests and demands a closer look at what institutional accountability should look like in these circumstances.”

The report recommends that the departments develop and agree upon new agreements surrounding mutual aid during protests and work to train their officers together periodically to be sure future responses are consistent.

It also recommends that DPD listen internally and make changes surrounding field commanders having better control, radio communication improving and not being limited to a single channel and provide more crowd control and field training to better prepare its officers.

“I appreciate the high level of transparency from DPD officers and community members as we performed this review,” said Independent Monitor Nicholas E. Mitchell. “Chief Pazen and Director of Safety Robinson have expressed their desire to learn from these events, and I look forward to working with them as they make necessary improvements.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.