City council members grilled Denver’s top public safety officials Wednesday during a contentious meeting where the police chief and department brass were repeatedly told they had lost the public’s trust because of their actions during the city’s George Floyd protests.
Denver’s police chief and public safety director appeared Wednesday before the city council’s Safety, Housing, Education, and Homelessness Committee, the first time they’ve formally addressed the council since protests began on May 28. The council chambers filled — as much as possible due to social distancing requirements — with dozens of community members, including many who wore T-shirts or masks calling for the abolishment of the police.
Chief Paul Pazen and Executive Director of Public Safety Murphy Robinson promised reform, but those who spoke during public comment called for the police department to be defunded or disarmed.
“I’ve had enough of empty promises to reform,” said Brian Hushaw during public comment. “I’ve had enough of police kneeling only to assault us hours later.”
“They are the image of nightmares, take their (expletive) money,” Nicholas Titus said.
Robinson said he plans to realign some of the Department of Public Safety’s resources to focus on criminal justice reform. The department is also working to create a streamlined way to fire an officer in an egregious case, Robinson said. He also said that if the Office of the Independent Monitor disagrees with a disciplinary decision by the Department of Public Safety — as happened in a recent controversial case — that he will have the final say on what happens.
“I agree that we need to make systemic changes,” Robinson said. “I agree that we need to move the needle forward.”
But multiple councilmembers voiced frustration that despite the department having a strong use of force policy, and despite the hours of training that officers undergo, excessive force cases continue to mount, especially in connection to the protests.
“Why hasn’t this worked?” Councilwoman Robin Kniech said. “Why are we still here?”
As Denver police Chief Paul Pazen tried to answer a member of the crowd shouted, “You’re a war criminal! Quit your job!”
Robinson said he and Pazen are discussing adopting the mandates of a temporary restraining order by a federal judge into permanent policy. The order restricts how and when officers can use less-lethal munitions like tear gas and pepper balls.
Due to the protests, the Denver Sheriff Department is also returning rifles it received through a program by the federal government that allows local law enforcement agencies access to surplus military supplies, Robinson said. The Denver Police Department did not have any supplies from the program, he said.
Pazen during the meeting explained two programs underway that try to address social needs. The co-responder program pairs an officer with a mental health clinician and the Support Team Assisted Response program, launched June 1, sends a social worker and a paramedic to calls instead of police. The two programs aim to respond to calls involving homelessness or substance abuse where the person needs social services.
Kniech questioned whether the programs should even exist inside the police department at all or with another city agency. Councilwoman Jamie Torres asked the chief if he’d be willing to make space for other agencies to address community needs.
Pazen said he would be open to reconsidering whether those programs should be under the police department and to giving up tasks to other entities.
The discussions of defunding police come as the city drastically reduces its budget to make up for pandemic-induced tax revenue shortfalls. The police department’s $254 million budget has already faced a 4.8% budget cut of $12 million, including the cancellation of an academy class.
Both Pazen and Robinson pushed back on calls to abolish the police or defund it to provide money for social programs.
“We still have serious crimes that take place in our city,” Pazen said. “We do need someone to arrest those people.”
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