A proposed charter amendment would put police oversight in Denver’s constitution

The amendment would put the independent monitor on the same legal footing as the police and fire departments it oversees.
5 min. read

Right now, there's nothing to stop Denver from doing away with the Office of the Independent Monitor that provides independent oversight of Denver's police and fire departments.

A proposed charter amendment would change that by enshrining the office in the city charter, the equivalent of the city's constitution. This would ensure the monitor continues to exist no matter what political changes overtake the office of the mayor or the City Council. It would also put the independent monitor on the same legal footing as other city departments, including the police and fire departments that it oversees.

This change, along with expanded resources and authority for the office, has been a goal of the Denver Justice Project for some time.

The Denver Justice Project is "a coalition effort created to empower communities impacted by oppression with the mission of transforming the nature of policing and the structure of the criminal justice system through intersectional movement building, direct action, policy advocacy, and collaborative education."

Members of the group -- who were involved in an unsuccessful recall effort against outgoing District Attorney Mitch Morrissey -- don't have a lot of faith in the office of the district attorney or internal affairs to hold police accountable, which is why they want to put the independent monitor in the charter.

"The efficacy and strength of the Independent Monitor can be debated and our goal is to work to influence the overall dynamic of the power of the district attorney, independent oversight, and the discipline matrix, but as it stands, losing the independent oversight part of that dynamic would have guaranteed that law enforcement would not be held accountable given the track record of district attorneys in Denver and our overall faith in police departments to hold their own accountable," Denver Justice Project member Vincent Cervantes wrote in an email.

The Denver Justice Project's Alex Landau was badly beaten by police during a traffic stop in 2009, and since then, he's been working to improve police accountability.

(Landau tells the story of his beating at the hands of Denver police officers in this StoryCorps episode. He was later awarded $795,000 in a settlement, and two of the officers involved were later fired for other incidents.)

Activists have been frustrated with Morrissey's repeated decisions to not pursue criminal charges against police involved in shootings or beatings. The most recent case was the finding Friday that the killing of unarmed bank robbery suspect Dion Damon was "legally justified."

The group was talking about collecting signatures for a ballot initiative when Councilman Paul Lopez agreed to sponsor the charter amendment.

The City Council is holding a public hearing and a vote Monday on whether to refer the charter amendment from council to the ballot.

The Office of the Independent Monitor was created in 2005.

Last year, the city strengthened its authority by requiring that the police, fire and sheriff's departments cooperate with the monitor during investigations. (Yes, really. This change happened after the Denver Post obtained -- with a public records request -- a memo that the monitor had been trying unsuccessfully to get for months.)

Consultants Hillard Heintze recommended that the city make the monitor an agency in the charter as part of a larger report on police practices and accountability.

The police union has opposed the charter amendment.

But Jesus Orrantia, an aide to Lopez, said the measure is not anti-police. It's about treating civilian oversight of the police as a basic city service, akin to parks, public works and, yes, police.

"All those departments that people assume are just a function of the city and yes, we should have that as a viable office, the independent monitor would also be on that level," he said.

"You don't have to be for citizen oversight and anti-police," Orrantia said. "This is not an anti-police bill. ... The question is: Is this oversight important to you? Should it be at the same level of any other city service?"

The Denver Justice Project originally wanted a more expansive charter amendment that would guarantee certain staffing levels and resources for the independent monitor and change the way the monitor is appointed and removed, but after discussing it with city officials, the Denver Justice Project agreed to support the more limited measure as an important first step.

Some City Council members balked at the idea of putting staffing in the city charter, as no other city department has those sorts of guarantees. It would also make it harder to make changes in the future without going back to voters.

"The easiest and most successful first step would be getting the office solidified in the charter," Landau said.

Next steps:

Denver Justice Project is holding a rally for greater police accountability at 4:30 p.m. Monday in front of the City and County Building. People will be encouraged to sign up to speak at the public hearing.

Denver City Council meets starting at 5:30 p.m. A public hearing will be held before council members vote on placing the charter amendment on the November ballot.

People can sign up to speak before the start of the meeting, from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. or during the council recess. There is not a set time for the recess or the public hearing, and people who want to speak should plan on being at the meeting before 6 p.m.

This story has been updated throughout.

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