Community groups want a seat at the table as Denver police update their use of force policy

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When the Denver Sheriff’s Department sat down to redo its use of force policy, it convened a task force of experts and community members to participate in the process from the beginning. Now those same community activists are wondering why Denver police don’t do the same.

“Some of the community leaders who have been vocal for years were never consulted on this,” Colorado Latino Forum Executive Director Lisa Calderón said of the police department working on an update to its use of force policy.

Calderón said she and others learned about this effort when they read Denverite’s piece last week about a national study that found that police departments with more restrictive use of force policies kill fewer people.

Denver police Deputy Chief Matt Murray said the department is taking a look at its policies in light of evolving best practices, but the department doesn’t need a community task force to assist that process because the police department doesn’t have the long record of problems that the sheriff’s department does.

“Not all of our customers are unhappy. Some of them are just loud,” Murray said.

In an email to Denver Manager of Safety Stephanie O’Malley obtained by Denverite, Calderón called Murray’s characterization “ridiculous and quite frankly insulting.”

O’Malley responded that community groups who have been vocal about police accountability would have a chance to review an early draft once the new policy was mostly complete and that input from surveys and other feedback would be incorporated into changes.

“Community input is paramount to Chief (Robert) White and the Denver Police Department. With the commitment to transparency, he welcomes community input at a defined point in the process,” O’Malley wrote.

Calderón responded again: “The lack of transparency regarding the use of force review is the issue, not community surveys or venues that DPD picks that it is more comfortable with to solicit input about the concerns we have about excessive force. I know from working on the (sheriff’s department) use of force policy review that it is a painstaking, deliberate and intentional process to address the specific concerns that community has about some of the most egregious instances of excessive force including the loss of life of unarmed civilians.”

Daelene Mix, communications director for the Department of Public Safety, said the police department process just isn’t as conducive to working with community groups at this stage.

“The sheriff’s department is engaged in top-to-bottom reform after receiving hundreds of recommendations from a third-party review,” she said. “We have action teams around each category, and one of those was use of force. The police department is not in the same place with regards to reform. They’ve been engaged in reform since the appointment of Chief White in 2011. It’s just a completely different conversation.”

The use of force review in the police department is part of an overhaul of the operations manual, and each section needs to fit with the other sections, so keeping the initial stages internal makes more sense, Mix said.

In an interview, Calderón noted that Denver police have killed more people, by total numbers, than sheriff’s deputies have, and she continues to find the distinction baffling. She’s worked with mothers whose children were killed by the police, including those who called for help in a mental health crisis or were surrendering, and many people believe officers are too quick to shoot.

“I certainly would like to see what does that process look like when all they have to say is they are ‘reasonably’ in fear for their life,” she said. “We often believe that we are reasonably in fear of our lives, and we cannot just shoot people based on that fear.”

Denise Maes, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, served on the community task force for the sheriff’s department and said the early involvement of outside voices was key to the final result.

“Getting that input in the first place makes the process more transparent and if you wait until you get to second draft, things have already been decided and it’s harder to get people to move from that,” she said. “It does make it seem as if the community is an afterthought, as opposed to being up front in the system.”

The process also helped community members and law enforcement understand each other’s perspectives better, Maes said.

“A better relationship between the sheriff and the community has been developed. It gives credence to the process.”

Assistant Editor Erica Meltzer can be reached by phone at 303-502-2802, via email at emeltzer@denverite.com or twitter.com/meltzere

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