Calls to defund the Denver police didn’t cut the department’s budget this year, but coronavirus did

Director of Safety Murphy Robinson and Police Chief Paul Pazen defended law enforcement Thursday as elected officials grilled them about spending priorities and their reasoning for why crime is up.
4 min. read
Protest leader Keezy A. seen through the reflection of a Denver Police officer’s sunglasses as a march reacting to the death of George Floyd comes face to face with authorities at 20th Street and Chestnut Place. May 28, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Denver Police Department will spend $10.9 million less than expected this year, but cuts stem from the pandemic-induced recession, not calls for police reform that include siphoning money from law enforcement and giving it to social services to treat root causes of crime.

Denver City Council members grilled Director of Public Safety Murphy Robinson and Police Chief Paul Pazen during a Thursday committee meeting meant to suss out budget cuts to the police, sheriff and fire departments as the city government faces a $226 million shortfall.

In all, the Department of Safety will cut $30.4 million from its planned spending for this year, mostly by freezing new hires, officials said, though a big drop in jailings ordered by Robinson has also contributed to savings. The police department had planned to hire 134 new officers this year but will only hire 17 recruits, Pazen said. The department could see fewer police officers overall, though, because about 80 leave the department yearly.

Act I: From where, exactly, is this money being cut?

Robinson, the city's top law enforcement official, did not drill down into precisely where all the cuts would be made. Councilwoman Robin Kniech told him to deliver line-by-line details, particularly for police department personnel, in writing.

"I think that if we're going to engage more robustly ... and if you want input from this council on where cuts will be made, whether it's for the budget crisis or whether it's for moral and ethical reassessments of priorities, we have to be in the line items to have that conversation," Kniech said.

Robinson responded that he needed more than a 40-minute slot in a committee to drill down further. But Kniech and Council President Stacie Gilmore rejected that idea, saying his presentation came in late and flanked meaningful information with less relevant stuff like organizational charts.

Act II: Can you show your math on why crime is rising?

Earlier this week, officials linked the city's rising crime rate to COVID-19 and civil unrest. Psychologist John Nicoletti, a contractor hired by DPD, told reporters the situation is a "perfect storm" and that "violence begets violence."

Councilwoman Kniech took issue with such theorizing.

"Ice cream cone sales and murders are correlated. They go up and down at the same level and you can track the two, but no one would say that ice cream cone sales cause murders," Kniech said, adding later that she was "concerned to see our police psychologist, frankly, explaining to the media a theory of what is causing crime without any citation of research."

While Pazen said that 2020 needs to be deeply studied, he said the department's data backs up the psychologist's theory.

"We do have a three-year baseline of the shootings that are happening in our city. And you can see a direct increase starting in the month of April that continues to trend upward against our three-year baseline," Pazen said.

Denverite asked Nicoletti, the psychologist, about his source material for the theory earlier this week when DPD held a press conference about a mass shooting in Valverde and used it as a springboard to discuss the cause of the rising crime rate. Nicoletti said he had not been involved in investigating the shooting, and that he examines police intelligence reports "when they call on me."

Act III: What's up with all that money spent on ammo during protests?

City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer questioned Robinson's spending priorities, calling out the $348,000 spent on munitions during the first five days of protests. Those costs "didn't seem like responsible spending," Sawyer said. Robinson said he "wholeheartedly disagrees" with that idea.

"I think what is very lost on a lot of folks is that during that five days, while there were some things that we need to work on, for sure, and we're investigating and holding those folks accountable if they acted out of the scope of their authority, it was like a war zone and it was very challenging," Robinson said. "But I will tell you, the amount of injuries, the amount of violence, the amount of destruction that was happening during that time, we can't ignore the fact that our police are charged, whether popular or unpopular ... with keeping the public safe and making sure those things don't happen."

Many activists blame the police department for escalating the violence while police officials have generally claimed officers acted in self-defense. The Office of the Independent Monitor is overseeing internal investigations, supported by Robinson and Chief Pazen, into possible abuses of power.

Thursday's budget talks revolved solely around the 2020 budget. Next year's spending plan will be meted out starting next month.

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