Staffing and transparency are top worries from Denver’s law enforcement watchdogs

The Citizen Oversight Board and Office of the Independent Monitor released their 2022 annual reports this week.
4 min. read
Protesters march along Colfax Avenue to decry Denver Police shooting into a crowd in LoDo. July 21, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Understaffing and transparency in Denver law enforcement are the two main concerns for the city's top law enforcement watchdogs in 2023.

That's according to 2022 annual reports released by Denver's Citizen Oversight Board (COB) and the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM), led by new hire Liz Pérez Castle.

Both the Oversight Board and Independent Monitor work on police and sheriff accountability. They can make recommendations on law enforcement investigations, discipline, policies and training, monitor investigations and make complaint and mediation processes accessible to the community.

Here are a few takeaways we noted from the reports released this week.

There's concern over transparency, especially when it comes to use of force.

The Oversight Board criticized the way the Denver Police Department (DPD) reviews use of force. Currently, DPD employs or picks all members of the force review boards, and its members and proceedings are not public.

"At its most basic level, the Review Board is neither transparent nor independent," the Board wrote, suggesting that DPD allow open applications for community members, establish term limits and publish more public information about the board and its proceedings.

The Board also criticized DPD's response to the shooting in LoDo last summer, where a police officer shot into a crowd, injuring multiple bystanders. The Board said its members and the Independent Monitor's office did not have sufficient access to body camera footage, and that only one officer activated their body camera and that the cameras did not capture audio.

"The Denver Police Department is aware of the report and is currently engaged with the Office of the Independent Monitor on enhancements to the current Use of Force Board process," said a DPD spokesperson when asked for comment.

The report also calls for more transparency in the relationship between law enforcement and Denver Health, and for better oversight of Denver Health as a vendor, citing the death of Leroy Taylor, a 71-year-old inmate who died in a Denver jail. Taylor's family alleged he was denied medical care.

"While in-custody deaths are uncommon in Denver jails, the COB is concerned that the current level of oversight is not sufficiently transparent for this Board to trust that Denver Health is appropriately handling individual cases of alleged misconduct," the Board wrote.

Staffing in the Denver Sheriff's Department (DSD) dropped from around 630 uniformed officers to 570 officers in 2022.

The staffing challenges come amid similar worries with Denver's Police Department. In the Sheriff's Department, it has led to staff working 14- to 16-hour shifts and mandatory overtime and affected the treatment of inmates in city jails.

"The impact to inmates includes the amount of time they are allowed to be outside their cells ('out time'), the frequency they may shower, and the extent of programming available to them (such as continuing education, job training, and recovery programs)," the Citizen Oversight Board wrote in its report. "The Board is also concerned about the potential for more use of force incidents when deputies may lack the emotional capacity or energy to safely de- escalate high-stress situations."

Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins called staffing "the number one concern" for DSD. "We welcome the Citizen Oversight Board's assistance with helping us to recruit good people to join our great department," he said.

Looking to next year, the Oversight Board and Independent Monitor's office want to expand community outreach, evaluate staff salaries and improve transparency and access to public records.

Oversight Board Chair Julia Richman pointed to the recent volume of settlements involving law enforcement as a driver of the group's mission looking forward. Just this week, Denver authorized $1.6 million in liability payments to protestors who made claims against Denver police of being hit by PepperBalls, tear gas and other less lethal projectiles during the 2020 demonstrations.

"The last bit is really continuing to evaluate the work of the department in light of a number of settlements that took place this year and officer-involved shootings and incidents that were really painful to the community," Richman said.

The Citizen Oversight Board will present its full report during its meeting Friday at 10 am. The Boards meetings are public, and community members can tune in online by clicking here.

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