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'Seeing what's working, and what's not': Police chief talks reform in Denver

From policies on body cams to outlawing the use of chemical gas weapons on Denver residents, the DPD chief discussed community concerns in the current climate.

DENVER — Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen recently announced updates to three policies following two weeks of increased awareness around community leaders, activists, protesters demands for police reform in Denver. 

Those include:

  • No exceptions to the existing ban on choke holds. 
  • Denver Metro SWAT body cams must be recording during tactical operations. 
  • Officers must file a report anytime they intentionally point their gun at a person.

While the updates are significant, prominent community leaders and police reform activists say the Denver Police Department needs to do more. 

RELATED: Community leaders say Denver Police Department needs to do more

9NEWS sat down to discuss those requests with Pazen. His responses our below. 

(Editor's note: Responses have been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: The policy updates announced this weekend are updates the community has been requesting for several years. How soon can we expect to hear about even more progressive reform from you?

Pazen: These changes, as well as any other changes, are part of a reexamination of not only the policies that the Denver Police Department has, but also training. 

You're right - the use of force committee has made these recommendations. We agreed upon a very strong and progressive use of force policy that was unveiled in the fall of 2018 and enacted in January of 2019. And part of our conversations were, looking at data, seeing what's working and what's not working and then coming back to these additional policy recommendations and seeing if they make sense. 

Are there any changes we can expect more immediately, within the next week or two? 

Pazen: Really we need to listen to the community. We need to be open-minded and we need to be ready for change.

These were some policy changes that we've had extensive dialogue about and those changes were made because it was the right thing to do. 

Regarding the ban on choke holds, does the "no exceptions" update mean that an officer who uses the choke hold now would lose his or her job? 

Pazen: It would be in accordance with the disciplinary matrix, and there are categories A through F. That is likely a category F, which is a presumptive range of a termination.

It did take a federal court order to get your department to abide by its own use of force guidelines. When the federal order hit, your response was that it lined up with your existing use of force guidelines. So, why the federal court order?

Pazen: The federal court order is aligned with our crowd control and use of force policy. We need to make sure we adhere to both, and that’s what we will do as we continue.

The aggressive response to protests in Denver is still top of mind for many. Some are asking you to use your authority to cease the use of chemical gas weapons on Denver citizens from here on out. 

Pazen: We will continue to evaluate everything we do in the police department, including some significant changes. 

Are there types of calls for service that don't make sense for a Denver police officer to respond to? Meaning mental health calls for service, meaning calls for people who are experiencing homelessness? Does it make more sense to have mental health clinicians? Does it make more sense to have medical professionals and not a Denver police officer? 

So when we’re talking about doing a complete reexamination, that’s what we’re talking about here.

But at the moment there isn’t anything definitive that you can say about you using your authority to stop the use of chemical weapons in DPD?

Pazen: Correct.

Do you regret the way the department handled the protests to start? 

Pazen: I think that we need to do a thorough and comprehensive review of all of this to see what worked and what we need to learn from it. it would be premature to say that everything went well or to say that everything did not. 

Both the executive director of public safety and myself sent a letter to city council, and they are requesting this comprehensive review by the Office of the Independent Monitor, and we will support that in every way possible.

Another immediate concern in the community involves the standards on body cameras. Are they recording during every interaction with the public? 

Pazen: That’s basically what our policy states now, everything from a tactical operation to a traffic stop.

The policy around body cams is online, and the expectation is that these interactions are captured on body cam, and they have improved accountability, and that's what we believe in. 

What would happen to officers who consistently don’t have those body cameras recording?

Pazen: There’s scheduled discipline that takes place as a result of this, and the discipline escalates each time.

I’m asking these questions and you’re saying many of these are already standards that the Denver Police Department follows. But again – it did take a federal court order to get DPD to follow your own use of force guidelines. So I think there is a disconnect between seeing something is a rule and believing that it’s being followed.

Pazen: The expectation was that we followed those policies from the get go, and if we didn’t, then we need to hold our individual officers accountable for their actions.

Are there officers who you plan to hold accountable? 

Pazen: There are ongoing investigations that do include that oversight and review from the Office of the Independent Monitor. 

We’re asking for a comprehensive review of this entire situation to see if there are areas that we could learn from. We will hold our officers accountable for individual actions that did not comply with policy. 

As the chief of DPD, are there any definitive decisions that you feel confident enough that you could make right now to put your department in a more progressive position?

Pazen: Really, we need to listen to our community, we need to be open minded and we need to be ready for change, and when strong progressive policies make sense, we will incorporate them just like we have done. 

What else will it require? People are telling you pretty specifically what they would like to see. 

Pazen: We’re reexamining everything that the police department does, whether that’s training, policy, discipline, in an effort to improve.

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