Police officers pepper spray a woman next to the Colorado State Capitol as protests against the death of George Floyd continue for a third night on May 30, 2020, in Denver. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
On Feb. 17, my organization, DASHR, hosted a community forum to meet finalists for the Denver independent monitor role along with our community partners and in collaboration with the Citizen Oversight Board. On March 1, the COB announced that it didn’t quite find what it was looking for in the three finalists and decided to restart the search.
I’ve been involved with criminal justice reform efforts, including increasing the powers of independent oversight in Denver since about 2014. In 2016, I was part of a group that helped pass a successful initiative to codify and make permanent the Office of the Independent Monitor. Even then, we recognized the significant limits on the office and lack of “teeth” to enforce recommendations.
Reflecting on our event and the decision to restart the process, I believe a new monitor should prioritize four major areas once hired.
Work to increase access to data
One of our questions to candidates involved access to data. Our organization works to implement alternatives to policing and jail, in part based on publicly-available data on arrests, 911 calls, and police violence. One consistent problem is that cities and police departments have been the greatest barrier to full data. A new monitor should work to establish public, accessible portals for data relating to arrests, 911 calls, and police violence.
Recommendations to divest public safety funds into service-oriented crisis response
When we asked candidates what they would do immediately to work to address Denver’s legacy of police violence, candidates brought up supporting effective diversion and alternative programs such as STAR (which our organization helped to create and continue to be involved in). We asked an immediate follow-up on whether they would be willing to use their power of policy recommendations to advocate for divesting money from policing into such proven alternatives. The consensus was “no,” citing policing and reforms being expensive and an approach that wasn’t either/or. We noted that public safety (which includes policing) is the single largest bucket of funding in Denver, as with other cities. Since the Eugene, Oregon, crisis service organization CAHOOTS was mentioned, we noted that CAHOOTS uses 2% ($2 million) of Eugene’s safety budget to answer 17% of their 911 calls at a savings to the city of about $8.7 million/year.
The money exists to create programs like those we’re working on along with other services, and since law enforcement jobs are difficult to fill right now, resources should be directed toward proven alternatives. This is not an explicit role of a monitor. However, since the office was created in response to the 2003 fatal police shooting of teen Paul Childs and the office has since weighed in on the police-caused deaths of Michael Marshall and Paul Castaway — all calls involving mental health and disability — the monitor should also advocate for proven alternatives.
Work to restrict mutual aid agreements
One recommendation that came from former monitor Nick Mitchell’s report on Denver Police Department’s actions during the George Floyd protests was to reevaluate mutual aid agreements between agencies that led to outside departments deploying officers in Denver in 2020. I believe a new monitor should go a step further to advocate restriction of these agreements. There is already minimal accountability of Denver police, as even Mitchell’s “chilling” report has led to virtually no consequence to the department. But when other departments come into our city and in some cases deploy crowd control methods and commit violence to protesters, there is absolutely no way to hold them accountable.
Actively advocate for increased powers to the office
A criticism of the OIM is that its ability and power to influence change is largely diminutive and that the position lacks “teeth.” This was a major critique in 2016 when we worked to codify the office, but our hope was to establish the office as permanent and then work to make it stronger and more effective. In a new monitor, I would look for them to be aggressive in working to expand their power to the extent possible. We need a mechanism of independent oversight that is actually independent and actually oversight. High priority changes should include: subpoena power for the OIM, copies of all officer complaints automatically sent to the OIM, and the authority to refer cases from Denver Police Department and Denver Sheriff Department for criminal prosecution.
Denver deserves an independent monitor that will work to address Denver’s legacy of police violence, make data public, and advocate for transformation. It’s a big task and one that I didn’t believe any of the three finalists were equipped for, and the COB appears to agree.
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