Excessive use of force. Inadequate record keeping. Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on so-called “less lethal” munitions, some of which officers were not properly trained to use.
These are just some of the takeaways from a report released by the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) earlier this month into the Denver Police Department’s response to the summer protests following the killing of George Floyd.
In Colorado, these protests were highly successful, resulting in sweeping police accountability legislation passed just a couple of weeks after the demonstrations began.
The Denver police watchdog’s investigation, however, revealed gaps both in existing police department policies as well as in the newly passed police reform law, particularly relating to the types of non-lethal weapons used against protesters and how they should be used and tracked.
Rubber ball grenades, for example, are hand-thrown explosives that fire up to 180 rubber balls in all directions in a range as far as 50 feet while emitting a bright flash and emitting a loud noise, striking anyone in the surrounding area and sometimes causing serious injury.
The devices are meant for use with violent individuals and in hostage situations. Investigators reviewed body camera footage showing officers using the devices for crowd control purposes at protests, sometimes without proper training.
“DPD policy provides no guidance for the appropriate use of rubber-ball grenades,” reads the report, despite the fact that the grenade manufacturer warns that the weapon “can result in serious bodily injury and should only be deployed by officers with specialized training.”
“We believe that rubber-ball grenades, which risk striking peaceful and aggressive individuals alike, are inappropriate for crowd control under all but the most extreme circumstances,” the report reads.
Although DPD did not keep detailed records of which munitions were used and when, investigators found that the department ordered 300 of them on May 31 as protests were ramping up. In fact, the department spent over $200,000 on less-lethal munitions during the first five days of protests.
Officers also used noise flash delivery devices (NFDDs), better known as flash bangs, which cause temporary blindness and deafness. These weapons are also meant for use in high-risk situations by specially trained individuals as they can cause fires and burn anyone who comes in contact, and are not meant to be thrown directly at individuals.
In their review of body camera footage, investigators identified “a number of instances” in which NFDDs were used in ways they found “extremely concerning” and pointed to a “lack of specific policy guidance about the appropriate use of NFDDs.”
During the May 28 protest in front of the Capitol, an NFDD thrown near an encampment of people experiencing homelessness (who were trapped in between protestors and police officers) set fire to a person’s tent.
Not only did officers lack clear guidelines for when and how to use these dangerous devices or ensure that the officers who used them were certified to do so, but the police department also did not keep records to track munitions, something Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell said made it difficult to conduct the investigation in the first place.
The report states that “internal controls on the use of force,” such as “tracking logs to determine whether certain teams or officers were exhausting supplies of munitions at disproportionate rates,” could have helped the department avoid the overly-aggressive crowd control measures.
A Colorado law passed in June in response to the protests, called the Law Enforcement Integrity and Accountability Act, included an array of police reforms regarding the use of force, like banning chokeholds and the use of deadly force against those who are suspected of minor or nonviolent offenses.
While the legislation did include limits on law enforcement’s response to demonstrations, including requiring that officers give dispersal warnings before using chemical agents and prohibiting them from aiming projectiles at protestors’ heads, pelvises, or backs, those measures don’t fully address the broader militarization of the police force as described in the independent monitor’s report.
“It was a good start, but it’s not the end,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver), who sponsored the legislation, also known as Senate Bill 217. Herod said she’s “very heartened” that Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen promised to implement the changes recommended in the independent monitor’s report.
The legislation also required that officers wear body cameras at all times when interacting with the public. The report points out that despite existing policies requiring cameras for Denver officers, many officers were not wearing or did not activate their body cameras during protests.
“I believe those who broke those policies of the Denver Police Department should be removed from the Denver police department,” Herod said.
“We do plan on coming back with more law enforcement accountability measures and refinements to the measures that we put in place in 217 this next session,” Herod said. “I believe in the 2021 legislative session, you will see a lot of what you see in the independent monitor’s report codified in law.”
The 2021 legislative session has been postponed until at least Feb. 16 due to COVID-19.