The Denver Police Department is using taxpayer money to buy new security equipment in preparation for the Democratic National Convention in August but is refusing to disclose exactly what the purchases are, saying that revealing the information would be “contrary to the public interest.”
While the Denver City Council has already allocated approximately $5 million of the $50 million in federal funds provided by Congress for national security, the police department is buying equipment on the local level through the city’s routine purchasing process, which in some cases can bypass city council approval, according to public officials.“We’re going to follow our regular processes for any reasonable procurement,” said Jim McIntyre, director of the Denver Purchasing Division, who noted that the city council deals only with purchases totaling $500,000 or more. “I am trying to manage the security concerns of other entities, and just where that line is, that’s a good question.”
Detective John White, a spokesman for the police department, confirmed the Denver police were buying new equipment to “enhance the safety” of convention attendees. White declined to say exactly what and how much was being purchased. He said the total amount of taxpayer money used to buy the equipment might not be known until after the convention.
Colorado Confidential sent an open records request to the Denver Police Department in March, seeking any and all purchase orders, award papers, and contracts regarding security equipment for the convention. A response from the city’s Department of Safety (the parent organization for the police department) denied the request and stated that such information would disclose “tactical information” that is not in the public interest.
The denial of purchasing information drew criticism from the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union and demonstrators planning to protest during the convention.
“Clearly the expenditure of public funds is a matter of public interest and is a matter that is a legitimate subject of public disclosure,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the state chapter of the ACLU.
While Silverstein admitted that the police may not want to say how such purchases would be used, he said that is not the same thing as knowing what equipment the department is buying.
“Certainly the knowledge that the police have certain equipment couldn’t be contrary to the public interest,” he said.
Mark Cohen, a member of the organizing committee for the Recreate 68 Alliance, a coalition of groups that plan to demonstrate at the Democratic convention, released a statement saying that the group is very concerned about so-called “crowd control” and “less than lethal” weapons and equipment the police department may be purchasing in anticipation of protests, including Tasers and other sonic weapons that can be used to disperse crowds.
“Contrary to [the police department’s] statement, it is very much in the public interest for the people of Denver to know whether the Denver Police Department — which should be subject to civilian oversight in such matters — is planning to purchase such equipment with public funds for use on peaceful protesters,” said Cohen, who contended that Recreate 68 is planning to engage in peaceful and nonviolent protests during the convention.
In St. Paul, Minn., where the Republican National Convention will be held in September, police have requested 230 Tasers for all department officers. The Tasers should arrive before the convention, creating speculation that they are being purchased for the event.
Denver City Councilman Doug Linkhart, chairman of the council’s Safety Committee, said that transparency will continue to be an issue, even when the city council appropriates federal security funds.
“We’re going to try and be as open as possible,” said Linkhart. “But there will be some things even I and the mayor’s office don’t know.”
According to Linkhart, the council has already allocated $5 million of the $50 million in federal security funds approved by Congress, funding a heavy rescue vehicle, a hazardous materials response vehicle, a unified incident command post, and an urban search and rescue unit.
“The Denver Police Department has a history of over reliance on the ‘contrary to the public interest’ language,” said Silverstein, noting that the state ACLU has successfully sued Denver five times regarding the open records response. “It’s overused. It’s used in situations where it’s not legitimate.”
While the police department is declining to release the purchasing orders, city budget documents offer some clues but no certainties.
Denver 2008 budget documents for the Department of Safety show that one of the police department’s missions will be to “successfully implement the security and safety surrounding the Democratic National Convention.”
Funding for the police department’s patrol division, which includes uniformed patrol officers and tactical groups including the SWAT team, is getting a projected budget increase of $5.1 million over 2007, or a boost of 6.7 percent. While approximately $1.3 million of the additional funds will be used for helicopter maintenance and a redeployment of officer positions, about $3.8 million remains in unspecified funds.
The patrol division budget was $75.8 million in 2006 and approximately $76.7 million in 2007. It is estimated to be $81.8 million in 2008.
Law enforcement officials in Denver can use federal funds to reimburse security costs from the convention.
A representative with the Denver convention host committee confirmed that none of the committee’s funds will be used to purchase police equipment.