Denver’s independent safety monitor insulated from political whims

Denver’s Referred Question 2B has passed. The city’s independent monitoring office for its police and sheriff’s departments will be preserved in the city charter.

That means that Mayor Michael Hancock and future mayors will no longer have the authority to dissolve the office.

Alex Landau, co-founder at the Denver Justice Project, which played a central role in passing the measure, described a sense of qualified elation.

“We’re feeling triumphant,” he said. “But it’s important to highlight the 45,000 people who voted against it.”

The Office of the Independent Monitor is a civilian oversight agency for the police and sheriff departments for the City and County of Denver. Then-Mayor John Hickenlooper moved to create the office in 2004 and it began its work in August 2005.

Amendment 2B, a municipal ballot measure to place the office in the city charter, was called tonight at 9 P.M.

The office is made up of fourteen staff members, including the monitor, Nick Mitchell, a senior deputy monitor, four deputy monitors, a policy director, three analysts, a community relations ombudsman, a youth project coordinator, an office manager and a case manager. The office releases semiannual and annual reports on the city’s uniformed officers. Those reports are especially valuable for civil rights activists and other watchdogs to glean information about suspected cases of excessive force and other wrong-doing.

According to the 2005 ordinance that created the office, the monitor’s primarily responsibility is making recommendations on administrative action, including potential discipline, for “uniformed personnel” –  meaning all members of the police department and the sheriff’s department, as well as members of the fire department who are authorized to carry firearms.

The office has repeatedly recommended policy changes, even in instances in which Denver DA Mitch Morrissey said officers’ behavior was legally justified.

Amendment 2B’s passage solidified the office and insulated it from future mayors’ whims by codifying it in the city charter. Currently, the mayor can discipline and even eliminate the office.

Who supported it?

The Denver Justice Project has been 2B’s primary champion, from the concept phase to election day.  

Landau, one of the group’s co-founders, has spent the last few months focused on 2B. He and his coworkers led workshops, held panel discussions, spearheaded digital communications campaigns, disseminated fliers and printed magazine advertisements.

Early on election day, Landau said that the group is feeling optimistic, despite a funding handicap. “We did not invest heavily in campaign mailers or anything like that simply because we did not have the budget to do so,” Landau said.

Instead, DJP relied on its partnerships with other organizations, social media and its own staff to get its message out.

Who was against it?

Denver’s police union, the Denver Police Protective Association, did not have a formal stance on 2B. But an attorney affiliated with the union showed up to testify against it. David Bruno attended the city council’s Governance and Charter Review Committee meeting when it reviewed 2B back in August. He expressed concerns that placing 2B in the charter would lead to unchecked power.

His efforts were fruitless. 2B was unanimously voted out of that committee and the full council unanimously approved it a few weeks later. During the council’s discussion, Councilwoman Robin Kniech described the measure as a “renewing of vows” between the city and the office.

What does it mean?

The Denver Justice Project is the first to assert that 2B does not represent wholesale reform in the police department’s relationship with the community. The group worked with Councilman Paul Lopez for more than a year to determine a politically palatable measure.

Originally, members wanted to be bolder. They wanted to give Mitchell the ability to conduct his own investigations of wrongdoing in the safety department rather than relying on the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau as it does now. But because that would require hiring expensive investigators, they ultimately determined it would not pass out of committee.

The group also wants to see closer partnership between the District Attorney’s office and the Office of the Independent Monitor. Landau said that DJP will work to encourage both reforms in the future.

Landau added that, though 2B is underwhelming for some criminal justice reform advocates, it provides much-needed hope.

“It’s important to increase communities’ ability to feel like substantive reform is possible,” Landau said. “If we don’t see something every once in awhile, we develop a lens of hopelessness.”

Photo courtesy of Alex Landau