Denver police’s independent monitoring program worked, senior law enforcement official says

DENVER — Armando Saldate is a veteran cop whose appreciation for police oversight programs — particularly the Office of the Independent Comptroller of Denver — has grown over the years.

As a police officer in Phoenix, Arizona, he served on a disciplinary review board that included law enforcement officials and a few civilians.

The Denver OIM program is an all-civilian organization with a broader scope of responsibility for city and county police and sheriff services. So Saldate had his work cut out for him when he moved to Denver a decade ago and went to work for the Denver Sheriff’s Department.

“I started with the city here in the internal affairs of the DSD, which is one of the departments under the supervision of the monitor and also this office,” said Saldate, who was appointed executive director of the DSD earlier this year. Denver Department of Public Safety. “So I had to learn the independent instructor method and its practices, and it evolved from what I thought of it then to what I think of it now, until I liked it. really, especially after the murder of George Floyd.

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Floyd’s 2020 death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked a wave of protests across the country that highlighted and at times exacerbated tensions between law enforcement and the people they are charged with protecting. . Denver was no exception.

“We had a lot of unrest here, we had riots here, like a lot of big cities,” Saldate said.

But in Denver, he added, IOM’s presence helped ease public concerns about how law enforcement handled the riots and led to new policies and practices that were incorporated by the Denver Police Department.

“There have been poor results from our response as police to these riots,” Saldate said. “I thought the fact that the Office of the Independent Observer was able to look at it from the outside – not the police doing their own review – (IOM) doing their own review, making their findings and then making recommendations, I thought, put us in a better position as a city, put the mayor in a good position of, OK, now I have something to go with, don’t I? And we can say, “This is how we can improve.”

And they did, according to Saldate. When the Colorado Avalanche hockey team won the Stanley Cup championship earlier this year, the public unrest some local officials feared never materialized, he said.

“A lot of the way we briefed our officers – the expectations, the command, all that – I just felt like I was in a good position, and a lot of that was because of the recommendations the monitor laid out that gave us mandates and policies that we were able to give to our officers,” Saldate said.

The Denver Department of Public Safety oversees and manages several city and county public safety agencies, including police and fire departments. Saldate’s responsibilities include gathering information and recommendations from IOM, department heads and his staff before making final disciplinary decisions.

This collaborative decision-making process, he acknowledges, has not always been easy or seamless. He noted, for example, that he can show a group of law enforcement officials the same video of a use-of-force incident and get a room full of different responses.

“I could have the chief of police, a police commander, me, my disciplinary administrator, who was a magistrate, and we could all look at it, and we could all take away something different from it. And I was a cop…so I don’t think it’s just because of the IOM; everyone (has) a different perspective,” Saldate said.

“What I think they (IOM) are able to provide us with, however, which is so important, especially in today’s society, is independence and objectivity. This is essential in today’s law enforcement. People don’t trust the government, they don’t trust the most visible branch of government: the cops. There is that, and because our country has not always done well in these situations.

When Mayor GT Bynum proposed a police oversight program in 2019, he touted Denver’s OIM model as the gold standard. But for a number of reasons — backlash from the police union, limits imposed by the city charter and the city’s collective bargaining process, disagreements among city councilors, and Bynum’s decision to go in a different direction — the idea of ​​establishing some type of independent police oversight program has lost ground among most city officials.

Saldate said he knows such programs have their critics, and he’s heard his fair share of concerns in Denver: that the IOM assumes officers are bad, that politics play a role, and that those responsible for law enforcement, not civilians, should judge the actions of officers. .

“So I think there’s always that. But what I’m saying to that is if you ever get tried or charged, you’re not going to get a jury of 12 police who decide your fate. , who have the same experiences,” Saldate said. “You’re going to have a jury of peers…other members of the community.”

He also noted that the Independent Monitor and staff making recommendations on disciplinary and policy matters are not individuals without training or knowledge of the criminal justice system. They include lawyers and others with experience in the field.

“I think that’s what made the model from Denver such a model for others is that they didn’t hire Joe Blow off the street with nothing, or someone who came with a bias or someone who came with a hatred towards the police. They also have intentional policies that they don’t hire people who were associated with law enforcement in the past, which I think is important.

Saldate said he had the opportunity to speak with law enforcement officials outside of Colorado, including some from Phoenix, about Denver’s OIM program.

“I was able to provide – told them – it worked really well for us here,” he said. “I think it’s a valuable thing here. The cops are going to be skeptical, but I think at the end of the day, it’s good for your community, it’s good for the people, it’s good for that responsibility that we all have to be in.”

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Ryan H. Bowman