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DENVER -- Denver police guidelines on the use of deadly force are among the best in the nation, but the department's investigations into officer-involved shootings have been slipshod, an independent review says.
Those are among the findings in a first-of-its-kind examination of the police department's deadly-force policies and what happens after an officer uses his or her weapon. The report is to be made public today.
"The Denver Police Department today meets and even exceeds national standards in many areas, making the DPD one of a handful of American police departments becoming a national leader," according to the 129-page review titled The Denver Report on Use of Deadly Force.
"Yet it was not always so; and up to as little as three or four years ago . . . there was much to improve in the quality and thoroughness of internal investigations of deadly force incidents."
Denver's Office of the Independent Monitor commissioned the report, which cost $150,000 and involved 30 months of work by the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC).
Police Chief Gerry Whitman, who has seen drafts of the report, said PARC's analysis was "detailed, well thought out, and comprehensive. I don't see anything in there that I really object to."
While often full of praise for Denver police, the report also offers dozens of recommendations, from tweaking policy language to what items officers should carry.
Whitman said he will convene a committee of police department employees and work with the district attorney and city attorney on what recommendations to implement.
PARC focused on 25 officer-involved shootings in Denver from 1999 to 2003 that have been closed and not under litigation.
In 24 of the cases (one involved Westminster officers in Denver and so did not apply to all the issues studied) "none of the shootings appeared from the evidence in the file to be gratuitous or malicious," PARC noted.
But PARC reviewers found that the investigation of those shootings, partially conducted by Denver police themselves, "caused us the greatest concern."
Among PARC's findings: Investigators sometimes failed to interview witnesses, did not conduct thorough interviews, failed to reconcile inconsistent statements, and did not video or audiotape every interview.
PARC acknowledged that interview procedures may have changed since 2003, and Independent Monitor Richard Rosen thal, whose office was created in 2005, said he has not seen such shortcomings in investigations.
Whitman disagreed with some of the findings, saying that inconsistent witness statements weren't often significant to the investigation.
"There's always enough information to make decisions from," the chief said.
Another PARC concern was that Denver officers may use leather-covered metal instruments called saps to hit and subdue people at close quarters.
"Denver appears to be the only major police department in the United States that continues to permit police officers to use saps as impact weapons," the report noted.
Whitman said he would look into the use of saps, though he noted that officers who carry them must go through training and that PARC did not indicate that saps had been misused.
PARC also looked at police commendations, saying officers who killed a suspect generally received one.
"If a suspect was killed in the shooting, the shooter was certain to get a commendation (unless the shooting was held to be violative of policy) and was likely to receive the DPD's highest award, the Medal of Honor," PARC wrote.
But PARC could not conclude that the shootings caused the commendations.
Boulder attorney Timothy Rastello, who won a $1.3 million settlement in a police shooting, agreed with some of the findings, including criticism of investigations of officer-involved shootings. But he also said officers have improved their tactics and that he and other attorneys are receiving fewer calls about police misconduct.
Rastello represented the family of Paul Childs, a developmentally disabled 15-year-old who was killed in 2003 by a Denver police officer as the teen wielded a knife.
Law clerk Andrew O'Connor, of the Colorado Christian Defense Counsel, said his firm has three pending cases against Denver police. All three involve Hispanic teens allegedly brutalized by white Denver cops, he said.
"One time, the city could argue, it's an aberration," O'Connor added. "Two times, they can argue, can be a coincidence. Three times is a pattern of discrimination."
Praise for Denver police in deadly force report
* "One aspect of DPD procedure that calls for unmitigated commendation is the fact that they use videotaped interviews in every officer- involved shooting case. The DPD has been a national leader in videotaping statements since 1983."
* "The DPD has a written policy concerning the use of the Taser which, together with its training materials, make Denver a leader in this area. . . . an excellent Taser policy will provide that Tasers should not be used against passive or minimally active resisters but rather against active aggression."
* On officer-involved shootings: "The DPD, unlike any other law enforcement agency of which we are aware, permits Internal Affairs and the Independent Monitor to observe homicide's interview of the involved officer. . . . We acknowledge that the current practice is working well, although we also note that it is dependent on the currently cooperative attitudes of the current players."
* "Interactions between the police and mentally ill, developmentally disabled, or persons in crisis. . . . This policy should be emulated by law enforcement agencies across the country."