By: Robin Kniech
The foundation of any successful city is safety— the safety to raise children, work and play, and live good lives. As a member of the City Council’s Safety, Housing and Homelessness Committee, I track the overall low rate of crime the city has enjoyed in recent years, while striving to ensure there are enough men and women to protect our growing city and that they meet the highest standards when they interact with our community.
Denver has high expectations for the integrity of our police. But we also put them in danger each day in the cause of protecting us. The most important thing we can do is be engaged partners and ensure that they have the officers, tools, information, and community support they need to keep our neighborhoods safe. Being engaged partners also means continually updating policies and training on de-escalation and alternatives to force, and consistently upholding strong standards of conduct so that everyone is treated respectfully and fairly by the police.
Thanks to the support of voters who approved a major budget fix in 2012, the Denver Police Department (DPD) has consistently been able to hire 50-100 new officers each year. This has allowed us to catch up from a major loss of officers over time as well as keep up with retirements, but I’ve also supported City Council-led victories to speed up the pace of hiring to actually increase the number of front line officers patrolling our streets, to help keep up with population growth. Too few uniformed officers means that high priority calls, such as emergencies in progress and 911 calls, take more of DPD’s attention, leaving little time for doing the work that is required to prevent crime, such as foot or bike patrols, making contacts, or building relationships that can prevent crime later. Commanders across Denver believe in this kind of community policing, and keeping the ranks filled will allow them to implement more of it across the city.
There has also been a lot of innovation to maximize the deployment of existing officers to the areas where they are needed most. Many expert police resources have been decentralized into police Districts, putting detectives and narcotics specialists alongside patrol officers to investigate, prevent and solve more crimes. Districts are also organizing more officers to work consistent shifts together, so they can work in teams, building rapport and expertise to increase effectiveness. Hiring civilians to do more administrative work has also freed up dozens of officers to return to patrol service. The Department is also using more sophisticated data analysis, to allocate patrols more strategically based on patterns of crime.
Because we have high standards for our police department, and we know they can meet them, it is time to update DPD’s Use of Force Policy. I am proud to have served with a racially diverse group of community leaders who drafted a recommended policy for consideration by the Chief. The foundation of both the Chief’s recommended approach and the community’s is that force shouldn’t just be “reasonable” – it should only be used when it is “necessary.” If words or waiting or other methods can be used to control a situation or apprehend a suspect, then force should be the last option, and then only the least amount needed. Community leaders reviewed many best practices to help shape the recommendations that are under review by the Chief. The final revised policy will only be as effective as the training the City provides to help officers make good decisions under pressure, and the consistency of accountability for any violations of the policy.
One of the newest tools Denver has deployed to maintain accountability has been body-worn cameras. Early pilot programs found a reduction in complaints against officers in situations where the cameras were used compared to those where they were not. More policy clarifications and training are still needed to ensure the cameras are being turned on and used appropriately.
I believe in a strong and effective police force, but I also believe in strong, civilian oversight to help manage all these expectations. One of our most important partners in this work in Denver is the Independent Monitor who has brought many policy deficiencies to light in ways that have resulted in lasting change, in addition to being an extra set of eyes on all discipline of Police or Sheriff Deputies. I have strongly advocated for ordinances and charter changes that strengthened and protected the independence of our Monitor, and I will continue to work to ensure they have the tools they need to represent the interests of our community.