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City council questions system used to discipline DPD officers

9:32 PM, Sep 14, 2010   |    comments
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That system was the focus of a meeting with the Denver City Council on Tuesday. Members wanted to know if officers are sufficiently disciplined and how in general the discipline system works.

The Denver Police Department is under scrutiny after several alleged police beatings recently surfaced, and at least one of them was caught on tape.

In April 2009, Shawn Johnson said he was wrongly arrested in downtown Denver after he used a women's restroom in a bar. His friend, Michael DeHerrera, was trying to help him by calling his dad when police then went after him.

Even though an independent monitor recommended that the two officers involved be fired, Manager of Safety Ron Perea only suspended them. He later rescinded his decision and resigned after a public outcry.

Denver City Councilman-at-Large Doug Linkhart says the system the DPD uses is not working.

"I think we need more work," Linkhart said. "And that's partly why we're seeing cases reopened, reinvestigated is because at least given the past manager of safety, the system hasn't delivered the kind of justice and the kind of fairness that we're hoping for."

The Denver City Council also wanted to know how many DPD-related lawsuits the city handles.

According to the Denver Safety Department, from 2004 to 2010, Denver Police has been sued 83 times for excessive use of force. The average settlement in those cases is nearly $98,000.

During the same period, DPD faced nearly 200 lawsuits overall. Some of them were dismissed and the pay outs vary year to year.

Linkhart says he is not as concerned about the number lawsuits as he is about the complaints.

"There were only 20 lawsuits out of 449 sustained complaints," he said. "My concern is not about lawsuits, it's about the number of complaints about excessive force and other issues with in the department."

Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman says this number is low, considering officers make between 400,000 to 600,000 citizen contacts per year.

"[It's] a well-behaved police department. I'm very proud of it," he said. "We do make some mistakes. There are some officers that need to be disciplined. There are some officers that need to be terminated. You look historically and that's been done."

In 2009, one officer was terminated, seven resigned and 20 were suspended without pay.

"This is the kind of job where you have to be perfect, and of course, it's a human organization and we're not perfect," Whitman said. "We step up to plate and deal with that every day. I'm proud of the department. The metro area has some of the best police departments in the country. I think we all should be proud of that."

"We're not asking for perfection," Councilman Paul Lopez, who represents District 3, said. "But we're asking for accountability, transparency. There's going to be some folks who make mistakes here and there, we understand that, but at the end of the day I want to make sure that those inappropriate contacts, those inappropriate uses of force that's as minimal as possible."

The Denver City Council will have two more meetings to talk about the Denver Sheriff's Department and the independent monitor's office.

It is a possibility that changes to current policies may come out of those meetings.

"We're looking at what we're doing and seeing if it needs to be improved," Mary Malatesta, the interim manager of safety, said. "Secondly we're seeing if there is a new approach that can be used to make us even better. We have policies that we think are very good, those are always under review. That's a constancy for any organization that I think is focused on professionalism."

Click here for more details on the Sept. 14 meeting.

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