Denver police abuse cases are ‘troubling,’ civilian watchdog says

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Photo: Police car lights (iStock)

If there's a major incident involving law enforcement officers in Denver -- like a shooting -- Nick Mitchell's phone rings. It also rings if there are allegations that a deputy at Denver's jail has seriously harmed someone.

Mitchell is in charge of Denver's Office of the Independent Monitor. Mitchell and his office serve as a second pair of civilian eyes on allegations of excessive use of force.

He has access to the internal affairs investigations and personnel files at the police and sheriff's departments. And last month, the City Council expanded Mitchell's access to related documentation in the wake of community outcry over the shooting death of 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez by a police officer during an alleged car theft.

The city's jail system is in the midst of extensive reform efforts that come amid several serious allegations of deputy abuse. Last year, Denver settled for $6 million the case of inmate Marvin Booker, who died following a struggle with deputies. Since 2012 -- the year Mitchell came to office -- Denver's taxpayers have paid a total of $10.5 million to settle 16 cases of allegations of police and deputy use of excessive force, civil rights violations, and mistaken identity, according to records the Denver City Attorney's Office provided to CPR News.

Photo: Denver Independent Monitor Nick MitchellMitchell spoke to Colorado Matters about his new powers, how his staff recently doubled from seven to 14 workers amid rising numbers of complaints, and about a new effort by his office to ease tensions between police and young people.

On legal payouts by the city

"The incidents themselves are troubling and concerning. We're certainly working hard to address the challenges that may have allowed those incidents to have taken place... challenges with individual officers and systemic issues in the law enforcement agencies that really need to be resolved to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening in the future."

On complaints of race bias in the jails

"I would not characterize the jails as a racist environment. We certainly have those kinds of allegations that are made and we work very, very hard to make sure that they are addressed and officers are held accountable."

On a grant to ease tensions between police and kids

"In 2013 and 2014, my office identified a relatively high number of complaints and concerns being raised by community members about law enforcement contacts between youth and police officers, relatively low-level contacts, that seemed to escalate faster and more severely than probably anyone in the interaction necessarily wanted and ended up with young people in handcuffs in the back of police cars, under arrest when really there may have been other alternatives and decisions that could've been made that would have prevented arrest. And I'm not talking about bad kids. I'm talking about good kids ending up under arrest. So we've worked to develop an outreach program to help bridge the gap. You know, many of the incidents appear to involve communication problems between young people and police officers -- on both sides of the equation. ... Anecdotally, we did see that a disproportionate number of the incidents did appear to involve youth of color in Denver."