Mar 18, 2022 - News

Scoop: Confidential memos raise new questions about response to George Floyd protests

Denver Police chief Paul Pazen

Denver Police chief Paul Pazen during a press conference in 2021. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images

Denver police suffered a "total leadership failure" amid the George Floyd protests in 2020, and chief Paul Pazen appeared "paralyzed" about how to respond, according to never-before-released documents obtained by Axios Denver.

  • The statements from top police commanders are detailed in confidential memos written by directors in the Office of the Independent Monitor. The memos are based on interviews conducted as part of the civilian oversight agency's review of the city's response to the protests.

Why it matters: The documents describe a department plagued with internal strife and contradictory orders that contributed to its controversial protest response, which involved widespread use of force against demonstrators.

  • In particular, it raises new questions about Pazen's leadership of a department that is currently on trial in federal court as part of a civil rights lawsuit.
  • One top police commander said many officers and protesters may have been injured because of the lack of command.

What they're saying: Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Pazen declined to comment, citing the ongoing trial.

  • In a deposition for the federal case, Pazen downplayed his role in directing the police response, saying he only monitored and provided support when needed.

The big picture: The agency's failures were systematic, Cpt. Sylvia Sich told the independent monitor's office, involving breakdowns in supervision, leadership and training, according to a summary of her September 2020 interview.

  • Sich suggested Pazen, who was sworn in as chief in July 2018, was "in over his head" even as a lieutenant. She also raised questions about his credentials for the department's top post.
  • Moreover, she said the department's "culture is unique in that no one can make suggestions or tell command staff what to do."
  • Sgt. Erik Knutson, who instructed officers on crowd control, said the de-prioritization of training since 2016 contributed to the problems. The agency's leaders considered multi-day, in-person training programs "too time intensive," he said in the interview.

Zoom in: Inside the command post, confusion followed the chaos on the streets. Pazen was often angry and bristled at differing opinions, according to the memos.

  • He paced constantly and gave division chief Patrick Phelan, the protest response commander, direction that conflicted with the situation on the ground.
  • Later in the protests, Public Safety director Murphy Robinson told officers not to make arrests for violating curfew, undercutting agency leaders.

Between the lines: The new details are not explicitly described in the independent monitor's public report released in December 2020.

  • The interviews were not recorded and police commanders who were interviewed were told they would remain confidential.
  • They became public when entered into evidence as part of testimony on Thursday in the federal trial.

Details: "They were for our review, they were not public facing documents. They were not for anyone's consumption except our own," independent monitor Nick Mitchell told the jury, as he recounted the lack of communication and command direction he discovered in his review.

  • "I wanted to have free-flowing discussions to the extent that I could with the people who actually had been policing these protests," he added.

Of note: The memos still contain redactions and other documents from the review remain under a confidential seal.

  • Under questioning from an attorney for the city in the federal trial, Mitchell acknowledged that he didn't examine the motivations of the people he interviewed and the statements were just one piece of evidence for the final report.

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