Mar 30, 2022 - News

Federal verdict calls Denver police chief's credibility into question

Denver police chief Paul Pazen during his swearing-in ceremony in 2018. Photo: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A federal jury's verdict forcing the city of Denver to pay $14 million for its faulty response during the 2020 George Floyd protests is raising doubts about police chief Paul Pazen’s future.

Driving the news: A number of prominent activists say Pazen needs to exit the post after the trial exposed the agency’s questionable leadership.

  • "We are in serious need of new leadership," Robert Davis, head of a local task force to reimagine policing, tells Axios Denver. Pazen’s "lack of control and management … cost Denver national embarrassment" and "taxpayers millions of dollars."

What they're saying: Activist and attorney Elisabeth Epps, the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, had worked with Pazen and the department ahead of the 2020 protests. But the evidence presented in the trial made her realize a change in leadership is necessary.

  • "He should resign," said Epps, who was shot with pepper balls during the protests. Until the trial, "even I … did not recognize the full extent of how toxic the department was from the top down."

The big picture: The result of the trial is calling into question whether Pazen can rebuild trust in the community and within the agency, especially after his own officers described a "total leadership failure" in confidential memos first reported by Axios Denver.

  • During Pazen's watch, the city has had to pay out more than $15 million as a result of police-related private settlements and the federal trial — and more lawsuits loom.

Of note: Mayor Michael Hancock's administration may appeal the federal jury's precedent-setting verdict, but it is still weighing options, city attorney Kristin Bronson tells us.

Between the lines: Denver public safety leaders point to policy changes made in the immediate aftermath of the protests, including a prohibition on the use of certain less-lethal equipment and enhanced crowd control training.

  • But they did not outline any other specific changes taken in response to the verdict.
  • Pazen eventually linked arm-in-arm with protesters — but only after days of violent clashes between demonstrators and police, when the damage was already done.

The other side: The Hancock administration and several council members, including Kevin Flynn and Debbie Ortega, continue to rally around Pazen and promote the progress made under his leadership.

  • "Unless every other big city chief also steps down, I see no need for change, especially when there will be a new mayor in a year who will likely want a different chief," Flynn says. "It would be very difficult to fill that top spot for only a year."
  • "Anyone in [Pazen's] shoes … would have been challenged to keep peace, and control the destruction of public and private property that ensued," Ortega notes.
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