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Home » Denver’s independent police oversight program has worked, top law enforcement official says
DENVER — Armando Saldate is a veteran police officer whose appreciation for police oversight programs — particularly the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor — has grown over the years.
As a police officer in Phoenix, Arizona, he served on a discipline review panel that included law enforcement officials and some civilians.
Denver’s OIM program is a civilian-only entity with broader responsibilities related to the city and county police and sheriff’s departments. So Saldate had a lot to learn when he moved to Denver about a decade ago and worked for the Denver Sheriff’s Department.
“I started here at the city in the internal affairs of the DSD, which is one of the departments that comes under the supervision of the Monitor and also of this office,” said Saldate, who was appointed executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety earlier this year was appointed. “So I had to learn the independent monitor way and their practices, and it’s evolved from what I thought about it then to what I think about it now to where I really appreciate it, especially after that murder of George Floyd.”
Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020 sparked a wave of protests across the country that have highlighted, and sometimes exacerbated, tensions between law enforcement and the people they are tasked with protecting. Denver was no exception.
“We had a lot of unrest here, we had riots here, like in many big cities,” Saldate said.
But in Denver, he added, the OIM’s presence helped allay public concerns about how law enforcement had handled the riots and led to new policies and practices being adopted by the Denver Police Department.
“Our response as police to this riot has had some bad results,” Saldate said. “I thought that the Office of Independent Monitor would be able to check it from the outside – not the police doing their own checking – (the OIM) doing their own checking, taking their findings and then making recommendations, I thought, put us in a better position as a city, put the mayor in a good position, ok, now I have something to go with, right? And we can say, ‘This is how we can get better.’”
And they have, according to Saldate. When the Colorado Avalanche ice hockey team won the Stanley Cup championship earlier this year, the civil unrest that some local officials feared never materialized, he said.
“The way we briefed our officers – the expectations, the command, all that – I just felt I was in a good position and a lot of that was due to the recommendations that the monitor laid out, who gave us.” gave mandates and guidelines that we could give our officers,” Saldate said.
The Denver Department of Public Safety oversees and administers several city and county public safety agencies, including the police and fire departments. Saldate’s responsibilities include gathering information and recommendations from the OIM, department heads and his staff before making any final disciplinary decisions.
This collaborative decision-making process, he acknowledges, has not always been easy or harmonious. For example, he noted that he could show a group of law enforcement officers the same video of a violent incident and get a room full of different responses.
“I could have the police chief, a police commander, me, my disciplinarian who was a judge, and we could all look at it and all take something different. And I was a cop… so I don’t think it’s just the OIM; everyone[has]a different perspective,” Saldate said.
“However, what I think they (the OIM) can offer us, which is so important, especially in today’s society, is independence and objectivity. This is critical in law enforcement today. People don’t trust the government, they don’t trust the government that is most visible: the police. There is, and because our country has not always done well in such situations.”
When Mayor GT Bynum proposed a police oversight program in 2019, he upheld the Denver OIM model as the gold standard. But for a number of reasons – opposition from the police union, limits imposed by the city charter and the city’s collective bargaining process, disagreements among city councilors and Bynum’s decision to go in a different direction – the idea of establishing some sort of independent police oversight program caught on among the most elected city leaders lost traction.
Saldate said he knows such programs have their detractors, and he’s heard his fair share of concerns in Denver: that the OIM assumes officers are bad, that politics matters, and that law enforcement officials, not civilians , which should judge actions of the officials .
“Well, I think there’s always that. But what I’m saying is, if you ever go to court or are charged, you’re not going to get a jury of 12 cops who are going to decide your fate, who are going through the same experiences,” Saldate said. “You will have a jury of peers…other community members.”
He also noted that the independent observer and staff making recommendations on disciplinary and policy issues are not individuals without training or knowledge of the criminal justice system. This includes lawyers and others with experience in the field.
“I think that’s what made the Denver model such a model for others, because they didn’t hire Joe Blow with nothing off the street, or someone who came with prejudice, or someone who came with hatred of the police. They also have intentional policies that they don’t hire people with a history of being associated with law enforcement, which I think is important.”
Saldate said he’s had opportunities to speak to law enforcement officials from outside of Colorado, including some from Phoenix, about Denver’s OIM program.
“I was able to deliver – told them – it worked out great for us here,” he said. “I think there is a valuable cause here. The police will be skeptical but I think in the end it’s good for your community, it’s good for the people, it’s good for the accountability we all need to have.”
Tulsa World Newsroom Podcast: What Ideas Should Tulsa Steal From Denver?
Veteran City Hall reporter Kevin Canfield traveled to Denver with Tulsa leaders to hear the story behind some of their accomplishments in solving homelessness, mental health issues and economic development. Kevin talks to editor Jason Collington about the highlights.
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