Problem Solvers is investigating the use of force by police in a five part series. Investigative Reporter Rob Low looking at how often do the cops investigating, themselves, find inappropriate use of force? What is the racial make-up of officers and who is on the receiving end of excessive force? The Use of Force numbers, in depth interviews plus community input and reaction.
DENVER (KDVR) – Body camera footage from Denver Police Officer Joseph Rodarte shows what led to criminal charges against the officer for excessive use of force.
The video shows Officer Rodarte striking an unarmed black teenager with a baton breaking the 17 year old’s nose and leg. A jury acquitted Rodarte of two counts of second degree assault.
Rodarte remained on leave for eight months while police internal affairs investigated, and when he resigned in early June, before he could be fired, he had been with the department more than 30 years.
Mary Dodge is a criminology professor at CU-Denver who has studied use of force reports involving Denver police.
“In some departments, you draw the gun, that’s a use of force,” she said.
After days of massive protests downtown in late May, Denver Police started a new weapon use policy on June 7 that requires officers to file a use of force report when they point their weapon at someone, even if they do not fire their gun.
“When we looked at use of force reports in Denver several years ago, the majority of them were complaints that were not sustained,” Dodge said.
Specifics on Denver Police’s use of force report investigations from 2017 through 2019 obtained through public records requests show that out of 292 reports, police internal affairs found only 16 violated the policy or about 5% of the cases.
“I think it’s surprising that such a low percentage were sustained but we do have an office of independent monitor to look at these things and make sure there’s some some accountability and transparency,” Dodge said.
Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen agrees the independent monitor helps hold his officers accountable and so do body cameras.
“We’ve made it a stated goal we want to reduce the number of use of force incidents because it’s good for the community and it’s good for our officers,” he said.
Out of the 292 use of force reports, internal affairs said one half, or 130 cases, were cleared because body camera footage showed the officers did nothing wrong.
“It shows the importance of body cams,” Pazen said.
The racial make up of Denver’s force is currently 65% white.
The problem solvers finding Denver’s data shows police involved in officer involved shootings were more often white officers using excessive force against minorities.
Officers’ racial and gender breakdown:
Community members’ race and gender breakdown:
Eighteen officers were involved in the 16 sustained excessive force cases. Of those 18 officers, 12 were white, five were Hispanic and one was Black. The race of those on the receiving end of excessive force included involved one Indian person, three white people, 4 Hispanic people and eight Black people.
But the data doesn’t reveal if race was ever a motivating factor in the use of excessive force.
Chief Pazen said individual circumstances play the pivotal race in cases, not race.
“Officers respond to incidents not the race, gender of a specific person,” he told FOX31 Problem Solvers.
The Denver protests in May and June following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers have lead to use of force complaints and lawsuits. One of these cases was filed by Darrell Hampton whose cell phone was shot out of his hand with a pepper ball.
“I didn’t feel like I was a threat to him so I’m not sure why he shot,” Hampton said.
Denver police are facing three cases in court for its response to crowd control. The case of a police car nudging a protester who was blocking his path is now an internal affairs investigation for use of force.
“We have to recognize the moment and the movement that we’re in and really do something about it,” Pazen said.