DENVER (KDVR) – At future protests, Denver police officers will no longer deploy the controversial 40mm less-lethal weapons that shoot sponge grenades and gas projectiles.

“It’s not going to be utilized in these mass protest events,” said Armando Saldate III, the newly confirmed executive director of Denver’s Department of Public Safety.

The city is also prohibiting the use of sting ball grenades and noise flash diversionary devices. 

Pepper balls are permitted in cases in which someone is showing active aggression and may also be used “towards the ground or an area of space in situations of defensive resistance,” according to Kelly Jacobs, the director of communications for Denver’s Department of Public Safety and a strategic advisor to Saldate.

Multiple people reported suffering significant injuries during the George Floyd Protests and riots in downtown Denver in May 2020 after being struck with police projectiles.

So far this year, the city council voted to pay settlements totaling $1,075,000 to two protesters who suffered eye injuries during the protests.

However, the city is facing a slew of other lawsuits, including a class-action suit that will go to federal trial on Monday.

“There were some less than desirable outcomes that happened with that,” Saldate said. “There were some poor outcomes that happened with that, and the city is settling in some of those cases. However, I’m really confident that we are taking some measures and actions, and what was a really good impetus for that was the (independent) monitor’s report.”

Denver still recruiting for independent monitor

In December 2020, the city’s public safety watchdog issued a lengthy analysis of the police response to the protests. It included criticism and recommendations for improvement.

Currently, the city is without a permanent independent monitor. The Citizen Oversight Board, which is tasked with selecting a new monitor, recently eliminated its three finalists and plans to restart the search process soon.

“This is a very hard job to recruit for,” said Julia Richman, the board chair. “The city of Denver is unique in that the monitor oversees the jail as well and, so, has a whole additional scope and that experience is harder to find,” she said.

Richman said the three finalists were eliminated because “there wasn’t a clear choice out of the numerous interview rounds that we had done,” she said.

She said the community should rest assured that oversight work and investigations are still being completed by a temporary monitor.

She said the continued search for a permanent monitor should not be considered a failure. 

“What it means is that we are setting a high bar for a candidate, and we want to make sure that it’s just right,” she said.

Richman said the oversight board will be bringing on a new recruitment firm to help continue the selection. In a few months, the board will begin accepting new applications.

“I think there will be – in the next round – attention between deep familiarity with the context and history of Denver in terms of its police oversight,” she said, explaining what qualities the board hopes to find in a potential candidate. She said the board hopes to find someone with, “community embeddedness, really understanding the neighborhoods and the different context of different stakeholder groups.”

Another priority, she said, is the “art and practice of oversight.” Richman described that as a unique combination of understanding policing and the law and “the really special sauce… of any monitor,” she said, “is the ability to kind of engage in diplomacy.”

Learning from past mistakes

While the search continues, Saldate said he hopes to continue using the monitor’s office as a tool for continued improvement.

“We’ve worked really closely with the monitor’s office to try to identify – investigate these (cases of potential misconduct during the protests) thoroughly – to try to, you know, if there is someone that needs to be held accountable, to be held accountable. But in a lot of ways, we weren’t able to do that,” he said.  “But that’s not meaning we’re not going to change,” he said.

Saldate said the department is constantly looking at policy changes and additional training for officers.

“It’s not about more policing. It’s better policing, and how we get there is training our offices,” he said. “I think we’re more prepared now to see and to train for something like that in the future and train how we do things, train how we deploy, and then, also train on how we identify officers that are involved. And then, when they do use, let’s say, pepper balls and those types of things, that we have better processes and procedures in place so that if we do have bad outcomes…we do also have an availability on how to hold them accountable.”

Saldate said he also understands that officers make mistakes, and he is focused on helping the department learn from mistakes rather than immediately firing personnel.

“I don’t want to just – if an officer makes a mistake – we immediately fire them. Obviously, if it’s something that’s really bad misconduct, yes. They don’t need to be here. They need to move on. They don’t need to be wearing a badge and gun. But those folks that make mistakes – we gotta make sure we work with the monitor, work with our internal investigation process to highlight those where there’s policy deficiencies or supervision deficiencies. We fix those types of things,” he said.

“It’s really challenging trying to balance all this and then address the crime issues we have,” he said.

He said the department has a goal of hiring 188 new officers while retaining the current staff.