DENVER (KDVR) — Nearly one year after the George Floyd protests and riots rocked the City of Denver, the Problem Solvers have gained exclusive access inside a police department training exercise aimed at improving crowd control techniques during future protests.
“We needed to augment some of the training that we’ve had in the past as it relates to crowd management,” said Commander Mike O’Donnell, the head of the department’s special operations bureau.
“It is definitely a diminishing skill set, so with the chief’s direction, we have developed a system where each officer in the Denver Police Department receives four hours, quarterly, of additional crowd control training.”
Our FOX31 Problem Solvers investigation found some officers were not following department policies during the protests, by failing to track the use of and properly deploy less-lethal munitions.
In late 2020, an Office of the Independent Monitor report also criticized “extremely troubling” tactics some officers used when deploying weapons and dispersing large groups of people.
The OIM made 16 recommendations for improvement, including “periodic joint trainings” with mutual aid partners, that DPD “ensure that only officers who have been trained and certified on the use of pepper ball and 40mm launchers be permitted to use them,” and that DPD supervisors “routinely issue multiple dispersal orders before using force to disperse crowds, when time and circumstances permit.”
“We are trying to make improvements. We want to be the safest place in the United States,” said O’Donnell. “The reality is the First Amendment is the most cherished amendment in the United States, and we want people to be able to come down and voice their opinions, but peacefully.”
Wednesday afternoon, the Problem Solvers watched as members of the Special Operations Response Team practiced crowd separation maneuvers in a Denver parking lot.
Officers clad in face-shielded helmets and bulletproof vests chanted “move back,” as they marched, in formation, toward an imaginary crowd.
“A lot of this is the basic fundamentals,” said O’Donnell. “We go through a methodical process of telling people – and the movements to reinforce that – we want them to step back.”
The group also rehearsed a crowd separation technique designed to safely disperse two opposing crowds.
“You see the people going back and forth with just verbal jabs, and then it turns into a physical altercation. In some instances, you might see some rocks and bottles going. We’re trying to prevent that on the front side. We had to do that a couple times last year, and we had some success with it. With moving the officers in and just pushing the crowds back a little bit. Having that separation is really key to the success and safety for everybody,” he said.
The officers also practiced putting on and removing their gas masks on command.
“When a gas is introduced or a gas environment, the officers are required to take their helmets off and put on their gas mask, and put their helmets back on,” he said.
The training observed by the Problem Solvers lasted less than an hour.
Doug Schepman, a spokesperson for the police department, said the exercise fulfilled a portion of the Special Operations Response Team’s quarterly training.
“I would say that the biggest takeaway is that training is the key, whether it’s crowd management training, whether it is driving training, whether it is law training. We need more training, not less,” said O’Donnell of his experiences during the 2020 protests. “The chief has made that a priority, even in these difficult budget conditions to balance that we still have to have those key components to keep our folks as efficient as they can be and as safe as they can be.”