Pazen reflects on 4-year tenure as police chief
Retiring Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen talks about his time on Denver’s police force Tuesday in his office at Denver police headquarters in Denver.
Paul Pazen, Denver’s outgoing police chief, will retire Oct. 15, having announced at the end of August his intention to step down. His 27 years with the Denver Police Department included four years as chief and a stint as the commander of patrol District 1 before that.
Pazen’s tenure as chief included helping launch the Support Team Assisted Response program in 2020 in concert with community organizations. The program sends pairs of mental health clinicians and paramedics to low-level, nonviolent calls that implicate behavioral health needs. Under his leadership, the agency was one of the first departments to adopt the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement from Georgetown University Law Center, which trains officers on peer intervention to prevent situations from unnecessarily escalating.
Pazen helped oversee the adoption of new use-of-force policies in 2018, which
included prohibiting officers from watching footage from their body cameras before they are interviewed by investigators, creating a chart to train officers on making split-second decisions and prohibiting deadly force if a person only poses a danger to themselves.
And, last year, the department began a “hot spot” policing strategy, which concentrated resources around five intersections police say made up a disproportionate number of the city’s shootings and homicides. The department has since expanded the strategy to include three more areas.
Yet, Pazen has been outspoken, saying he believes state policies regarding pretrial release and supervision practices have been too lenient in the case of people convicted of violent crimes.
He also led the department during a time of historic challenges: The agency has struggled with a staffing shortage of about 170 officers as of September, an issue exacerbated by putting new recruit classes on hold in 2020 because of the pandemic; increased response times to calls for service; and, eroded public trust in policing. In addition, homicides began to increase in 2020, with 67 tallied this year as of Wednesday.
The department has faced intense scrutiny for recent high-profile force incidents, including a mid-July shooting in Lower Downtown involving a man police say threatened officers with a gun. Officers shot the man several times and also injured six bystanders. And, last spring, a jury found the city liable for how police handled the 2020 protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Pazen hasn’t revealed specifics of his plans for what comes next, including addressing long-simmering rumors of a potential mayoral run next year. But he sat down with The Denver Gazette this week to talk about the department’s recruiting and retention challenges, responding to violent crime and auto thefts and investment in response strategies that don’t involve armed officers.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What was your impression of the police department when you took it on in 2018, and what kind of police department do you think you’re leaving?
First and foremost, this department is built on a strong foundation. The department’s been around for more than 162 years. And not all of it is perfect, not all of it is something that has gone exactly the way it was intended. We’ve had some successes and we’ve had some setbacks in that entire time.
So, it’s important that we reflect on what our successes are, what those areas for improvement are, and then try to learn from them. So, really, even before taking office, I was part of it. I led a district and I’ve been part of this department since 1995. And even in that 28-year time period, there’s been some successes and there’s been some areas where we could and need to learn from, and that is going to be the case moving forward for, I think, any agency, whether it’s law enforcement or another public sector, department that serves community. We’ve got to continue to try to grow, to develop and learn from the approaches that we’ve taken.
When you joined the police department, about 5,000 people were competing for around 100 jobs. And, obviously, the picture is very different today. What challenges have been with recruiting officers, whether it’s the pandemic, whether it’s scrutiny that officers feel like they’re facing; any number of challenges within the last few years? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on not just in the last few years, but over the past couple of decades. What do you think changed to make those recruiting challenges really exacerbate?
I think it’s a combination of different factors in this, and at the top of the list would be the intense scrutiny that law enforcement officers face now. Back in 1994 is when I applied for this police department … There were 4,000 or 5,000 people waiting in line to get in there. Everybody took the test at the same time.
Now in talking to civil servants, or even talking to other police chiefs throughout the state and throughout the country, that pool is much narrower – fewer folks than what we used to be able to attract – and that’s a challenge for us. Because you want a lot of folks. That way you are able to get the best and the brightest from a deeper pool of individuals.
I’m really happy with the folks that we’ve seen. We may have a smaller pool, but they’re very committed. They’re very sharp.
We need folks from beyond the police department in bigger roles to say, “Be the change that you want to see.” We need leadership in public and private sectors to say we do need quality officers. We need officers from every segment of our community to represent every segment of our community and we want folks with big hearts.
We have to think about what drives us toward a profession and what keeps us in our profession. And most of us want to feel valued in our workplace. We want to be respected in our workplace, whether that’s in the public sector or the private sector.
All too often, we have painted with this broad brush and not looked at folks as individuals, but almost vilified an entire profession. I think it’s important that we come together and say, ‘No, let’s not paint with a broad brush.’ Let’s treat people as people, individuals as individuals, let’s hold them accountable for their individual behavior, and if they step out of line, that we address that. But it doesn’t mean that just because somebody does something in Minneapolis or in Louisville, or in a different part of the country, that all folks that do that profession are guilty of the same thing.
You were an early proponent of STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) when it was being developed. During a recent Citizen Oversight Board meeting, the chair was
asking, due to officer shortages, can that be an opportunity to invest in alternative programs? To direct those resources toward programs like STAR? Are there additional alternative response programs that you would like to see?
We championed all of these issues. I’m proud of our efforts in expanding the co-responder program in 2016. We started with four and now we’ve got 40. Seven days a week, 24-hour-a-day coverage in all six police districts is awesome. I’m also proud of our outreach case coordinators that don’t get the attention that they deserve, because if Paul’s in crisis, and whether STAR helps me because I’m armed or a co-responder helps me because I’m armed, that follow-up piece that the outreach case coordinators do to prevent the future crisis is critical. So, those are different alternative approaches.
We have 29 crash report technicians, so, if it’s a low-level crash, nobody’s drunk or intoxicated, folks have insurance, people aren’t fighting, you don’t need an armed police officer with a badge to respond to that. So, we created the crash report technicians, and we expanded that during my tenure. And same with the property report technicians, folks that can handle some of these low-level cases that don’t need an officer. So, we built all of those areas out.
Here’s the part that gets misinterpreted with STAR. I am the biggest proponent for STAR, outreach case coordinators and co-responders. This gives us potentially better outcomes for individuals in crisis, and it can help prevent tragedies from occurring. That is pretty amazing. But it’s not a crime prevention approach. It’s not a crime reduction approach. If we had 1,000 STAR vans, it’s not going to reduce one shooting, one murder, one robbery. That’s not what it’s designed for. What it is designed for is pretty special in and of itself.
And folks start to say, “STAR is what we meant by defund or de-center.” The mental health calls that STAR can handle is 2.8% of DPD’s calls for service. Last year, total calls for service — not STAR-related or mental health-related calls for service — went up 4.2%. So that little bit that you can shift from the 2.8% that doesn’t require a police officer, okay, that’s great. But total calls went up 4.2%. At the same time, calls for service go up and your available resources have dropped a little bit.
So, forever I will tell anybody, anywhere in the country and beyond, and have, that implementing a STAR, co-responder and an outreach (program) is critical. That you want not only that response, but you also want that follow up. If Paul’s in crisis today, and STAR or co-responders helped me, well, what about next week?
That’s why I brag about these outreach case coordinators so much – they get no attention. It’s like, they’re kind of the heroes in this equation. We have been pushing the envelope for alternative response for a long time. But at some point you do need a uniformed police officer to address issues.
We’ve discussed increases in crime over the last several years, especially more serious types of crime and recruiting issues. How do you respond to those who say all this happened on your watch? All this happened during your time as chief ?
I would point to 2019, before anybody ever heard of the pandemic, before anybody was impacted by the economic conditions that had a direct impact on the resources available to address these issues, before the political divide that created lots of strain and harm to our entire country and the social unrest as a result of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I rolled out very ambitious proposed reforms, changed the use of force policy and got that over the finish line when it was very much in doubt, rolled out our strategic plan.
We did drive crime down in 2019. We did do it in a fair and just way, because we actually arrested 6,000 fewer people than we did the previous year, and we focused on the biggest issues that were impacting our community safety at the time.
So, now let’s specifically talk about the crime issues that are facing us in Denver, which are very similar to the crime issues facing the entire state of Colorado. What I would say is the women and men of this police department; the officers, the investigators, the supervisors; they didn’t forget how to police. Ten years ago, we weren’t in this boat. Ten years ago, we were one of the safer states in the entire country.
So, when I say that the women and men of this police department didn’t forget how to police, we had to shift focus to the biggest problems. And by volume, auto theft was one of those big problems. And, so, for example, last year in 2021, we arrested more people for auto theft than any year in our history. So, we’re focusing the limited resources on the biggest problem by volume.
Same with the violent crimes that we’re talking about – murders and shootings that have all gone up. Our officers took more illegal guns off the street last year than any year in our history.
And then I think the last piece that I would point to that would show that our officers are very effective and efficient would be the clearance rates. So, (in) major cities, it was a national story a couple of months ago. CBS News nationally was going to New York, Washington DC, Baltimore to Philadelphia, Chicago – all of the major cities in the United States and pointing to the fact that the clearance rates, the solve rates, on murders had fallen to 50% or below. At the same time, CBS News didn’t come knocking on the door (asking), “Hey, how come you guys are like Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia? Where you’re not solving these cases?”
So, I think that shows that with the available resources, our folks were focused absolutely in the right areas by arresting more people for auto theft than any year previous, by taking more illegal guns off the street than any year previous, and by continuing to solve the murders and the nonfatal shootings.
Prior to my taking this position, we
used to solve those (non-fatal shootings) about 32% of the time. And then one of the innovations that I’m super proud of, and (of) the people that actually do the work, we solve those at 66% of the time.
Those would point to a very effective police department that is dealing with an increased workload, the increase in calls for service at the same time.
With hot spot policing — we talk quite a bit about the homicides and the shootings as particular issues in those areas where the department has focused. On shootings, the public data is a little bit trickier, just because they’re classified as aggravated assaults. Examining data for homicides and shootings going up citywide, does that suggest that they’re just being pushed elsewhere out of these hot spots?
That’s exactly why you identify the issues early, right? So, rewinding the clock, studying 2020, where 26% of the homicides and 49% of all of the shootings took place in 1.56% of Denver’s landmass, the five original hotspots that we see. That is, again, similar to identifying what the problem is and then focusing your attention on the issues.
Focusing in those particular hotspots, we reduced the shootings and murders in four of those five. We saw an increase in LoDo, a 7% increase. And yes, we did plan for shifts in dynamics of that. So, MLK and Holly had dramatic decreases. Forty-seventh and Peoria, Alameda and Federal, dramatic decreases.
That’s why the additional three areas saw increases. Dartmouth and Havana, Raritan and Mississippi, 14th and Federal.
We’ve seen some success in some of these, but it’s not a quick fix. It’s just using that data in order to identify those hotspots, working on those evidence-based solutions that are beyond even beyond the police department: Working with Public Works, working with Parks and Rec, working with the civil rights (and) community affairs folks, working with all of the different entities within the whole of government and the nonprofits to address that. It gives you the best opportunity for success.
But it’s not a be-all, end-all. You continue to look for any displacement and then you address those areas based on the particular circumstances of those areas. High-density apartments have a different impact than a business district. So, you can’t replicate what was done at Federal and Alameda and say, “We can do this at Havana and Dartmouth and have the exact same results.” So you have to specialize based on what is driving the issues in that particular area.
You mentioned changes (in 2018) to the use-offorce policy. How do you respond to those who would point to things like the incident that we had in LoDo in July or the outcome of the lawsuit that we had earlier this year over the (2020) protests? What would your response be to people who point to those things and say, ‘Have things changed? What’s different?’
So, I am very proud of the forward-leaning use of force policy that I helped get across the finish line. It was done in concert with a use of force committee. We trained every officer in the department; it wasn’t just rolling out a new policy. Every officer in the department had to go through training on this, and I’m very proud of what that looked like.
We also recognize what occurred with the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and we implemented changes to our use of force policy, to our crowd management policy as a result of the lessons learned. The “8 Can’t Wait,” we were one of the first departments to comply with all eight of the suggested policy recommendations as a result of that. (“8 Can’t Wait” is a national campaign by Campaign Zero after George Floyd’s death for use of force policy changes that the organization recommended law enforcement agencies immediately adopt.)
So, I think folks that would be critical of the use of force policy, certainly take a look and see how that compares nationally. It’s one of the strongest, one of the most forward-leaning there is anywhere in the country. And then the disciplinary process, contrary to some opinions, there is accountability with the Office of the Independent Monitor, the conduct review and the public-facing reports that the OIM does twice a month to talk about each one of the cases here. Reviewing those over the last couple of years, last four years, I think that you would on the evidence side see that we do hold people accountable for their actions, that people that violate policy are held accountable. Folks that go way overboard are separated from this department.
Some of the challenges that we dealt with here (with the George Floyd protests) are very similar to what we saw in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Louisville. Name the city that had similar types of challenges that you could point to and say, “They did it right. If Denver just copied what this city did, then everything would have turned out fine.” These are challenging situations, right?
Generally, this department has done very well at managing some of those large crowds – the Women’s March, the DNC.
This one was at a much larger scale. I mean, there were folks across the globe that came out on this particular incident.
These things are tough. There’s not an easy answer. So, we took the feedback, we looked in, we took the external feedback with the 17 recommendations (from the OIM); we implemented those right away. There’s ongoing training with outside agencies, so, that way, we can do everything possible.
But really, the answer to this is let’s prevent that tragedy from happening in the first place, right? That’s where STAR and co-responders can help individuals in crisis and prevent that from happening. And getting us here, that’s where ABLE — officers stepping up, saying, you’re getting out of line. Taking me off so that way I don’t exacerbate a situation or create a tragedy that the rest of law enforcement either in that department or others are going to have to deal with.
As difficult as these are, I think the better approach is let’s do everything humanly possible to train our folks so that they’re ready to deal with some of these challenges. But let’s also get these appropriate responses to include sometimes not being a uniformed police officer. Let’s get people evidence-based training like ABLE and ICAT (Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics) to de-escalate situations or to remove an officer who’s about to create harm and prevent that. Let’s do that so we don’t find ourselves in this situation in the first place.
We demonstrated before that we can handle very large crowds — celebratory crowds, crowds that want to create damage, destruction and harm. I think that they point to a continual learning approach that I know will outlive me because I know Chief Thomas is the right person for the right time to lead this department, and I’m very confident that he and the rest of the team, that the women and men of this department, continue to be in an upward trajectory to help our community.
The Denver Gazette
By Julia Cardi
Reprinted from The Denver Gazette