Denver City and County Building

The Denver City and County Building.

Nearly six months after the former head of Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor stepped down and coming up on four months after the mayor convened a search committee to find his replacement, critics of the process say it has moved too slowly and without adequate public transparency given the monitor's key role in law enforcement oversight. 

The committee head, however, said the importance of the role necessitates they don't rush the search process even though the public may want to see it move more quickly.

The search committee met for the first time on May 5, according to emails provided to The Denver Gazette through an open records request. Among the emails, a message mentions an illness that also delayed the group's progress.

After interviewing four firms, the committee recommended Affion Public, a Pennsylvania-based firm specializing in executive-level public agency recruiting. It appears the committee chose Affion as its preferred firm around late May, according to emails.

An April 28 email from a recruiter in Denver's human resources department shows the others considered included The Novak Consulting Group, which Boulder used in its independent monitor search, Ralph Andersen & Associates, Bob Murray & Associates, The Metzner Group and Korn Ferry. The latter has a contract with Denver International Airport, according to the email.

While the contract with Affion was not finalized as of June 18, an email dated March 20 from Denver human resources director and committee member Karen Niparko shows she suggested a budget of about $50,000, based on about 30% of the starting salary for the independent monitor position. In an email to the Denver Gazette, Niparko did not say how much has been approved to pay the firm.

An email dated March 24 from Stephanie Adams, the Department of Finance budget and management director, suggests the funding for using a search firm come from the OIM’s general fund budget, citing anticipated savings from the independent monitor position’s vacancy for part of the year. The budget office would make a supplemental budget request if the savings couldn’t totally offset the cost of paying a search firm, says the email.

Denver’s previous independent monitor, Nick Mitchell, resigned in January to oversee the implementation of a consent decree with the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Last year, he led an investigation into Denver police officers’ responses to the first several days of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last spring.

The committee charged with finding his replacement includes Niparko, Al Gardner, chair of Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board who heads the group, Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres of District 3, retired Denver County Court Judge Claudia Jordan and Brian Corr, executive secretary of the Police Review & Advisory Board for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“I'm looking primarily for [the firm] to have a good understanding of the city and understanding of Denver; what is important to the community, and what is important to a number of different stakeholders that this position will need to be accountable to,” Gardner said in a June 18 interview. “The second thing is for them to identify candidates that in their estimation, [will] be able to address those needs and be able to accomplish those tasks that we laid out for them.”

Lack of communication

Other leaders are frustrated with what they say has been a lack of transparency in the search process three months after the committee was convened. Critics told The Denver Gazette they had not yet heard information about the search process, such as the name of the recruiting firm recommended or what the search would cost.

Dr. Robert Davis, the head of Denver’s Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, said Torres reached out to him in late May about representatives from the task force meeting with the recruiting firm, though that meeting hasn’t yet happened, he said. Davis said he has not received any other communication about the monitor search process. An email from June 2 confirms Torres reached out to Davis about a meeting.

“That's the least of our concerns, is meeting with the search firm. I think it's just the fact that the community has no idea why it's taken six months, who the search firm is, how this process is going to look,” Davis said. “So I don't want to I don't want to give them an out by saying, well, they were looking for a search firm. Those are two separate issues. They could have talked about how the process will look once the search firm is secured. And that has not happened.”

Gardner said updates about the search process have been provided at the Citizen Oversight Board’s bi-monthly public meetings, which he called “the fastest and most effective way” for people to get information about its progress. He added the board is working on a way to make sure the public can have input once the search committee has “candidates in the pipeline” and ask questions of the candidates.

The Citizen Oversight Board also plans to provide information about the monitor search process at its next quarterly public forum in July, Gardner said.

Davis said the task force sent a letter to Gardner and Mayor Michael Hancock’s office in January asking for public input in the search but never received a response.

Gardner acknowledged he hadn't reached out to Davis directly. He said he welcomes input and feedback from any member of the public in vetting candidates for the monitor position, but said he doesn’t want any particular group to have a “monopoly” over the process.

“It's not necessarily on one group or the other as much as it is open,” Gardner said. “I don't want to give anybody a head start. I want the community as a whole to be active in this.”

Dr. Lisa Calderón, chief of staff for District 9 Councilmember Candi CdeBaca, echoed Davis’ frustration with receiving scant communications about the monitor search process from those directly involved. She has met with Torres once so far to receive updates, she said, but added she did not receive a response from Gardner when she reached out early on expressing interest in helping establish a public input process.

“One of the things that we learned from a community standpoint on processes was to get ahead of them. So when we first heard that Nick was resigning, it wasn't long after that that we were proactive in reaching out once we heard that Al was going to be the head of it,” she said.

Calderón said only using Citizen Oversight Board meetings as the vehicle for providing information about the monitor search doesn't provide enough transparency. Although the meetings are open to the public, historically they aren't widely advertised or conducive to interaction with attendees, she said. 

She wants to see the search committee use several mediums that have a wide reach, such as City Council, the policing task force and other community advocacy groups. City Council's Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee should get regular updates since it meets weekly, Calderón said, but through additional avenues as well such as town halls and sponsored forums would be ideal to her.

"I think this is what happens when you are a community person who is given a seat at the table, and forget that you now have access to information that the rest of us still don't," she said.

The monitor's role

The Office of the Independent Monitor was created in response to the fatal shooting of Paul Childs, a developmentally disabled teenager, by a police officer in 2003.

The office oversees investigations into systemic law enforcement misconduct and complaints against individual officers in the police and sheriff departments. However, it does not have authority large-scale investigations into alleged systemic law enforcement misconduct and individual complaints against officers and deputies.

But the office doesn't have authority to to discipline law enforcement employees. Proponents of expanding the office's power have suggested giving the monitor subpoena power in investigations and unrestricted access to Evidence.com, where the Denver Police Department stores body-worn camera footage. Though the office can receive footage, access is at the police department's discretion.

The office's oversight mission inherently sets it apart from other roles the mayor appoints, Calderón said.

“So even though it's a mayoral appointment, it's still kind of outside of that stratosphere, or that constellation of those traditional mayoral seats. So that position will always be looked at as an outsider,” she said.

The policing reform task force Davis heads released a report in May with 112 recommendations for overhauling law enforcement and oversight. Among them were suggestions to increase the independence of the independent monitor by handing appointment authority to City Council and the Citizen Oversight Board, guaranteeing the office subpoena power and unobstructed access to evidence and documents, and creating an independent commission for nominating and selecting the city attorney and monitor.

“Our fear is that we're going to have a situation where a monitor will be selected and just kind of thrown on us. Because the mayor selects the monitor, selects the sheriff, the chief of police, the director of safety and everything else, it’s troubling, because everyone is answering to the same political entity,” Davis said. “So if we want to continue with that model, we have to have the process be transparent.”