Police misconduct: New review commander suggested suspension for DeHerrera officers

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Michael Battista.
In the past month, the Denver Police Department has institutionalized numerous changes aimed at increasing the efficiency of its internal reviews and encouraging the public to put faith in the results. According to Police Chief Robert White and Manager of Safety Alex Martinez, this is a very, very good thing. But community representatives are less certain: Most recently, some have taken up arms against newly-appointed Conduct Review Commander Michael Battista, a decision-maker in the Michael DeHerrera review.

In DeHerrera's case, Battista played an instrumental role in supporting the three-day suspension doled out to Devin Sparks and Randy Murr, both officers involved in DeHerrera's on-camera assault in 2009. Then-Independent Monitor Richard Rosenthal endorsed firing both men. (Since then,they have been fired, re-hired and then un-re-hired. Their recently appealed reinstatement has been rescheduled for consideration -- by the same three officers who originally kept him on the force.) Battista also coordinated police operations at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where critics alleged violence and frequent accusations of civil rights violations.

Battista discusses his appointment:

Battista's promotion comes roughly two weeks after that of Mary Beth Klee, the new head of the Internal Affairs division. Klee's appointment also came with some controversy, as Klee previously spoke in support of the officers involved in the Denver Diner incident. During the case's initial review, she testified that the officers acted within their responsibilities to maintain public safety.

"I think this sends a terrible message to the community, that they're taking Battista after he made a recommendation for a three-day suspension and putting him in a greater position of power, just like it's a terrible message to take Mary Beth Klee after she said the officers in the Denver Diner case did nothing wrong," says Mu Son Chi, racial justice and civil rights program director at the Colorado Progressive Coalition.

The group and its constituents are leading an effort to convince the Department of Justice to formally investigate the DPD. "What we see here is a trend: If you're in a position to put dangerous and violent officers back on the street today, today you will be placed in a greater position of authority."

Klee talks about her new position:

The new appointments also include Jess Vigil as deputy manager of police discipline in the Manager of Safety's Office. All of the changes push toward redrafting the structure of the department, which will be finished this coming Monday. At the announcement for Battista's promotion, Chief White estimated that processing time for investigations should decline by at least 50 percent overall.

But those who work with victims of the department's alleged misconduct have demanded a specific deadline of ninety days for the process. Although White estimates sixty to ninety days is the norm, only Martinez's role comes with a strict deadline: fifteen days. Notably, the case of Alexander Landau, the victim of alleged brutality after being pulled over for an illegal left turn in 2009, has lasted more than three years. The CPC, which has worked with Landau in addition to DeHerrera and those involved in the Denver Diner incident, says time extensions should only apply when requested by the Independent Monitor or one of the victims themselves.

"If you were to be racially profiled or assaulted by an officer today, there's no indication that that case would be processed any faster than Alex Landau's, which has taken over three years," says Chi. "What we need is expectation and accountability, and that needs to be institutionalized. It's not sufficient to say we're going to try, because we've seen how that plays out."

Also on the organization's wishlist for structural changes to the Denver Police Department is a ban on officers performing their duties while under investigation. "Chief White has been a pretty stand-up guy, and he's new to Denver, so he hasn't seen all of this go down over the years," Chi says. "In Alex Landau's case, Randy Murr was involved less than 90 days later in Michael DeHerrera's assault."

Yesterday, the ACLU of Colorado joined the CPC with a separate formal request for the Department of Justice to investigate the DPD -- this one on behalf of Occupy Denver. In the past month, the CPC has collected more than 1,000 signatures in support of their own, and they continue to meet with Police Chief Robert White about their demands. With police conduct at the forefront of its community's concerns, the organization's membership is increasing daily, Chi says.

"Right now, we're at a turning point with out relationship to Denver law enforcement," Chi says. "We saw that when the Trayvon Martin issue came up, and it really brought to the forefront that we have serious issues around race, racial profiling, accountability, all those things. There's a lot of momentum around all of this, and I'm not sure yet where it will go."

More from our News archives: "Mary Beth Klee, new DPD Internal Affairs boss, a brutality apologist, attorney says."

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