12 metro police agencies joined Denver during protests

Tactics, use-of-force rules differed among departments; tactics draw rebuke from federal judge

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In the days after protests against racial injustice and police brutality first broke out in Denver on May 28, the Denver Police Department called in backup from a dozen metro-area law enforcement agencies, each bringing their own equipment, tactics and use-of-force regulations.

City police departments and county sheriff’s offices in Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, Adams and Broomfield counties assisted in Denver.

As police and protesters clashed, with some protesters vandalizing or destroying property or throwing objects at police, officers deployed a variety of crowd-control methods, including firing “less-lethal munitions” at protesters, and deploying tear gas and flash-bang devices.

How Denver police oversaw and coordinated the response and crowd-control methods of officers from numerous agencies is difficult to determine -- the department did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Colorado Community Media.

But in a rebuke of police tactics, federal District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson issued a temporary restraining order against Denver police and partner agencies late on June 5, severely restricting their ability to use such methods.

“Although I do not agree with those who have committed property damage during the protests, property damage is a small price to pay for constitutional rights — especially the constitutional right of the public to speak against widespread injustice,” Jackson wrote in an 11-page decision, citing injuries to protesters including “loss of vision, fractured bones requiring surgery, deep laceration, loss of eyes, (and) ruptured testicles.”

“If a store’s windows must be broken to prevent a protestor’s facial bones from being broken or eye being permanently damaged, that is more than a fair trade,” Jackson wrote. “If a building must be graffiti-ed to prevent the suppression of free speech, that is a fair trade. The threat to physical safety and free speech outweighs the threat to property.”

The protests were spurred by the May 25 death of black Minneapolis man George Floyd, who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Investigators ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, and officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.

Officers from a dozen metro-area agencies responded to the Denver protests, according to Denver police: Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, Arvada Police, Aurora Police, Broomfield Police, Brighton Police, Commerce City Police, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, Lakewood Police, Wheat Ridge Police and Westminster Police.

Though Colorado Community Media was not able to obtain comment from all 12 agencies, a sampling of respondents showed a variety of tactics and involvement.

Adams County deputies, for example, deployed flash-bang devices and two types of tear gas, according to Commander Paul Gregory.

In social media posts and in response to questions from journalists, Denver police repeatedly denied using flash-bang devices against protesters.

Adams County deputies detained protesters on behalf of Denver police, Gregory said, but said the detainments were not arrests.

Unlike many local agencies, Adams County deputies do not wear body cameras.

Gregory did not respond to a question about how many Adams County deputies provided backup in Denver.

Adams County Sheriff Rick Reigenborn did not respond to multiple requests for comment on his department’s tactics and crowd control methods.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office sent 44 officers on May 31 and June 1, drawn from county deputies and officers from city police departments that form a joint task force.

The Jefferson County team made about 10 arrests, said Sheriff Jeff Shrader, including “three or four” people found to be carrying weapons including guns. Shrader said he was unsure whether Jefferson County personnel deployed tear gas, but said he was aware of one instance of a deputy firing “less-lethal” rounds at a fleeing suspect.

Shrader said he understands the outrage at Floyd’s death.

“We all witnessed a murder in that video,” Shrader said, adding he supports many elements of a police reform bill making its way through the state General Assembly.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office used a variety of munitions, according to spokesperson Lauren Childress, including tear gas, "sting ball grenades," foam bullets, bean bag rounds, flash-bang grenades and 40mm "aerial warning" munitions.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock declined a request for an interview through a spokesperson.

In an interview on other matters with CCM’s Elliott Wenzler, Spurlock decried the Floyd killing, saying: “There is no reasonable, rational reason for any police officer to use that kind of restraint on someone.”

Other departments’ responses to assist in Denver appear to have been more low-key.

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office sent between 40 and 50 deputies for several nights, said Sheriff Tyler Brown, but said they fired no shots or tear gas and made no arrests.

Brown said he sympathized with protesters, saying George Floyd’s killing was “an abuse of power people should be upset about.”

While Brown said he is confident Arapahoe County is a forward-thinking department, there’s always room for improvement.

“We need to make sure our ears and offices are open to have these conversations,” Brown said. “We can do this together.”

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