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Citizen oversight board calls for accountability in Denver police lawsuit settlements

The board issued an open letter to Denver Mayor Mike Johnston and other city leaders detailing its concerns.
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Posted at 8:00 PM, Nov 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-24 22:33:54-05

DENVER — In an open letter to city leaders, a citizen oversight board is calling for more accountability and transparency to make sure the City of Denver is honoring all aspects of its settlement agreements in police-related lawsuits.

This week marks eight years since the death of 50-year-old Michael Marshall.

“Michael Marshall was an individual who was experiencing a mental health crisis in the Denver Sheriff's Department custody,” said Julia Richman, who chairs the Denver Citizen Oversight Board, a nine-member board that reviews police hiring, training and disciplinary practices.

Video obtained by Denver7 after the incident shows deputies holding Marshall face down for several minutes. A medical examiner said this caused Marshall to choke on his vomit and ruled his death a homicide.

The city settled out of court with the family for $4.6 million.

“So, in thinking about the death of Michael Marshall, our board administrator really started to look into the settlement that surrounded his death,” said Richman.

In reviewing high-profile settlements like Marshall’s, Richman said the board discovered the city was not complying with its promises to implement change.

“The non-financial elements of these cases are the things that prevent harm in the future for members of the public, members of the city, and that's really where the change is supposed to take place,” said Richman.

The board said the city has done a poor job of tracking records and sharing critical information that would show its progress.

“In one case, we found a real lack of documentation. Nobody seemed to have ownership of them. They weren't in city records anymore,” said Richman. “And so, things like that lead us to believe that the city wasn't really taking those elements seriously.”

The board issued an open letter Friday detailing its findings and concerns to Denver Mayor Mike Johnston and other city leaders.

“We wanted to raise awareness around that and wanted the city to begin to take these seriously with a new mayor and new council. We felt like this is the time to start to have this conversation,” said Richman. “We can do this differently going forward.”

In a statement, Johnston said the city and his administration are "committed to accountability.

“The City and County of Denver and the Johnston Administration are committed to accountability throughout the city, and we are always open to meeting with the Citizen Oversight Board to discuss opportunity for improvements,” Johnston said in a statement. “Citizens' trust that the City will enforce and follow through with settlement agreements is crucial, and we will continue to work diligently to ensure we meet Denverites' expectations.”

The Denver Department of Public Safety, which includes the police and sheriff's departments, said it has complied with its settlement agreements and took issue with the oversight board's conclusions.

“The Department of Public Safety meets regularly with the Citizen Oversight Board and always makes ourselves available to address their concerns. While the COB may hold opinions that the settlement agreements should have been negotiated differently, the department has complied with the terms that were agreed upon and will continue to be transparent and share improvements with the public to enhance trust in public safety,” said Armando Saldate, the executive director of the Denver Department of Safety.

The Denver Police Department deferred to the Department of Public Safety’s statement.

The citizen oversight board said the city has paid out more than $17 million dollars in police-related settlements since 2022, including $9.5 million since July of this year.

The board holds public meetings on the first and third Friday of each month and often questions law enforcement officials, such as Saldate and Denver Police Department Chief Ron Thomas about a variety of matters.

Citizen oversight board calls for accountability in Denver police lawsuit settlements

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