DENVER — It's been less than a month since Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas was sworn in, but he's already facing candid questions about how he will tackle some of the most pressing challenges within the department and city.
Following his October ceremony, the newly-minted chief foreshadowed two major dynamics of his new role — rebuilding community trust while decreasing crime.
"I mean, I've been a very, visible officer my entire career," Thomas said during an interview with Denver7. "I've enjoyed engaging with the community. I'm certainly open to connecting with communities to create additional engagement, because I certainly don't want anybody to walk away with the impression that we don't already do this."
Thomas has been at the Denver Police Department for more than 30 years and replaces former Chief Paul Pazen, who announced his retirement in late August.
Thomas is the second Black man to hold the rank of chief within the police department. Previously, he served as the commander of Police Districts 2 and 5. He also led Denver PD's Internal Affairs Division before being appointed to lead the patrol division in 2018.
Thomas' face is also recognizable among Denverites, due to the press briefings he's provided after major crime events across the city — one of the most recent happening in Lower Downtown (LoDo) on July 17. Three Denver police officers discharged their weapons while trying to apprehend a suspect, injuring six innocent bystanders.
In mid-August, District Attorney Beth McCann announced a grand jury investigation into the police shooting.
"It's our job to protect the community from harm, not to harm the community. So that's a very troubling situation," Thomas said. "What it highlights for me is the need to have training to make sure that officers are able to distinguish when is the appropriate time to shoot and when it's not."
However, the actions of some Denver officers had been called into question long before the LoDo shooting. Back in March, a jury awarded $14 million in damages to 12 plaintiffs who argued excessive force was used by Denver police during the social justice protests of 2020.
Thomas pointed to Mayor Michael Hancock's proposed 2023 budget as means to obtain more training for officers.
"You know, the mayor's budget allows for a significant amount of overtime," Thomas said. "I really intend to use that overtime in two ways — one, to create opportunities for officers to get the necessary training."
"We have a very robust training program that involves not just live shooting, but also a virtual training situation," Thomas added.
According to the Denver Department of Finance, the proposed 2023 budget recommends a little more than $8 million for officer overtime pay. The 2022 budget allocated $6.5 million for overtime.
"$1.55 million of the overtime increase (2022 to 2023) is due to DPD’s 2023 request to increase annual officer in-service training from 68 to 80 hours per officer," a spokesperson for the City of Denver said.
If Hancock's recommendation for police funding is approved by the Denver City Council, Thomas said the increased overtime pay will also be used to navigate the department's shortage of officers amid rising crime rates. A final vote on the budget is scheduled for Nov. 17.
As of last week, Denver PD was short nearly 200 officers. Fifty-eight new officers were sworn in on Oct. 28, but they'll be on probationary period for a year.
"Being very intentional about using overtime to make sure that there are additional officers in the high call volume times so that we have enough staff to address the the workload," Thomas said.
The chief said he'd also reallocate duties within the department so more reports pertaining to low-level crime offenses could be taken over the phone, making officers more readily available for the city's crime "hot spots" first identified by Denver PD in 2020:
- South Federal Boulevard and West Alameda Avenue
- Colfax Avenue and Broadway
- Colfax Avenue and Yosemite Street
- 47th Avenue and Peoria Street
- MLK Jr. Boulevard and Holly Street
According to Denver's crime dashboard, year-to-date data shows sexual assaults, robberies, and aggravated assaults have all increased compared to this time last year. According to a mid-year report compiled by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, homicides in Denver have also increased. Another report detailing crime totals from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30 is slated to be released Friday.
Last week, during a community forum hosted by the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, Thomas answered questions from in-person and online attendees for more than two hours. The questions received were broad in nature, but the vast majority required Thomas to address his stance on police reform.
"We really want to see the community's voice elevated in how DPD polices. We know that the [police] union has a very strong voice. We want the community to have a similarly strong voice in how we are policed, as well. We're the ones being policed, we want to have a voice in how that looks. If we can walk away from tonight's meeting agreeing that's going to be the direction, then we will consider it a win," Dr. Robert Davis, project coordinator for the task force, told Denver7 ahead of the event.
The full forum can be viewed below: