By Ernest Gurulé
In a surprise that caught even confidants off guard, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen announced he is retiring. After 28 years, the last four as the department’s top cop, he’s calling it a day.
Pazen, only the city’s second Latino to serve as Denver Chief of Police, announced his retirement Aug. 30. Pazen led the city through one of its bumpiest four-year periods in Denver history.
His tenure was marked by a pandemic, bloody and violent clashes with police, and a rising violent crime rate compounded by a national trend of understaffing. It was a real-time, 21st century troika that confronted Denver and stretched coast to coast.
“It’s been a tough couple of years,” Pazen acknowledged.
But the challenges of a new century also inspired new and perhaps overdue methods of policing. One of Pazen’s proudest and most significant achievements, he said, was his introduction of DPD’s Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR program.
Pazen saw that some calls, especially those where a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, are “cases that are not harmful.” Others might be situations where people are experiencing bad reactions to drugs, homelessness, or issues not requiring a traditional police response. These are cases where trained behavioral mental health clinicians are often a better option for the situation.
To date, STAR has responded more than 3,000 times. Pazen said other cities have copied the STAR approach and calls it an example of a department being “flexible enough to pivot.”
Perhaps no period tested Pazen and the department more than the fallout from a single incident a time zone away. In May 2020, a nation watched a Minneapolis cop literally detain a suspect to death.
Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of a Black man suspected of using counterfeit money for a purchase. For nine minutes in broad daylight a crowd watched as the officer’s actions ended the life of George Floyd. The incident went viral and within hours cities in every time zone, including Denver, exploded in violence.
“First and foremost,” Pazen said, “I condemn that.” What the nation witnessed was a perfect example, he said, of “cops operating outside the bounds of what is expected of them. It makes it more difficult for us to do our jobs.”
The 2020 confrontations in Denver over Floyd’s death also resulted in lawsuits alleging excessive force along with internal criticism that some officers were unprepared and undertrained to handle the protests. Since Floyd’s death, the country has witnessed other high-profile clashes between cops and citizens that have added to the unease.
Policing has become one of the nation’s front-burner concerns, said Pazen, long an advocate of building relationships between community and cops.
“We have to treat all community members with respect and dignity,” he said. “By being professional and courteous and doing what is expected of us we can win over some of our critics.”
But a recent police shooting in Lower Downtown that injured six bystanders didn’t help. In July, three DPD officers fired their weapons at an armed suspect at closing time.
“Based upon the information we have at this time, we understand that these injuries to these individuals were directly or indirectly caused by the rounds fired by one or more officers,” said a DPD spokesman. Because the case has been referred to a grand jury, Pazen chose to not comment.
As Pazen moves toward his mid-October retirement, so too does the city move closer to a record year in homicides.
“Sixty people have died from murder,” Pazen said, adding that they’re often from marginalized groups. Almost half have been Black, 35% Latino, 17% White, and 4% Asian. “That is not the demographics of Denver.” Still, he said, DPD’s homicide clearance rates “are at or above 70 percent.”
Pazen said he will leave his job knowing the department has also made a difference in another area that gets far too little attention.
“I’m proud of our human trafficking team,” he said. He called human trafficking a crime affecting the most vulnerable. Its victims are often young immigrant women who’ve been lured to this country with the promise of a better life only to end up in bondage. Other victims are young runaways. “Imagine being trafficked and what it is like,” he said.
Like all departments, Pazen said, the job never gets easier. Violent crime paints that picture and Denver, like other large cities, struggles to meet the challenge. Budget shortfalls, retirements, and resignations have left the department an estimated 140 officers below a full complement of 1,600. As a result, Pazen said, officers are often unable to respond to 911 calls as timely as he would like. Another fast approaching record is Denver’s vehicular deaths.
“This year, we have a 30 percent increase in auto fatalities–48 people have lost their lives,” Pazen said.
Pazen is withholding judgment on legalized marijuana’s impact on crime.
“Most people would agree that added revenue has been generated,” he said. “The downside is yet to be determined.”
Still, he’s encouraged that people are reading the literature on pot and coming to understand the data on high-potency THC and its mental health impact on younger people. Pazen said despite the challenges of commanding the largest department in Colorado–1,500 men and women–it’s a rewarding job.
“It’s been the honor of a lifetime.”
He has been able to put his signature on programs that have made the department better and more professional.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who appointed Pazen from District 1 commander to chief, praised Pazen for his leadership.
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann called him “a dedicated public servant” and thanked him for his leadership.
Hancock will also be leaving office in the spring and still must appoint Pazen’s successor. Until then, Division Chief Ron Thomas will serve as acting chief. Pazen’s last official day on the job is Oct. 15.