For nearly a decade, Nick Mitchell oversaw discipline of Denver’s law enforcement, investigated the most controversial deaths at the hands of those officers and navigated a continuous shuffling of sheriffs, police chiefs and city leaders.
But Denver’s top law enforcement watchdog will step down from his role in January after being appointed by a federal court to oversee reform in the country’s biggest jail system. He loved his job, he said, but it’s hard to say no when the Department of Justice comes calling.
“We’ve pushed for accountability when officers or deputies have abused the public,” Mitchell said when asked about his proudest moments as monitor. “We both cleared many officers who were falsely accused and we’ve ensured that officers who abused the public were relieved of their duties.”
Mitchell was appointed the Denver’s independent monitor in 2012 — the second person to hold the position — and for nearly a decade oversaw discipline and reform in the city’s police and sheriff’s departments. He will continue to live in Denver while leading a team of specialists working to implement a court-ordered, 69-part consent decree in Los Angeles County’s jails.
Under Mitchell’s leadership, the office of the independent monitor investigated the most controversial law enforcement missteps in the city, including a report released Dec. 8 that found Denver police were ill-prepared to respond to George Floyd protests earlier this year and that officers used excessive force on protesters. Other investigations, like the scathing inquiry into the death of Michael Marshall at the hands of Denver sheriff’s deputies, prompted long-term reform in the city’s law enforcement agencies.
The office successfully urged the police and sheriff’s departments to create more stringent use of force policies and stricter body camera rules.
Mitchell also expanded his office’s staff, budget and power over eight years. The office staff has grown to 13 from a staff of three when he took over in 2012 and now has a budget of $1.9 million.
But there’s more work to be done, Mitchell said.
“I think oversight changes and it’s a learning process,” he said. “I hope the city continues to improve the structure by looking at ways to make the office increasingly independent and to strengthen the power of the office.”
Denver leaders also need to have a long overdue conversation about jailing in the city, Mitchell said. Denver’s jail population is large compared to the city’s size and more needs to be done to treat incarcerated people with addiction or mental health needs, he said.
“Denver has been extremely slow to have conversations about that,” he said.
The news of Mitchell’s departure caught Denver City Councilman Paul Kashmann off guard, though the chair of the city’s safety committee said he completely understands why Los Angeles would want to hire the monitor. Now, a five-person committee must be formed — which will include a representative from the council, the chair of the Citizen Oversight Board and a current or retired judge — to look for replacement candidates, Kashmann said.
While Council President Stacie Gilmore will appoint the council representative on that committee, Kashmann said the final candidate or candidates will go before council and joked that he’ll be looking for a clone of Nick Mitchell.
“Some of the essential characteristics the monitor must possess are the ability to work with both sides of the situation, work with the community,” Kashmann said. “And to work with whether it’s the police department, fire department or sheriff’s department that you’re investigating but remain independent.”
Mitchell commended the city’s current sheriff and police chief for their openness to his office’s recommendations — Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen agreed to adopt nearly all of the 16 recommendations Mitchell made in his investigation into the department’s protest response. Not all of the chiefs, sheriffs and public safety department leaders Mitchell has worked with have been as receptive to his oversight.
“Some of the relationships were incredibly challenging, and I think over time we’ve been able to calibrate a better understanding of what the Office of the Independent Monitor does,” he said.
Whoever is selected as Mitchell’s replacement will report to Mayor Michael Hancock, and for years many have discussed whether the independent monitor is truly independent so long as they report to the city’s chief executive.
Kashmann acknowledged the debate over whether the position should be an elected one, but said he hasn’t made up his mind one way or the other. In a statement, however, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca made clear her position and said she will propose changes to strengthen the monitor’s independence, the level of resources for the office and a community process for picking Mitchell’s successor.
“Nick’s departure adds a new sense of urgency for creating a monitor’s office that is truly independent not just in name but in structure,” CdeBaca said in her statement.
Mitchell joined the Office of the Independent Monitor after a brief stint at a private Denver law firm. He also previously worked at a private firm in New York City and as a investigator for the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board for the city’s police department.
During his time in Denver, leaders of other cities have called him for advice about setting up their own law enforcement oversight agencies.
“Trying to make the justice system more human is incredibly important,” Mitchell said. “It’s an extremely democratic impulse to have checks and balances on power of criminal justice systems. We give tremendous power to police officers and jailers and we need outside scrutiny to make sure that power is being used responsibility.”
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