- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Denver Police Department’s official watchdog this week once again urged law enforcement officials not to punch suspects who are believed to be swallowing drugs.

An annual report released by the city’s Office of the Independent Monitor on Tuesday recommends the department adopt new policies so its officers have guidance when arresting a person who may be attempting to ingest evidence.

“The OIM recommends that the DPD revise its Use of Force Policy to provide specific guidance on what types of force are permitted, and prohibited, to remove potential contraband from the mouths of persons being placed under arrest. The OIM further recommends that this revised policy prohibit the use of strikes to force persons being place under arrest to spit out potential contraband,” the report reads.

The suggestion comes on the heels of a high-profile incident in 2014 in which an officer was caught on camera repeatedly punching a suspect who had been allegedly stuffing a heroin-filled sweat sock into his mouth.

Cmdr. Matt Murray, the department’s chief of staff, told the Denver Post at the time that officers had “no choice” other than to strike the man in hopes of forcing him to spit out the sock. Absent any explicit rules on what to do when an individual attempts to swallow contraband, however, the watchdog said this week that Denver cops should follow in the footsteps of the Seattle Police Department and adopt specific guidelines for officers who become involved in such situations.

The watchdog verbally recommended policy revision in December 2015, then “specifically recommended that the DPD prohibit the use of strikes to force persons to spit out potential contraband” in a January 2016 letter to the chief of police.

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“The Policy’s only discussion of this subject is its short notation that officers may not use Tasers to prevent arrestees form swallowing contraband. Similarly, the DPD training academy does not currently provide any specific training addressing the removal of potential contraband from a suspect’s mouth and, if so, what types of force should be used,” Independent Monitor Nicholas E. Mitchell wrote the police chief earlier this year.

“I believe that this gap in the DPD’s current policy and training leaves officers in the unenviable position of having to make field determinations about whether to attempt to remove potential contraband from arrestees’ mouths, quickly and under tense circumstances, without formal direction from the DPD. This creates various risks, including risks to citizen and officer safety, the possibility of citizen complaints and potential liability for the City,” he wrote. “It also creates the risk that officers’ uses of force in these situations may be inconsistent with the overall goals of the Use of Force Policy, and with community expectations about the amount of force that should be used to protect a person from the risks of swallowing contraband, and to recover potential evidence.”

At least 2,037 altercations occurred between 2013 and 2015 in which one or more DPD officer used force on a suspect, the OIM report reads.

“Relying on brute force should never occur,” Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Denver Colorado Latino Forum, told the city’s KDVR News this week.

“When you don’t direct officers, when they are left to make stuff up on the scene, then it becomes justified because there’s a gap in the policy? That’s a problem,” she said. “The community should know what to expect and so should police officers.”

Sonny Jackson, a spokesman for the DPD, told KDVR that the network is in the process of implementing a new Use of Force policy that addresses the watchdog’s concern.

“We’ve reached out to other agencies throughout the country, medical professionals, and we’re in the midst of drafting a policy in that area,” he told the television station. “It’s very close — not so close I can speak on it yet, but close in that area.”

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