Police Discipline Rules Face Review

November 2004

When it comes to the internal discipline of police officers, Denver has always proceeded under the "comparative discipline rule." In theory, the rule means that similar misconduct gets similar punishment. But does it result in punishment that is too lax? Revision or abandonment of the rule will be the subject of police and community meetings, beginning next week.

Denver officials intend to begin next week a lengthy review and revamp of guidelines for disciplining police officers, continuing a debate about a rule that restricts penalties. The city's decades-old "comparative discipline" rule -- which mandates that an officer's punishment cannot be any more or less severe than others received in similar circumstances -- will be a key focus of a committee formed to study and propose reforms.

Denver voters will have to approve a change to the city charter to enact a change.

...the charter dictates that the city's Civil Service Commission, in reviewing an appeal of a disciplinary decision, must determine whether the punishment "is consistent with discipline received by other members of the department under similar circumstances."

In the wake of two police shootings since 2003, many believe the "comparative discipline" approach results in lax punishment. For example, James Turney, the officer who killed mentally disabled teenager Paul Childs received 10 months suspension without pay. Many thought he should be fired. Yet, Turney is appealing his suspension on the grounds that it is out of line with comparative discipline. Comparative discipline has its supporters. Some minority officers believe it prevents them from being treated more harshly than white officers. Others believe that it protects officers from being the victim of politics in any given police administration.

Detective Rufino Trujillo, President of the Latin Police Officers' Association would rather see the comparative discipline scuttled:

"I look at it this way: You're not going to find something that's equal with what another officer has done," said Trujillo, who has not gone through the disciplinary process himself. "I'd rather my case be looked at individually - not in comparative discipline."

A study of the issue is expected to take a year or more.