First Amendment expert: DPD public records dispute 'raises significant suspicion'

DA investigating complaint DPD withheld records

DENVER -- A top advocate for open records in Colorado says he supports the Denver district attorney’s decision to investigate whether Denver police administrators violated the state’s open records law.

Denver7 Investigates was first to report about the open records dispute between DPD and the police union, which centered around a letter to the chief written by former district attorney Mitch Morrissey. The letter was highly critical of the department’s actions in arresting a woman for sexual assault who was ultimately released from jail and never charged. Although the chief sent a letter of his own in response, the department did not turn over either letter in response to two requests from the union for any correspondence between Morrissey and the chief about the woman’s arrest.

First amendment attorney Steve Zansberg tells Denver7 Investigates the situation “raises significant suspicion.”

“I think individuals within the Denver Police Department have a problem and I think the police department needs to investigate it and get to the bottom of what happened,” Zansberg said.

Denver police released the letters to the union days after Denver7 Investigates began asking questions about the correspondence – more than a month after the union filed its initial request.

“It raises significant suspicion that they were unable to find a letter until you told them you had a copy of it,” Zansberg said.

DPD deputy chief Matt Murray told Denver7 Investigates the department did not make any effort to intentionally hide the letters, and the chief’s secretary did not initially realize she had copies of the documents.

WATCH: Deputy Chief Matt Murray’s complete responses to Denver7's questions about open records responses in this case.

"The response was based on people who didn't have anything, or didn't think they had anything, so they were answering honestly,” Murray told Denver7 Investigates. “They didn't realize there was a copy of the letter on the secretary's computer.”

Denver's chief investigative reporter, Tony Kovaleski, asked Zansberg to respond to that statement from Murray.

"Is it plausible the upper management of the Denver Police Department had no idea it had this letter in its possession?" Kovaleski asked.

"It is not plausible," Zansberg said. "The letter is directed to the police chief, it came from the district attorney. They clearly knew of the letter. The question is whether or not they looked for it adequately."

“They lied and said that the letter didn't exist, that there were no records responsive to our request,” said union president Nick Rogers. “It was nothing but an out-and-out lie.”

The police union said it submitted the same open records request to the district attorney’s office and received both Morrissey’s and White’s letters in response.

Denver’s Department of Public Safety has opened an independent investigation into the entire issue including the circumstances leading to the woman’s arrest and the open records dispute.

Murray declined a request for another interview with Denver7 to respond to the two active investigations.

"There is no need for an additional interview as the facts have not changed. I welcome any and all investigations into this matter," Murray wrote to Denver7.

When asked by Denver7 whether Murray is on administrative leave during the investigation, Department of Public Safety spokesperson Daelene Mix wrote: 

“The circumstances and facts of each case are evaluated before a decision is made to place an officer on administrative leave. Typically, officers are placed on administrative leave when they have been charged with a crime, when there is evidence of a repeated pattern of misconduct, when there is a public safety concern, or when fitness for duty is being addressed. These factors are not applicable in this instance; therefore, administrative leave is not warranted.”

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