Everything was old.
The candles the small group lit in memory of George Floyd had been lit before, for other victims of police violence. The song, “We Shall Overcome,” had been sung before. The prayers for an end to police brutality and healing for those victimized had been prayed before.
But the small crowd gathered anyways at Shorter Community AME Church in Denver last week on the eve of the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. They came to pray, once again, for change.
A year ago, Robert Davis said, Denver residents rose up and demanded the end of police brutality and a change in how the city creates public safety. Thousands marched for days over the summer, but the crowds have dwindled, he said, motioning to the two dozen people at the church.
“The elected officials, the politicians, they know — they’ll wait for us to get tired and go home,” he said. “But the police unions won’t get tired. The corporate interests won’t get tired. So we can’t either.”
City leaders promised reform in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder as massive protests of thousands of people took to the streets in downtown Denver beginning May 28, 2020, and then every day for more than a week, demanding fundamental change to policing and public safety.
Demands for reform grew after Denver police used tear gas, pepper balls and other projectiles on the crowds — including peaceful protesters — citing a need to stop property damage and people who were throwing things at officers. City leaders promised to listen.
A year later, is anything different in Denver? Depends who you ask.
“There hasn’t actually been a lot of change across Denver — I still feel like I live in the same city,” said Gabriel “Echo” Lavine, founder of the Afro Liberation Front, who led protests in Denver. “You have to put your policy where your words are. It’s not enough to say Black Lives Matter.”
Police Chief Paul Pazen disagreed. He pointed to a range of policy and training changes implemented over the last year, including changes made after an investigation by the city’s Office of the Independent Monitor found major flaws in how police responded to the 2020 protests.
Outside of the department, Denver Public Schools decided to phase out its program that places police officers in schools. A police reform law passed by the state legislature in June created broad change across Colorado, and lawmakers continue to debate more legislation this session.
Local leaders said they’re listening and open to new ideas about policing. But a year after the George Floyd demonstrations, protesters, reformers and city officials agree on one thing: There’s still a lot of work to be done.
“I’d be lying if I told you we changed the entire police department,” Murphy Robinson, director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, said during a roundtable with reporters in April. “There just hasn’t been enough time for that.”
Are changes enough?
The city did cut the Denver Police Department’s 2021 budget, but because of financial instability caused by COVID-19, not protesters’ calls to use the department’s money to pay for social services.
The budget cuts could be restored later this year as all city departments are submitting requests for more money out of Denver’s allocation from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, mayoral spokesman Michael Strott said. The City Council will have to approve the additional spending.
Pazen rattled off a long list when asked what he thought was the most significant change in Denver public safety since the protests.
Those changes include:
- Updating the use of force policy to ban chokeholds and carotid holds in all situations, require officers to report when they point a gun at someone, and require SWAT team members to turn their body cameras on during tactical operations
- Incorporating recommendations from an Office of the Independent Monitor investigation into how police handled the protests, including tracking the use of less-lethal munitions like foam bullets and creating formal mutual aid agreements with other law enforcement agencies
- Implementing Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement training to give officers the tools to intervene if another officer is using excessive force and establishing stricter rules around intervention
- Expanding the city’s co-responder program, which sends mental health workers on calls with police, and the STAR program, which sends mental health professionals instead of police to some 911 calls. Planning for STAR started prior to the protests and the City Council in October successfully pressured the mayor’s office into increasing funding from $1 million to $3 million.
- Assigning a commander to work full-time on diversity and equity initiatives in the department
- Banning the use of no-knock warrants for narcotics investigations
Robinson said the biggest change at the level of the Department of Public Safety has been the creation of the Transformation and Policy Division, a formal office where people can submit ideas for change.
“This has forced us to really reflect on the consequences and the history of our profession and really open up our hearts and our minds to think about things a little different,” Robinson said.
The city’s Citizen Oversight Board issued a list of suggested reforms following the protests and has seen slow progress on them, board chair Al Gardner said. The suggestions included reconsidering how much money the police and sheriff’s departments receive and strengthening the Office of the Independent Monitor.
“I don’t think there’s been major structural changes, but then again will major structural change change anything?” Gardner said. “I don’t think defunding the police is the solution. I think a reallocation of resources makes sense.”
The board’s members have seen a slight increase in the number of people attending their meetings and engaging in their work, Gardner said. More participation is necessary, he said.
Davis, who led the vigil at Shorter Community AME Church, simply said “no” when asked if Denver had changed in the way protesters demanded. He said he was disappointed in a lack of self-initiated change by public safety officials.
He led a coalition of more than 40 community organizations to create a list of 112 recommendations the city should implement to fundamentally change Denver public safety. The coalition, the Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, submitted its report to the city earlier this month, which included calls to automatically fire law enforcement officers who kill an unarmed person and replacing the Civil Service Commission with a Civilian Review Commission.
“A very precarious situation”
Some protesters said changes made at the state level, like the police reform bill, exceeded the cynical expectations they held during protests that little would change.
“I think more happened than I expected, but of course there’s still room for improvement,” said Ethan Boyce, who protested in Denver for three days until police officers shot him with foam bullets and he decided to stay home.
Boyce pointed to the police reform legislation passed in June as an example of needed change, as well as other bills in the legislature this year that aim to keep people from sitting in jail because they cannot afford bond or because a bond has not been set. The police reform bill removed the qualified immunity defense police use to shield themselves from civil rights lawsuits, made individual officers liable for up to $25,000 of settlements and required all officers to use body-worn cameras by July 2023, among other changes.
But more than policy change is needed, Lavine said. Denver needs to fundamentally shift how it creates and maintains public safety.
“We all need to be talking about restorative justice and community healing — how can we solve problems without putting someone in a cage?” they said. “How can we solve this without anyone getting hurt?”
The protests absolutely achieved one goal, said Quincy Shannon, who led several days of demonstrations in Denver. They sparked broad discussion of police brutality and the criminal legal system, he said.
“When we were marching over the summer, some of the most memorable moments were seeing a multitude of people from so many different backgrounds saying that simple statement — Black Lives Matter — was so powerful,” Shannon said. “Because there have been moments that I’ve questioned that people believed it.”
People who want change shouldn’t pat themselves on the back yet, said Chris Arias, who lived in Aurora and protested in Denver last June. It’s easy for people who are not affected by police brutality and the incarceration system to look at some of the reforms and say they’re enough.
“It’s a very precarious situation and I think it would be very, very easy for the ball to stop rolling now,” she said. “I think we might need more protests.”
“Can’t put our finger on any accountability”
Both Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board and the task force are pushing for more citizen involvement in the law enforcement disciplinary process. Both Pazen and Robinson in interviews pushed back on the idea that citizens should have more say in whether officers are suspended or fired.
They pointed to the Office of the Independent Monitor as a civilian role and also to Robinson’s office, which is staffed by personnel who aren’t in law enforcement and makes the final decision on what discipline is implemented.
“We already have it,” Robinson said.
Protesters and community leaders are frustrated with the pace and results of internal investigations into police’s use of force on protesters.
“We know people were extremely hurt and yet we can’t put our finger on any accountability for that,” Davis said.
The Denver Police Department opened 123 internal affairs cases in connection with officers’ conduct during the protests. As of May 7, 90 of those cases were closed and 33 remained open, according to the police department. Two police officers have been suspended for firing pepper balls at peaceful protesters.
The city also continues to fight four lawsuits filed on behalf of more than 20 people who say they were injured by police during the protests in Denver. The most recent suit, filed in March, alleges police fired a projectile at a woman providing first aid at the protests and shattered her nose and orbital bone.
Pazen declined to answer a question about whether the discipline meted out thus far was enough and whether there have been any repercussions for the commanding officers charged with overseeing the protest response. He said he couldn’t talk about the topic because of the ongoing investigations.
“I hope that DPD has the appetite for addressing any type of wrongdoing that happened during the Capitol protests,” Gardner said. “I don’t believe we’re moving as fast as we are able to. I don’t know if that’s due to lack of appetite or being super thorough.”
Taking the lead on foundational change?
In a news conference earlier this week, Mayor Michael Hancock touted Denver as a national leader in police reform and said the department is one of the most innovative in the country. He cited the city’s early adoption of body-worn cameras and said the department’s use of force policy was progressive.
Hancock didn’t directly answer a question about whether he thought Denver’s public safety system had undergone a significant change since the protests, but pointed to the city’s co-responder and STAR programs as evidence the city was constantly progressing. The planning for both programs predates the protests last year.
“Foundational change? I think you see Denver already taking the lead on that,” Hancock said.
But the mayor’s bragging about the department erases the fact that the past reforms he is touting were created only after community outcry and pressure, said Lisa Calderón, chief of staff for Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and a longtime advocate for Denver police and sheriff reform.
“The mayor took credit for the reforms of the past when those reforms were paid for through the blood of Denver residents, in protests and in lawsuits,” she said.
The Office of the Independent Monitor and the Civilian Oversight Board, which Hancock hailed as a national model, were created in 2004 after Denver police killed Paul Childs, who was 15 years old and developmentally disabled, sparking protests. Hancock mentioned that community members helped create the department’s use of force police, but that was only after community members and the City Council demanded they be a part of the policy creation process.
The Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety noted in its report that it is the fourth coalition of residents, city officials and law enforcement convened over the last 20 years to reform public safety. Several times, friction developed between law enforcement and community representatives in the groups. This time was no different. Robinson removed Department of Public Safety staff from the task force because he felt law enforcement didn’t have enough input in the process.
Hancock and Robinson said they would take the task force’s recommendations into consideration. City Council President Stacie Gilmore formed a working group of councilmembers to evaluate the recommendations and determine next steps, like new ordinances or changes to the city charter.
“I look forward to taking a deeper dive into these community recommendations and advancing the change that our constituents wish to see in Denver,” said Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who will serve as vice chair of the council working group.
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