Denver, CO

'Get out of our way' Denver activists tell mayor, police chief

David Heitz


A group of activists for people of color, people experiencing homelessness, and a general “street culture” rallied on the steps of Denver City Hall, blasting Mayor Michael Hancock and Police Chief Paul Pazen for shutting them out of talks regarding police reforms.

Specifically, the groups want to know why decisions are being made regarding expansion of the city’s STAR program without the promised community input.

Denver launched STAR as a pilot program last year. Instead of sending cops on calls regarding substance abuse, mental illness or homelessness, social workers and mental health care providers respond in a van. They try to diffuse situations which Denver police have had a history of exacerbating.

Instead of arresting people, they offer help.

Vinnie Cervantes of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR) and Homeless Out Loud spearheaded the spirited press conference. “We continue to see decisions made without our input,” Cervantes said of the STAR program. “Decisions made at the legislative level.”

‘Dismissive behavior and hostility’ at police reform table

“An expansion committee was initiated in August, but community members have experienced dismissive behavior and hostility while being part of a collaborative table,” DASHR explained in a news release. “Even with barriers from the city, the expansion committee still forwarded some visions for expansion to the Denver Department of Health and Environment. We have been waiting for updates since February.

“We were surprised to learn of those updates at a recent safety and housing committee presentation to city council on March 24. Community stakeholders were neither notified nor present at the meeting and components of the presentation for expansion were not in alignment with what had been established through our work with the city.”

Cervantes said that although elected officials talk about the ideas of people who live on the streets or work with them, “we do not see our voice.”

He said the news media also does a poor job of representing homeless people. “We ask the media to respect community voices.”

City Hall acting ‘paternalistic at best’

Ana Cornelius, a street organizer with Homeless Out Loud, called working on the STAR citizen committee “bittersweet,” saying the “city has been paternalistic at best” and “I don’t know how they can assume that they know better than we.”

Cornelius ended with a popular civil rights mantra, “Nothing about us without us.” The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.

One by one, community organizers approached the microphone and shared their disappointment over feeling shut out of the police reform process. “They said this was a new environment and a new paradigm and it’s not,” Rev. Holmes said.

Activists make three demands

The activists made three primary demands during the news conference Thursday, including:

• Structure of STAR advisory group: Immediate adoption and implementation of the initial proposal for the advisory committee and its membership.

• Decision-making: No further decisions to be made regarding STAR without community driving the conversation.

• Narrative: That the city administration, elected officials, and media honor the concept of a community-driven program by prioritizing and including the voices of people from the street and those who work with them.

“We recognize STAR’s impact and need in Denver, and there’s still a lot of work to do to ensure it is truly a community-driven program that serves the needs of those most impacted by systemic violence,” DASHR stated.

‘Get ... out of our way, Hancock’

Sky Roosevelt Morris, who represented several native groups, gave a rousing speech. “Get ... out of our way (Denver Mayor Michael) Hancock. Get ... out of our way (Denver Police Chief Paul) Pazen.”

Another speaker said that police being “culturally responsive” doesn’t just refer to ethnicity. It also refers to being cognizant of a culture of the streets, poverty, a culture of police abuse, of homelessness, and prisons.

One woman who works with people with disabilities said her clients fear the police and won’t call them.

All anybody expects from police is to be treated with dignity and respect, one speaker said. “De-escalate, not escalate,” he quipped, adding, “It’s a violent system that puts the wrong person in the wrong situation.”

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

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