Denver, CO

Relationship with Denver cops still strained, task force says

David Heitz

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Members of the Denver Reimagining Policing task force expressed frustration Thursday the Denver Department of Safety isn’t engaging the public on reform ideas.

It has been a year since the Reimagining Policing task force was born out of the George Floyd protests and a demand for better police accountability. “In some ways it feels like we’re back to square one in terms of the community not being involved,” said task force chair Robert Davis during their meeting.

Davis and other members of the task force expressed alarm that members of the new civilian street enforcement team have not received input or training from people experiencing homelessness. The enforcement team will have the ability to write people experiencing homelessness tickets for everything from litter to providing false information.

New team can clear small encampments without notice

“Nobody likes to have their house spied on and that’s what this is,” said Brandy Majors, a formerly homeless woman who attended the meeting via Zoom.

Task force member Jennifer Neese said she is “alarmed that the street enforcement team can participate in small encampments being swept without notice. It just seems extra cruel to write tickets for fines to people sleeping on concrete.”

According to the job post on LinkedIn, members of the street enforcement team “Serve as a visual deterrent to code violations, issues warnings and citations” and “prepares documents for courts.” The job description also says members of the team will share information with police.

No sensitivity training for new street team

Councilwoman Candi CDebaca also attended the meeting via Zoom. She said people with lived experiences with police were supposed to be part of the street enforcement team training. “A lot of people were blindsided,” she said. “You can see there is frustration among council members.”

Members of the task force said they are concerned the street enforcement team will eat up resources in public defender’s office. Others worried officials from the public safety department may be operating in “a black hole,” meeting secretly out of public view.

Dr. Aisha Rios made a presentation about various models of communication for engaging the public. Members pointed out that the models assume that the other party (in this case the public safety department) is willing to share information.

Time to abandon the system?

Members of the task force asked whether there is a model for abandoning the system when information and cooperation proves difficult. Rios responded abolitionism.

Task force member Tess Dougherty reported that housed neighbors in the community are organizing violence against people experiencing homelessness. She said they have threatened to go into the streets to solve the encampment problem themselves.

Doughterty said it’s difficult to reconcile not calling the police when residents are expressing ideas about vigilante behavior. One of the tasks force’s 115 recommendations is for residents to try to make peace with one another without calling police.

Neighborhood groups lukewarm to task force

Representatives of the task force have begun to meet with neighborhood associations about the reforms. Davis said there has been some pushback from the organizations about the task force’s recommendations.

“This is taking way some traditional power that police had for years,” Davis said. “There are some who benefited from that.”

Public Safety Director Murphy Robinson at a recent public meeting said the police department’s relationship with the task force is under repair. Davis asked the task force members to vote via Zoom’s chat feature whether they think the relationship has been repaired. “So far everyone has voted no,” Davis said a few seconds later. “When you talk about repairing relationships, it’s about more than having a couple of meetings. It’s about establishing trust.”

Only 60 percent of Denver cops vaccinated

Jessica Caouette, a member of the task force, said only 60 percent of the Denver police and sheriff’s departments have been vaccinated. Those who have not been vaccinated are supposed to be disciplined by the end of September.

But the task force members wonder whether the vaccine mandate will be enforced if 40 percent of the cops threaten to walk out. The department already is having retention problems and is struggling with recruitment. “Dispatchers are experiencing verbal violence,” Caouette said.

The Independent Monitor investigates police complaints. That office currently is vacant but there is an acting Independent Monitor. “The Independent Monitor and the sheriff’s office (or police) go back and forth on the disciplinary process. There are times they disagree, and it’s really not clear what happens after that.”

Public safety department creates scoreboard

The task force also bemoaned the fact there are not any community members as part of the Transformation and Policy Team.

So far, the public safety department has set up a spreadsheet of all the task force’s recommendations. It intends to make a “scoreboard” that will show whether each recommendation was accepted or declined, and the reason.

Caouette said Robinson at a recent meeting declared, “We hope we are all proud to implement what we can. There absolutely is fruit, but it’s hard to operationalize.”

She said her notes say things like “politics talk, no answer and vague answer.”

Dougherty said Robinson’s comments felt disingenuous. “It felt odd for him to claim we were all back together doing a great job.”

Dougherty said she’s concerned the city is going to fund police more than ever this year.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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