Denver, CO

Advocates for unhoused, people of color quiz Denver monitor finalists

David Heitz

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Protest engulfs Denver's downtown in summer 2020.Colin Lloyd/Unsplash

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Advocates for Denver's marginalized communities got a chance Thursday to question candidates for the city's police oversight chief job.

The Citizens Oversight Board held a virtual forum with the finalists for the Office of Independent Monitor. The board will recommend who to hire and then the council will vote to confirm or deny the board's recommendation.

This is a new way to choose the independent monitor, who investigates police brutality and other issues. In November, voters changed the city charter to revoke the mayor's power to appoint the monitor single-handedly. Now, the volunteer board decides with the City Council's blessing. The council selects four board members, the mayor selects four members, and together they choose the ninth member.

The board invited representatives from Harm Reduction Action Center, Servicios De La Raza, Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR) and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado to the virtual event.

Monitor investigates police brutality complaints

Candidate Dana Walton-Macaulay said the independent monitor must listen to immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, and people of color. Walton works in the Office of the Independent Monitor in Portland, Ore.

"Racism is built into the institution of policing," Walton-Macaulay said. "It's in most of our institutions."

Walton-Macaulay said the silver lining to the George Floyd protests is a new willingness to talk about racial inequities in America. "Now there's an acknowledgement after the George Floyd protests that maybe something is wrong. The conversation must acknowledge where racism shows up."

Candidate Joseph Lipari, who works as the independent monitor in Boulder, said he has been training police officers on issues surrounding white privilege and the history of white supremacy in the United States. "We had a little bit of pushback in some of the workshop discussions," he explained. "Both sides have to learn how to listen to each other."

Independent monitor candidate Robert Booth II works as Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice and the Director of Medicaid Fraud Control Unit for the Colorado Attorney General's office. "Make sure everyone is in the room when you have those conversations," he said. "We have concerns from unhoused individuals."

Booth said he would like to see a "bottom-up facilitation of conversations" and people engaging one another in face-to-face discussions about equity.

Candidates define equity

Fabian Ortega of Servicios de la Raza asked the candidates to define equity. Booth said equity in public safety is critical. Police must have the ability to interact with people positively across the spectrum, he said.

"Everybody in the City and County of Denver should be on equal footing," Booth said. "Nobody should have fear or worry" based on race, economic status, or gender, he added.

Walton-Macaulay said you couldn't have equity without humility. She said that people need to admit that they are uncomfortable around certain groups and allow themselves to be vulnerable. That's how we become open to learning about new cultures, she explained.

Lipari said equity must focus on outcomes. He added that there should not be any group in the city with more deaths from officer encounters than another group.

Police officers need to understand the history of segregation. "It's a huge conversation that we're just beginning to have in Boulder."

Homeless unfairly targeted?

A virtual audience member asked how the monitor plans to investigate reports of police targeting people experiencing homelessness. He asked about a new civilian enforcement team empowered by the city to give tickets for 20 different violations. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness say most of the violations apply to the unhoused.

Walton-Macaulay said she wants to offer Denver the professional courtesy of not assuming the program was intentionally built to badger the homeless "in this day and age." But if it was, it needs to be addressed at once, she said. "This is a policy review waiting to happen."

Walton-Macaulay added while resources in police departments shift from guns and tasers to mental health professionals, "It's important to understand some things need to change, and here's why."

Booth said if police and the new civilian team are unfairly targeting people experiencing homelessness, the city must "find out what's going on and find out what the public has to say about it."

Muslim community distrusts police

Dr. Carroll Watkins of the Greater Denver Interfaith Alliance wondered how the candidates would address disparities in the Muslim community. Watkins said immigrants won’t report any hate crimes they experience.

That makes it appear there isn't a problem with hostility toward Muslims. In reality, violence against them is unreported, Watkins said.

All three candidates said it would be essential to find out why the Muslim community distrusts police. Does it trace back to a particular event, Lipari wondered. Does a community apology need to be made, Walton-Macaulay asked? "There needs to be a restorative conversation."

Lipari said there had been threats against the Muslim community in Boulder. He said it's essential to provide the security people need during active threats.

In Boulder, the city has worked hard to "incorporate our Muslim brothers and sisters into the fabric of our community," Lipari said. He said the Islamic Center of Boulder serves on committees.

"I feel like we're at a much better place now with that mosque and with that community," Lipari said.

George Floyd protest assessment

All three candidates praised the interim independent monitor's report on the summer 2020 George Floyd and police response to them. They also noted Gregg Crittenden's recognition of the poor communications system police used during protests and confusion about mutual aid agreements.

All the candidates said the new monitor should prioritize preparing a follow-up report. "It's only a matter of time before there's a demonstration of some sort where these questions will be asked again," Lipari said.

He added that preparation for such unrest is a must to reduce potential to harm the community or damage officer morale.

The previous independent monitor, Nick Mitchell, resigned in January 2021 to lead a team implementing a court-ordered consent decree in Los Angeles County's jails.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career at local newspapers. Today, I report on Denver and Aurora city halls for NewsBreak. Prior to joining NewsBreak, I worked several years as a health reporter and branded content writer in the healthcare space. I also worked many years as a news editor and city editor. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver.

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