Youth ‘reimagine’ policing and public safety during town hall

Community-led discussion will help inform a new Denver-based task force, which aims to incorporate more young voices in conversations around police reform

By: - July 23, 2020 6:31 pm
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Demonstrators block Denver police vehicles in front of the Colorado Capitol on May 28, 2020, as part of a protest against the killing of George Floyd. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Nearly 40 Colorado youth convened on Tuesday night over Zoom in a public forum to “reimagine” policing and public safety in Denver.

During the virtual community-led town hall, which was livestreamed on Facebook, students discussed a need for reallocating police funding, more community mental health services and police training around implicit bias and cultural competence. 

During the event, youth organizers encouraged more young people to get involved in the conversation, and stressed the need for more organizations and government agencies to incorporate younger voices into the critical discussions surrounding public safety.

“You can complain all you want behind your computer screens on a Facebook post,” said Jhoni Palmer, a recent graduate of Denver’s East High School who helped lead the youth discussion. “But if you’re not taking actions and joining groups or donating to groups who are trying to make a change that you truly believe in, then your Facebook posts only go so far.” 

The discussion will help inform a new task force focused on addressing police reform and public safety in Denver. The effort is led by a group of local faith organizations, as well as leaders from Denver’s City Council and the Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board. They hope to convene the task force by Aug. 1 to have policy proposals ready for the city’s 2021 budget cycle.

I'm so encouraged by young people who have not been preprogrammed from this model, who can come and help us to take off our lens and see things from a new perspective

– Pastor Robert Davis, executive director of the community development organization SWG-UnBoxed

“I’m 46 years old, and my whole life I’ve only seen public safety and policing done one particular way,” said Pastor Robert Davis, executive director of the community development organization SWG-UnBoxed, who helped facilitate the event. 

“I’m so encouraged by young people who have not been preprogrammed from this model, who can come and help us to take off our lens and see things from a new perspective,” he said. “So that we can imagine something that has never been done. That is new … and that empowers the community.”

Centering youth voices

The purpose of the town all was to center youth voices — which is why only youths age 12 to 24 were invited to participate in the dialogue. The community conversation comes in the wake of police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, which amplified a national conversation over police brutality, reform and systemic racism.

Youth participants were separated into three different “breakout rooms” while adult participants remained in the “main” room where they were able to submit questions on Facebook to be answered by Palmer and Malachi Ramirez, a youth leader and senior at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College in Denver.

The first question they received asked about what changes are needed within law enforcement, what should stay the same, and how to protect citizens and police officers, equally.

“I don’t think we need to protect them equally, because as a police officer, this is a career path that you chose to do, knowing that this is something that can put you in harm’s way,” responded Ramirez. “You also have the opportunity to not be in that position anymore. So I think that while we do need to protect our officers, it doesn’t necessarily need to be equally.”

Palmer added that in this discussion around police accountability and brutality, the conversation is more about how to protect citizens from police officers — not the other way around.

“And feel free to disagree, please,” she said. “But I don’t see the community killing cops left and right.”

Students discuss police officers in schools

Another question arose about whether police officers and school resource officers belong in schools. 

The Denver school board voted unanimously on June 11 to end Denver Public Schools’ contract with the city’s police department, which provides school resource officers. Police officers will be phased out of Denver public schools over the next year with the deadline of June 2021.

“Personally, I do not think cops belong in schools, and that we should have another discipline model that doesn’t involve over-policing and zero tolerance in schools, because that just ultimately pushes the school-to-prison pipeline,” Palmer said.

Black students in the U.S. are subject to disciplinary action at significantly higher rates compared to  their white counterparts due, in part, to explicit and implicit racial biases, according to a 2019 study in the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. These disciplinary actions put students of color at higher risk for negative life outcomes, including involvement in the criminal justice system.

During the 2018-19 school year, Black students were involved in 29% of the instances reported that required law enforcement referrals, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat Colorado, which used data from the Colorado Department of Criminal Justice. Only 13% of Denver’s students are Black.

Another question submitted during the town-hall came from a viewer asking who would disarm a school shooter if there weren’t resource officers within schools. Palmer responded that the school shootings that have already occurred were not stopped by school resource officers.

“So if we really want to protect people from school shootings, we should have cohesive mental health support. We should take those alerts and those red flags that students are reporting seriously, because they haven’t been taken seriously. And there’s blood on our hands,” she said.

Police force recruitment and reallocation of funds

The Facebook live solicited a question from Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who asked how to recruit more people of color to the police force.

Just growing up and seeing the way that police have shown up in my community, that’s kind of deterred me from wanting to be a police officer

– Jhoni Palmer, recent graduate of Denver’s East High School

“That is a difficult question,” Palmer said, adding that she is not familiar with the racial makeup of the police force’s applicant pool. “But personally, just growing up and seeing the way that police have shown up in my community, that’s kind of deterred me from wanting to be a police officer. So that might be more of a cultural fix.”

One suggestion that was brought up in one of the breakout sessions was to have police officers work in the community where they live to help increase cultural awareness within law enforcement.

Palmer added that although most of her poor interactions with law enforcement have been with white, male officers, she’s also had poor interaction with officers of color. 

Students discussed the national push to defund the police and redistribute funds toward services such as education and public health. Both Palmer and Ramirez agreed that a reallocation of funds is necessary.

“If we just look at the financial breakdown of how much the city of Denver as well as the nation is spending on the military and policing and law enforcement, compared to what we’re spending on education and health and things like that, it’s kind of ridiculous how drastically different it is,” said Palmer.

In 2019, the city of Denver allocated approximately $19.4 million towards initiatives related to public safety, including increasing the police force by 31 officers and three new detectives, according to the mayor’s 2019 annual budget. The budget allocated $4.2 million towards programs and services for children and youth.

Next steps, and ways to get involved

At the end of the town hall, the students returned to the main virtual “room” to debrief about what was discussed during their break out sessions. 

Big themes included the need for more mental health services, shifting police responsibilities to be more specialized, and better deescalation and implicit bias training for law enforcement officers. Students also discussed how to shift the conversation around policing and public safety away from enforcement and towards preventative initiatives such as increases in social services.

The group is planning a final town hall to help inform the new task force, but details are pending.

In addition to these online gatherings, the group is collecting responses on a “reimagining policing questionnaire,” which has over 350 responses that will help guide the work of the task force, according to Rev. Tamara Boynton, with the faith-based organization the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. 

“The Task Force has support from a variety of city and community entities and seeks to ensure that changes to our policing and public safety structures include a wide swath of committed and critical voices in the mix in order to achieve the best outcome,” said Boynton, in an email. 

“We believe that a better model exists and that we, in Denver, have the wisdom, creativity, compassion, and collaborative power to build it,” she said.

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Newsline reporter who covered criminal justice, housing, homelessness and other social issues.