‘We’re going to mobilize every single district’: What’s next for the Denver task force that wants to reimagine policing

Members challenge the notion that more policing leads to safer communities. The police are sticking to their guns.

Mikayla Hinton yells into a megaphone as thousands of people rally next to the Colorado State Capitol to protest the death of George Floyd on May 30, 2020, in Denver. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

For eight months, a group of nearly 100 community members met virtually for two hours every Thursday with a unified goal: to create a roadmap for how Denver could reimagine its approach to public safety.

The Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety — which included over 40 entities representing faith community members, elected officials, public policy experts and activists — released a 53-page report on May 21 outlining what they see as the necessary steps to move away from the premise that more policing leads to safer communities. Next step? Getting the recommendations implemented.

“Our first initiative was all about coming up with recommendations,” said Robert Davis, a former pastor who helped form and direct the group. “Now, we’re reorganizing to figure out who else needs to be a part of the task force, how we bring in more community voices, and then also how we organize ourselves to push for implementation.”

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The report includes 112 specific recommendations including investing in historically marginalized communities, minimizing unnecessary law enforcement interactions with community members, prioritizing preventative measures to reduce crime — such as increasing the availability and accessibility of social services — and ensuring more community oversight and input in establishing public safety policies.

Daniela Gilbert, director of redefining public safety for the Vera Institute of Justice, a national research and policy advocacy organization, said that the recommendations laid out in the Denver community report are similar to what other cities around the country are grappling with.

“Our culture of mass criminalization, use of aggressive policing and arrests as primary tools for addressing social issues — including mental illness, substance use, homelessness and poverty — just funnels millions of people into jails and prisons,” said Gilbert, whose research group provided expertise to the Denver Task Force on alternative models to policing.

“A common thread across different communities is the grounding that American policing is a violent legacy of slavery and white supremacy and an acknowledgement that it doesn’t produce public safety,” she added.

Public safety department leaders left task force conversations

Denver City Council announced on May 26 that it will convene a Public Safety Working Group to review the recommendations outlined by the community task force. “We have heard and support our Denver community’s desire to re-frame public safety from an anti racist lens,” said Council President Stacie Gilmore, in a written statement.

But neither Mayor Michael Hancock’s office or the Department of Public Safety have committed to implementing any of the recommendations or engaging with the task force, other than to say they will review the document. Hancock’s office declined an interview request from Newsline. 

Public Safety Director Murphy Robinson formally pulled out of the task force conversations in January because he felt law enforcement perspectives were not being taken into consideration. After that it was radio silence, Davis said.

We’re going to mobilize every single district and we’re going to meet with folks to talk about all of these recommendations. And I hope our elected leaders show up to that and really listen.”Katie Leonard, a community activist and organizer

But since the recommendations came out, the two men have spoken twice: once over the phone and once in person when Davis dropped off a copy of the recommendations at Murphy’s office. “I’m encouraged simply because we went from zero communication to some communication,” Davis said.

The task force came to fruition in the months after George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 by Minneapolis police officers. Denver law enforcement officials initially pledged $50,000 to support the task force’s effort, which was rescinded when they pulled out of conversations.

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Katie Leonard, a community activist and organizer who helped facilitate the group, said she is also excited by the City Council’s initial response — but she’s not getting her hopes up. 

“I’ve been disappointed very many times,” she said, adding that the city has done little to nothing to address community concerns related to Denver police and instead approved a 2.8% salary bump for officers in December 2020.

Leonard hopes that City Council members support the task force’s public safety efforts. But, either way, she’s pushing forward. “Some of these recommendations will require charter changes, they will require ordinance changes” she said. “But all of that can also be citizen initiated, which is hopeful.”

Despite differences in the way that task force members wanted to address issues, Leonard said they were all grounded in the same reality.

Protestors participate in the March Against Racism & Police Violence from Aurora to Denver on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. Several hundred protesters marched 5 miles from Aurora to Denver on East Colfax Avenue on Sunday in a demonstration against police brutality and in support of Black lives. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

“To be able to come together as a group of like over 80, nearly 100 folks and say, yeah, the history of police is really racist and their function is inherently violent,” she said. “And racism still runs deep in that and we need to change that. Why is it that our leaders, our public officials, aren’t able to do that? Why is that? That just doesn’t make sense to me.” 

“We did what the government should have been doing, but for free and during our spare time,” Leonard said. “We’re going to mobilize every single district and we’re going to meet with folks to talk about all of these recommendations. And I hope our elected leaders show up to that and really listen.”

Leonard, who identifies as an abolitionist, said one of the most meaningful parts of the process has been watching mindsets shift in real time.

“We had some folks who changed the way they labeled themselves because they were able to understand things rather than just be polarized by words,” she said.

Denver announces more policing in five ‘hot spot crime areas’

Just three days after the community report was released, Denver law enforcement officials announced their latest approach to tackling rising crime in the city: increasing police patrols in five areas that have seen a sharp spike in crime.

The five areas account for only 1.6% of Denver’s landmass (excluding Denver International Airport) but 26.1% of homicides and 49% of all aggravated assault and shooting victims in Denver, according to a city press release. 

The areas include the vicinity of South Federal Boulevard and West Alameda Avenue, Colfax Avenue and Broadway, East Colfax Avenue and North Yosemite Street, East 47th Avenue and North Peoria Street, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and North Holly Street.

Punitive consequences are not the same thing as supporting people in making behavior change.”Daniela Gilbert, director of redefining public safety for the Vera Institute of Justice

Paul Pazen, chief of the Denver Police Department, said the increased policing strategy, coupled with community partnerships, will help to break up criminal behavior and leave community support in its place. He would not say whether the department plans to request more funding from City Council in order to execute the latest approach.

“If there are additional needs, we will ask for that, just like anything else that we deal with,” Pazen said. 

Pazen said he had glanced at the community-led report before passing it along to the Department of Safety for review. “There is a team looking at it and that’s where it is at,” he said, adding that Denver has been a national leader in police reforms and that some of the recommendations have already been implemented.

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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)

“We’ve already demonstrated that we work closely with community, that we are willing to listen, and we’ll do the same thing here,” he said.

Leonard said the announcement to increase police patrols goes against everything that community members were demanding in their report.

“One of our strategies is decreasing unnecessary interaction between law enforcement — the criminal legal system — and community because we know all of the data shows that that just causes harm,” Leonard said. “Can you imagine seeing holes and saying, ‘You know how I’m going to fix this hole? I’m going to tear it more.’ That’s literally what they are doing.”

She said other chiefs of police from cities across the country, such as Los Angeles and New York, have changed course and recognized that increasing police presence doesn’t create safer communities.

“And then we have Denver, this up and coming, fast gentrifying city that’s just recreating these same oppressive systems. It’s disgusting,” Leonard said. “Especially, and I will say this as a Black and indigenous woman, especially having two Black men in positions of power here. It’s gross. It’s really gross. It’s just identity politics.” Hancock and Robinson are Black.

Gilbert, with the Vera Institute, said the rise in crime in Denver is not unique and is being mirrored across the country. For her, the stark increase is a reflection of the “long standing disinvestment in communities and structural forces that limit opportunities,” which she says have been magnified throughout the pandemic.

“Punitive consequences are not the same thing as supporting people in making behavior change,” she added.

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