Denver Police officers use pepper spray and mace against protesters during a homeless sweep in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood on Nov. 30, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
Denver City Council members are inching closer to what will likely be a heated debate regarding the future of policing and public safety in the Mile High City.
In May, council members were presented with a 53-page report from a group of nearly 100 community members that spent eight months compiling a “roadmap” for how Denver could reimagine its approach to public safety. Their goal has been to challenge the notion that more policing leads to safer communities.
For Councilman Paul Kashmann — who is the chair of the Public Safety Task Force assigned to review the community report — the recommendations boil down to two primary goals.
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“How do we lift communities up to limit (and) reduce the root causes of crime, and also, how do we look at our policing agencies and be sure that they’re doing the work they were meant to do in a way that’s equitable throughout our community,” Kashmann said during a City Council committee meeting on Monday.
Council members focused on the second half of the community report, which discussed how to minimize unnecessary interactions between law enforcement and residents; support and remove barriers for people transitioning from jail or prison; promote community healing from the harm created by policing and the criminal legal system; and expand community involvement and oversight in creating public safety policies.
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 the community report on May 21. It outlined 114 recommendations that the group hopes city officials will implement.
“What we have said is this is how we think the problem should be solved,” said Robert Davis, a former pastor who helped form and direct the community group. “As long as the spirit and intent of the recommendations (are) pursued, you know, how that looks, is not as important as the fact that the intent of it is pursued.”
The community 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 Denver law enforcement officials initially pledged $50,000 to support the task force’s effort but rescinded the offer when they pulled out of conversations in January. As of now, the community task force is run solely by volunteers.
Council members are expected to meet again on July 26 to continue the conversation. Many of the recommendations would require changes to the city’s charter and greater collaboration between city agencies.
Gentrification and the policing of displaced communities
One recommendation that received considerable discussion during Monday’s meeting revolved around the lasting impacts of gentrification. The community recommendation directs the city to “use data to prevent gentrification-driven displacement and reduce criminal enforcement against displaced people through cross-agency collaboration.”
“We know how gentrification works,” Marjorie Lewis, a mental health professional who is a part of the community task force, told the council members. “We want to better record the dynamics of the process and the impact on certain citizens in order to understand the problems with it, and to inform the public entities talking to one another.”
Councilwoman Kendra Black suggested during the meeting that the recommendation should be split in two parts, one focused on gentrification and the other on the policing of displaced people.
What we are requesting is that part of what we do is really be intentional about examining that intersectionality between gentrification and homelessness, and then bringing together the appropriate agencies to address it.
– Robert Davis, a former pastor who helped form the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety
The task force members explained to the council why they see them as interconnected issues.
“We know in this city and every city across America that when you have gentrification, it produces a rise in homelessness,” Davis said in response. “What we are requesting is that part of what we do is really be intentional about examining that intersectionality between gentrification and homelessness, and then bringing together the appropriate agencies to address it.”
Councilwoman Jamie Torres and Stacie Gilmore commented on how there is typically an increase in police complaints from newer residents moving into a gentrifying neighborhood, which creates tension and leads to more law enforcement interaction for people who have long resided in a neighborhood.
“That’s a prime example of why (those two) were together,” Lewis added. “We got the gentrification and now we have infractions as a result.”
The group also discussed a recommendation that would make it illegal for a person to call 911 for discriminatory reasons. They also discussed the role of Neighborhood Watch groups, and the possibility of establishing mandatory anti-racism and implicit bias training for those who participate, which some police districts already do, according to Sawyer.
Rebuilding a robust mental health system in Denver
Council also heard recommendations related to mental health services in Denver, including a suggestion to expand ambulance contracts to support the city’s STAR program — which sends mental health professionals to crisis calls in lieu of law enforcement — and implement an app to help residents find and access support during a mental health crisis to limit the interactions they have with police.
Sawyer expressed concerns around some of the recommendations put forth in light of the “the history of institutions and institutionalizing people in America.”
“(I’m) wondering if there was a conversation around that and how we avoid recreating those kinds of harms that happened to people back in, you know, the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and even earlier than that,” Sawyer asked the task force members.
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Lewis, who is a mental health expert, explained how the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities throughout the 1990s led to the criminalization of marginalized people, which ultimately helped create the city’s current homelessness crisis.
“We were supposed to have an adequate number of community based mental health facilities,” Lewis said. “However, in the process of redirecting the funds, a lot of the funds got (directed) through other community based block grants that did not address mental illness.”
She said that the most challenging part of addressing mental health services — and decreasing the number of police interactions people who struggle with mental health illness have — is lack of supportive housing.
“So when we talk about community based treatment facilities, we’re looking at facilities that can provide holistic intervention, everything from eating properly, sleeping properly, getting dental,” she said. “And more importantly than anything else, finding ways to house people who have an issue.”
In response, Sawyer suggested the council invite an expert to explain the complicated funding streams Lewis was discussing.
Davis, in response to Sawyer, said he would love for the council to invite in an expert. “But you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s more of an expert than Dr. Lewis,” he added. “She’s not going to honk her own horn, but I’m going to honk it for her.”
Changes to Denver police protocol and the internal affairs process
The remaining section of the community report discussed how to expand the role residents play in providing oversight to law enforcement agencies, and improving accountability and training for officers.
“One of the major things (that) is very important is that communities have input in the type of weapons that are used against them, or used to control them,” Davis told council. “The fact that it’s militarized equipment, we believe the community needs to be made aware and that the community’s voice be heard in the process of acquiring those weapons.”
Other recommendations include establishing routine mental health support for law enforcement officers who experience trauma from witnessing and intervening in violence; anti racism and implicit bias training for officers; more transparency around how the police department spends taxpayer money; limits on surveillance technology; and removing the Internal Affairs Department from within the police department and merging it with the city’s Public Integrity Division.
Kashmann asked the task force at the end of the meeting if they thought there was a balance of perspectives on the community group.
“The task force was just like the community,” Davis replied. “We have individuals who want to abolish the police … and we have individuals who believe the police are doing a great job and that public safety is running well.”
Members of the Denver Police Department had previously been a part of the task force’s discussions, but were pulled out by Department of Safety director Murphy Robinson who said he felt that law enforcement perspectives were being marginalized.
“I’m real proud to have been a part of our task force,” Deborah Burgess, a former law enforcement officer who was part of the community task force. “I personally would have liked to have seen the police officers stay all the way through, but it is what it is.”
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