Black Marks

The Denver Police Department acts like it has something to hide about its clash with students at Thomas Jefferson High School. It does.

Quentin Jones's cheek pressed into the grit of the asphalt parking lot. His head was immobilized by the nightstick a cop had jammed into his neck, and his arms and legs were pinned down by other officers. From the corner of his eye, sixteen-year-old Quentin could see that his father--who moments earlier had thrown himself on top of his son to protect him from the policeman's blows--now lay handcuffed beside him. All around him he could hear, but not see, his friends and classmates as they cried and cursed and yelled. Some of them would report being chased by officers who shouted, "Run, nigger, run!"

Despite the tumult, Quentin recalled hearing clearly the voice of the police officer who wielded the baton above him: "See what you get, you little punk?"

In a statement later provided to police, Quentin remembered struggling to make himself heard over the din of voices, screaming his words through his tears. "I hate you all!" he shouted again and again at the officers who held him down. "I hate you all!"

It was shortly after 11 p.m. on May 4, just minutes after the lights went up to signal the end of the annual Brotha 2 Brotha dance at Denver's Thomas Jefferson High School. It had been an uneventful night, but as the students spilled out of the building and onto the school grounds, a fight broke out between two youths--one from TJ, the other from rival George Washington High School.

A crowd gathered, and one of the off-duty police officers working the dance called for backup and for help in clearing the parking lot. And then that one fight between two people deteriorated into a brief but violent melee that involved up to 74 police officers and hundreds of students, most of them black. Students reported being Maced, hit with batons and flashlights and subjected to racial slurs by police. Parents and adult chaperons said they saw swarms of hysterical teens herded from one place to another by police officers who had no clear idea of how to handle the situation. Some kids were forced into cars with people they barely knew and ordered to drive away.

Six people, including Quentin Jones, a player on the Thomas Jefferson football team, and Gene Roach, the legal guardian whom he considers his father, were arrested. One of those defendants pled guilty to misdemeanor interference and trespassing. Another was never charged. The cases of the remaining four defendants, including Jones and Roach, have been taken on by the American Civil Liberties Union and are pending in Denver County Court.

"What happened," says Denver City Councilman Hiawatha Davis, "was, fundamentally, I think, a severe police overreaction. It verged on a riot, frankly. A police riot."

"Probably 75 officers responded," says Herman Houston, whose three sons were at the dance. "And all 75 officers were not bad. I saw some good officers when I was out there. But one of the problems is that the good officers can't come forward. There is this code of silence."

The Denver Police Department has acknowledged that mistakes were made. But while criminal charges remain in place against Roach and three students, the only charges upheld against officers have been "procedural" violations that carry no criminal penalties. So far, the only formal investigation of the police department's actions has been conducted by the police department itself. And the full report of that investigation has been hidden from public view.

The police probe came in response to a request by Mayor Wellington Webb, who reportedly was brought to tears by some students' accounts of the violence. Police Chief David Michaud last spring formed an investigative team composed of thirteen "experienced senior sergeants" to interview more than 150 witnesses, including students, parents, teachers and police officers. The investigative file eventually grew to 951 pages, with a 63-page summary.

The report was turned over to the Denver District Attorney's office last summer so prosecutors could determine whether any police officers should be charged with a crime. On August 30 District Attorney Bill Ritter announced that he and his deputies had found "no provable criminal conduct" by officers at the scene.

And on September 4, exactly four months after the dance, Michaud issued a terse press release that boiled the 951-page file down to two pages. The full report was withheld from public scrutiny, as was the 63-page summary. In the abbreviated press release, Michaud revealed that two officers were to be disciplined for procedural violations related to their inability to maintain control of the scene. But the names of the officers and exactly what they did wrong was kept secret. Michaud said officers at the scene denied using racial epithets and that witness statements to the contrary did not constitute sufficient proof for him to pursue interdepartmental charges. The release also noted that the department was developing additional training for command officers on the subject of "critical incident management."

Webb, Ritter and Manager of Safety Fidel "Butch" Montoya have declared themselves satisfied with the police investigation. But angry parents of Thomas Jefferson students have dubbed the police probe a "whitewash" and have demanded further investigation of the incident. So have two city council members and two members of the Denver school board, who peppered Michaud with angry questions when he appeared before the board on October 3. Last Friday, members of the city's Public Safety Review Commission announced they had hired an investigator to review the police investigation, conduct additional interviews and gather more evidence.

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