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.

And further examination is warranted.
Westword has obtained more than 800 pages of the police department's secret investigative file. And a review of those documents, which include police interviews with students, teachers, chaperons, parents and other police officers, raises serious doubts about the efficacy and thoroughness of the police probe. Among them:

* Officers' reports of the incident were inconsistent, particularly regarding the use of Mace, batons and flashlights. For instance, although Chief Michaud acknowledged to the media that officers used Mace, not one officer on the scene admitted to using it or seeing it used. That means either that Michaud was misinformed or that his officers are lying.

* Police reportedly based some of their conclusions about officers' conduct on a videotape of the event. But that tape was never viewed by the district attorney's office, which never even asked to see it. And the police have not released a copy of the tape to attorneys for the defendants in the pending criminal cases.

* Investigators questioned students from Thomas Jefferson only, though students from at least three other area schools attended the dance.

* Although police claimed they used only "necessary force" to quell the crowd, reports from both students and police indicate that students had no weapons of any kind. One police officer was injured--a rookie who allegedly was bitten on the arm and hurt his elbow when he used it to strike a youth. Several students were injured by police.

* Witnesses reported that some officers appeared to be covering their badges in an apparent attempt not to be identified and that others shined their flashlights into the lens of a student's video camera, making it difficult to film the scene.

A review of the incident also reveals a possible explanation for the police department's overreaction to what began as a routine disturbance: Nearly a third of the 67 Denver police officers dispatched to the scene were rookies with less than a year's experience on the force.

Despite the Public Safety Review Commission's interest in the TJ incident, Hiawatha Davis and many parents remain convinced that they'll never receive a full explanation of what happened that night.

The four-year-old commission was designed to review investigations conducted by the police and sheriff's departments into the alleged use of unnecessary or excessive force. But to date the group has acted as a toothless watchdog.

When rules and regulations were drafted for the commission, politics and the Police Protective Association (Denver's powerful police union) ensured that the board would have little real power. And since then, the PPA leadership has worked hard to undermine whatever power the board was granted. For example, the union unsuccessfully challenged the commission's right to subpoena police officers. And although the seven-member appointed board can accuse officers of misconduct, it has no power to punish them.

Councilman Davis says the commission can expect to face yet another roadblock in the forthcoming TJ investigation. "The problem is that the police department is not likely to be very cooperative," says Davis. "The officers will probably be told to not cooperate by the [police] union and the command.

"They've issued directives prior to this telling officers they should not go and answer questions before the commission, and we were forced to go to court over its ability to subpoena officers," Davis continues. "So I have a feeling that officers are going to be encouraged to not cooperate.

"Hopefully, I'm wrong."
Police detective John Wyckoff, a PPA boardmember, says the union won't stonewall the commission. "If they require [officers] to testify, they will be there to testify," he says. "We encourage them to cooperate." So far, though, the department, from Michaud on down, is largely mum on the TJ incident.

Herman Houston is proud of his kids, and rightly so. His eldest, Polica, is attending Kansas State University on a football scholarship. Lovell, a seventeen-year-old junior at TJ, is a star athlete and member of the student government. Houston's youngest son, a ninth-grader, and his daughter, a year younger, are on their schools' honor rolls. All of the children graduated from the police-sponsored D.A.R.E. program on drug education.

Houston, a natural-gas broker, is a strict father who has raised his children with one eye on the race riots of the Sixties and the other on the gangbangers of the Nineties. "You look at the statistics on crime and gangs," Houston says, "and you worry on the weekends when they go out. And you teach them all of those survival things: Carry your books with you so they know you're a student; if a policeman stops you, say 'Yes, officer. No, officer.' Don't play your radio too loud.

"There are so many 'don'ts' you tell your kids so they will come home alive."

Houston's children aren't allowed to attend an event unless he sees a written invitation. He prefers that they attend chaperoned parties and dances. That's why, he says, he's always liked the Brotha 2 Brotha events--because "they're one of the things you can say yes to." Houston has even donated his own time to the group, acting as a chaperon at three Brotha 2 Brotha dances.

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