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.

When Houston spotted Lovell and Polica with a young woman friend, he told them to go over to a fence near the building and stay there. But the three were told by a police officer to leave. When they refused, they said in written reports, the male officer grabbed the young woman and engaged in a heated verbal exchange with her.

As the incident deteriorated, students began to run crying from the scene, claiming they'd been sprayed with Mace. Houston says he could smell a chemical odor in the air, though he says it could have been from another kind of irritant, such as pepper spray. Fifteen-year-old Phoenicia Culberson said she saw a boy who had been Maced and was having trouble seeing run inside the school building. To a man, however, the officers at the scene later denied using Mace or seeing it used. Three officers said they'd pulled the canisters from their holsters but had not used the spray.

Several students also said they saw officers strike people with their batons. Culberson said she was hit on the wrist with a nightstick; she added that she was going to hit the officer back but that "Mr. Gentry stopped me." There were 32 officers on the scene from start to finish; that number would double with late arrivals. But only six officers said they saw other officers with batons at the ready or acknowledged pulling out their own batons. Only one officer, Samson, admitted to actually using a baton. Samson said he'd used the stick to strike Quentin Jones's legs, to smack Jessie Hopkins's fender and to swing at a group of about fifty students who chased him when he attempted to come to the aid of another officer. (In the documents obtained by Westword, none of the other Denver officers reported seeing Samson being chased by a crowd of students.)

In a statement prepared for police, Gentry described the chaotic atmosphere. Some kids were waiting for rides, he noted, "and the police were forcing them to leave anyhow. They were forced into any car close and told to drive off." One of those students, he says, was his own daughter.

Throughout the incident, reported students, parents and two DPS staffers, officers were hurling racial slurs at the crowd. In independent statements to police, witnesses reported hearing the phrase, "Run nigger, run!" or "Are you deaf, nigger?" At least 21 people reported hearing police use the word "nigger" in some form.

Students and parents admitted that the students weren't above using profanity and racial epithets themselves. In statements to police, several witnesses reported hearing kids call officers "pigs," "whitey," "honky" and "motherfucker."

The police officers, however, claimed that they neither used nor heard any other cop use racial slurs. One officer admitted that he may have said, "Get the hell out of here." All the remaining officers, however, stated that the only profanity or racial slurs they heard came from the crowd.

Some witnesses later said they felt the students provoked the police. Conner Holmes III, whose daughter was attending the dance, told police he'd been sitting in his car for thirty minutes, waiting for the event to end, when the fracas began. "If the kids would have just gone home, or at least gone somewhere else, everything would have been fine," he wrote in a report of the incident. "But they were not about to leave. They challenged the officers, they cursed at them, and they pushed them and crowded them. In my opinion, the officers did everything necessary to keep the peace, but these kids did not want peace. They seemed to want to show off and challenge the officers in front of all their friends. The officers had no choice but to control the situation any way they could.

"I don't want to say the kids got what they deserved," Conner wrote. "But my Dad always told me, 'If you make your bed like that, you have to lie down on it that way.'"

By 11:30 p.m. the crowds were gone and the police had been called off. Quentin Jones and Gene Roach were taken to the District 3 station and put in a holding cell. Jessie Hopkins was taken to jail (Hopkins has since been arrested at least twice, on loitering and concealed-weapon charges). The kids who'd been forced to leave with strangers slowly made their way home.

The Monday following the incident, Thomas Jefferson principal Shirley Ermel asked that all of those students who had witnessed the altercation report to the school library and make a written statement of their account. Dozens did so.

Nearly two weeks later the city arranged a meeting at the high school between the students, Mayor Webb, Chief Michaud and Butch Montoya. It was an emotional gathering.

Lovell Houston, whose scuffle with Samson ended with the arrest of Quentin Jones and Gene Roach, gave a short, eloquent speech to the crowd. "On the night of our dance," he said, "my crime was trying to tell a policeman who we were. The policeman began pushing me and said, 'I don't give an f--- who you are!' Those words have stayed with me since that night. So I'm going to tell you who I am."

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