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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.

He is, Lovell told the crowd, one of the kids who built a soap-box derby race car sponsored by the mayor's office, a race that he won. He took part in a police-sponsored program to provide input on how youths could enjoy a safe summer. He is a member of the student government and competes on the football and track teams.

"As I watched my classmate getting beat, getting pushed to the ground, getting Maced, I realized our crime was being black," said Lovell. "As the policeman shoved me violently, I began to realize that we are still being judged by the color of our skin and not by the content of our character. For the first time in my life, I realized that all of us may be just a white cop away from death.

"You need to know," Lovell told the officials, "that our school hurts. We saw our friends cry because they were scared, cry because these policemen decided we were nobody, cry because we didn't know what to do. You need to know that we are uncomfortable about calling the police liars...You need to know that we are uncomfortable about saying that the police rioted. But you can ask the bruised and the Maced eyes that question. You need to know that we are uncomfortable about calling these policemen racist. But when they use the language of the Klan to tell us who we are, it's only natural to look for a smoking cross."

Webb promised the students that the police department would investigate how and why the melee started and who, if anyone, was at fault. The decision wasn't popular among the cops who were at the scene. "I am ashamed of our police chief, Chief David Michaud, over his lack of support and backing in regards to this incident," wrote officer Donald Gilworth Jr. in a statement. Gilworth, whose account of the TJ incident included several sarcastic asides about the students' inability to understand English, added that he was "also surprised at the position the principal of TJHS has taken in regards to this. It has definitely given me a distaste for the Denver public schools."

The following week, a dozen police sergeants set up a table in the school lunchroom and began taking statements from witnesses.

Herman Houston appeared to make his own.
"We were given a list of questions," Houston says, "and asked to answer them. Some of the officers were really good. Some were hostile, as if they were trying to catch the students in a lie. It seemed, in some cases, not so much taking a statement as it was taking a deposition."

Students were also shown photographs of officers and asked if they could identify anyone. Most of them couldn't.

The police department's Internal Affairs bureau also gave police officers a list of written questions, although department officials have not revealed how that questioning was handled. From their reports, however, it is clear that the officers felt the situation was well-organized, that they were never given conflicting orders about where to direct the crowd, and that no officer used unnecessary force.

It took approximately three months for the department to conduct its investigation. Meanwhile, some parents worked hard to make sure the city and the school district didn't forget what happened that night.

The Denver chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced in late July that it would defend Quentin Jones, Gene Roach and the Hopkins brothers. Veteran Denver defense attorney David Lane agreed to handle the defendants' criminal cases for the ACLU. Bruce Jones and Harold Flowers of the prestigious Holland & Hart law firm agreed to tackle the civil aspects of the case. On October 31 Jones and Flowers filed a notice of intent to sue the city on behalf of their clients. That suit has yet to be filed.

Before handing over the results of the investigation to the mayor's office, Michaud gave it to the DA. The task of determining whether the office could prove any officer committed a state crime was assigned to Chief Deputy District Attorney Diane Balkin, most of whose recent experience had been in handling white-collar-crime cases. After conferring, she and Ritter decided the officers were off the hook.

"Whether Mace was used or not or whether nightsticks were used or not does not necessarily concern us," says Ritter. "[Officers] have available to them a statute that speaks directly to their use of physical force, if warranted. And when you're talking about crowd control, the use of force can be significant. We have to prove the elements of a crime. We have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers were not acting in self-defense."

The prosecutors, Ritter says, couldn't do that.
There was one piece of evidence available that might have shed new light on the case. But the DA's office didn't see it--and still hasn't. Someone--apparently a student or parent--was able to capture part of the TJ incident on videotape. The police used the tape to bolster their claims that they had done nothing improper. Balkin says she read a report from police that described the tape as "of such poor quality that it showed nothing of value. But it did have an audio portion, and when the investigators listened to it, they heard no profanity or racial slurs [used by police]."

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