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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.

"I have no personal knowledge of it," Balkin says of the tape. "It was apparently of little or no value."

Until two weeks ago, defense attorney David Lane had no knowledge of the tape, either. Though the police were supposed to have turned over all of their evidence to him as discovery in the criminal cases against his clients, they didn't include the tape. Earlier this month Lane was granted a continuance in Roach's trial because of the omission, and he says he plans to demand that the tape be turned over to him.

Lane is also critical of Ritter's decision not to prosecute. In a motion filed with the court, Lane blasted the district attorney. "It is the crassest sort of political whitewashing for the district attorney to throw up his hands and walk away from a police prosecution simply because numerous young black witnesses contradict the testimony of some white police officers," he wrote. Lane then took the unusual step of asking Denver County Judge Larry Bohning to consider a legal motion compelling prosecution of police officers suspected of having used excessive force. If that motion were granted, Lane said, he wanted a special prosecutor, not Ritter, assigned to the case. As of late last week, there had been no response from the court.

Less than a week after Ritter decided to back away from the case, Michaud released his condensed version of the police department's investigation. Two unnamed sergeants were to be disciplined for procedural violations regarding inadequate control of officer response at the scene, the press release said. Sources identify those sergeants as Ronald Samson and Bill Hoffman, who was one of the first supervisors on the scene. A third officer, said the release, was disciplined for failing to follow proper procedures regarding his off-duty assignment at the school. Sources identify that officer as Bryan Gordon. Citing personnel rules, Michaud declined to say precisely how the officers would be punished.

"So what happened is that they announce they've got a 900-page investigation, a 63-page summary, but that it was none of anyone's business," says ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein. "That was an insult to the people who put their faith in the investigation and who trusted in the process.

"The police and the city owe something more to the people," adds Silverstein. "What did they investigate? What did they find out? Were there incidents where there wasn't enough proof because of conflicting stories about who was responsible? Or, regarding the racial epithets, were they able to say, 'Yes, it happened, and we just don't know who uttered them?' Was there inappropriate use of Mace and batons and they just don't know who was responsible?"

For now, the city is keeping a low profile on the TJ incident. Montoya and spokesmen for Michaud and Webb say they were advised by the city attorney's office not to discuss the case. And the city hasn't moved to make public the full text of the police-department report. As a result, no one outside the department knows whether the police overreaction stemmed at least in part from the fact that the largest percentage of officers on the scene were rookies. Nor do outsiders know whether the department believes that Samson, who will retire at the end of this month, reacted the way he did because of stress related to his involvement in the non-fatal shooting of a man in northeast Denver last March. And no one's saying whether Samson was forced out as a result of the TJ investigation.

Samson did not return phone calls from Westword. Sergeant Bill Hoffman declines to discuss the incident in detail but says the episode has been blown out of proportion by students. "It's a bunch of crap," says Hoffman. "Nothing happened there. I polled all the officers, and even the black officers said they heard nothing and there were no [racial epithets]. They're trying to turn this into a racial incident."

But members of the school board and the city council, who were briefed by Michaud about the investigation, aren't ready to close the door on the allegations of police racism. At the October 3 school board meeting, boardmembers Rita Montoya and Lisa Lefkowits grilled Michaud. Montoya says she was particularly annoyed by Michaud's claim that he didn't know whether any of his officers had used racial epithets--and by his suggestion that the department couldn't prove it anyway, since no racial slurs appeared on the videotape of the incident. Councilman Davis and his council colleague Joyce Foster were so incensed by the findings--or lack thereof--in Michaud's probe that they demanded that the Public Safety Review Commission conduct its own investigation.

PSRC commissioner Denise Deforest says she has reviewed the police case file and the 63-page summary and that an investigator is needed to help the commission answer some tough questions that remain. "It's not improper for police to use force," she says, "but the question always comes down to whether or not there was a legitimate reason for the force. And that's where a great deal of the questions come in."

Until--and if--the commission can answer those questions, bad feelings are likely to linger among TJ students.

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