By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Melanie Asmar
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.
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.
Brotha 2 Brotha was started six years ago at Montbello High School by Dwight Gentry, a tall, scratchy-voiced businessman with a shaved head and a genteel demeanor. The idea for the group--a positive-image program for black students--grew out of his work with younger kids in Denver's middle and elementary schools and as a liaison to Denver Public Schools' "Guaranteed Graduation Program" that matches students with mentors in the business community.
"I was sick and tired of the negative influence of the people on the street corners," says Gentry. "I felt we needed to enhance the image of young black males. Dare to be different. Dare to be outstanding."
Starting with a handful of students and a copy of Robert's Rules of Order, the group began holding "brotherhood breakfasts" and, later, seminars and workshops about African culture. The focus for members, Gentry says, is on responsibility, school and community and on serving as positive role models for their peers.
Brotha 2 Brotha now has a student membership of approximately 100 throughout four area high schools--Montbello, TJ, George Washington and Manual. "We have student body presidents and captains of sports teams as well as students with so-so grades or even poor grades," Gentry says. "We have guys who will never be in the student government. We've even had some gangbangers."
And, he says, "85 percent of them who've been in the program for over three years are now in college."
What little attention his program has received, says Gentry, has come from staffers in the mayor's office. "I've always been a good resource when they're looking to give jobs [to youths] or they need black male representation," he says.
Brotha 2 Brotha's annual spring dance is a big affair, attracting teens from throughout the city, and especially from the four high schools where the group is active. Gentry knew the group would need off-duty cops for traffic control and to ward off would-be rowdies. He wanted to hire black officers to oversee the revelers, most of whom are black themselves. Gentry says he'd had problems with such a request once before, when the District 3 police officer who took note of his preference described it as racist.
Gentry says he was treated much the same way when he called the district station looking to hire officers for the May 4 dance. He says he was told--and not politely--that the majority of the station's black officers would be unavailable that night due to a special social event. Eventually, Gentry found two officers who fit the bill: Bryan Gordon and Cynthia Hill, four-year black officers, agreed to sign on.
It seemed to Gentry that two officers would meet his needs. That number of officers had worked before, and besides, he had lined up more than thirty adult chaperons, not including TJ staffers and a DPS security guard. In addition, plans called for all partygoers to be admitted to the dance only after passing through a metal detector.
But while Gentry was making detailed plans, the police apparently remained in the dark. Only later, says Gentry, was he told that despite his conversation about the dance with the officer at the District 3 station, no one had mentioned to the shift commander that hundreds of kids were going to be congregating at the high school that Saturday.
By 9:45 on the night of the dance, Bryan Gordon felt that since so many teens had arrived at the dance, the doors should be closed to latecomers. In a report of the incident, Gordon later placed the crowd at between 700 and 800 people. (By most estimates, however, the crowd reached no more than 450 people.)
Shortly before 11 p.m., when the dance was scheduled to end, Cynthia Hill asked dispatch to send a few squad cars by the school to help direct traffic and discourage any potential trouble.
At 11 p.m., Gentry and other parents began ushering students out the front doors and onto the patio, then shepherding them to the parking lot beyond. "I'm telling the kids, 'Good job, good going,' when I see a fight break out in the far north parking lot, a hundred yards away," Gentry recalls. Actually, Gentry couldn't see the fight. What he saw was a lot of people running in that direction. His experience told him it was a fight, and he was right.
Bruce Mingo, a kid from George Washington, and eighteen-year-old Jessie L. Hopkins, a senior at TJ, had gotten into it. "By the time I got there," Gentry says, "the combatants had been pulled apart. As I turned to go back to the school, I saw police cars arriving."
The fight was already over when Herman Houston walked out of the school. "That's when I saw fifty or sixty police cars coming up," he says. "I thought, 'What's going on?' I looked around, and I couldn't see anything happening...I said, 'What's all this about?' But as soon as they got out of their cars, they right away started shoving kids and pushing them out of the way."
The massive police response apparently came after Hill made a second call, asking for backup because the fight had broken out before the "drive-by" officers she'd requested had arrived. "She was calling, 'We've got a big fight. Get us some cover in here,'" Michaud said in a meeting two weeks after the incident. "And from there I think is where our questions arise."
The majority of the students and adult witnesses who later gave accounts to police were consistent in stating that only one fight had broken out and that it was over by the time scores of patrol cars began screaming up to the high school. But Hill and other officers reported a more chaotic scene that included three or four one-on-one fights.
"People kept running up saying, 'There's a fight here. A fight there,'" Hill wrote in her report. "I was running all over, trying to put out small fires."
In written accounts, students and at least two DPS staffers said that after Hill called for help, she issued an impromptu warning to people on the scene. "The black woman off-duty officer said she told all the kids that she was going to call [for reinforcements]," DPS custodial worker Jacquese Satchell told police. "She said, 'You know what they are going to do, because you know those white officers don't want you out here anyway.'" (In her statement, Hill denied using that language. According to her, she simply said, "My boys are coming. You'd better leave.")
One sergeant who answered the call for help said the call went out as a "code 10," indicating the highest level of urgency. "I heard officers there calling for assistance with the background sound of a large, screaming, angry crowd," Sergeant Chris Hoag wrote in his report. "I asked dispatch to ask anyone with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, Cherry Hills Village and Greenwood Village Police Department to respond." (Officers from other jurisdictions did answer the call but mostly remained on the school's periphery handling traffic.)
Despite the air of desperation conveyed by the radio transmissions, however, the incident didn't really seem to escalate until the police themselves got involved. The flash point, say numerous witnesses, occurred when a police sergeant (later identified by students as Ronald Samson, a 25-year veteran officer) confronted Houston's son Lovell, then sixteen. Lovell and other members of Brotha 2 Brotha had been waiting for the crowd to thin out so they could clean up, as required by their duties as hosts.
"We were going back inside (and inside seemed like the safest place)," Lovell wrote, "and Samson came up and told us to leave." Lovell said he explained that he and the others were with Brotha 2 Brotha and that they were supposed to stay and clean. "I don't care who the fuck you are," Samson reportedly told the youth. "I continued moving away," Lovell wrote, "and [Samson] said, 'Are you fucking deaf?' And he grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me."
Quentin Jones then jumped to his friend's defense with what Samson described in his report as a profanity-laced tirade. "I touched [Jones's] arm to start him moving, and he pulled his arm away and said, 'Don't touch me!'" Samson wrote. "This incited the crowd, who began yelling at me. [Jones] swung at me with his fists. I grabbed him by the skin of his neck and then by his arm." After wrestling Jones to the ground, Samson wrote, "I struck his legs several times with my baton."
Accounts of the Samson incident given by other officers were not consistent. Officer Joe Hamel, who helped Samson subdue Jones, wrote in his report that he noticed a nightstick in Samson's hand but that he never saw him use it. Sergeant Bill Hoffman claimed in his report that he saw "one party attempt to grab Sergeant Samson's weapon." None of the other officers involved in the incident, including Samson himself, could verify that account.
Gene Roach, who saw the skirmish develop, ran across the yard to stop the assault on Quentin.
"Out of the corner of my eye," Quentin Jones wrote in a report of the incident, "I saw my dad running up. And he said, 'Stop! That's my son! Stop hitting him!' And then he fell on top of me. So they pulled my dad off me and handcuffed him and started hitting him."
Roach said he threw himself on top of his son both to protect him and to restrain him. "The last thing I saw as I was separated from Quentin was a young officer strike Quentin with his fist and forearm on the left side of his face," Roach wrote in his report.
The confrontation involving Quentin and his father apparently confused police, who assumed that Roach, who is white, was fighting with Jones. And the officers' efforts to subdue the two triggered an emotional response from the crowd, already angered by the appearance of dozens of patrol cars and more than sixty officers. The crowd began to close in around Samson, Hamel and their two prisoners. They screamed at the officers to leave Jones alone.
"The other officers and I had to make a protective ring around [Samson, Hamel and a third officer] since the surrounding crowd became violent," wrote rookie officer Jason Moore. "I strongly believe that our lives, mine and the other officers, were seriously in danger."
Ten to fifteen feet away from where the police were struggling with Roach and Jones, Helen Bevill, a DPS staff member and mother of a student attending the dance, was jammed into the parking lot with a hundred other cars. Officers began ordering her to leave, and she would have loved to do so; by then, her passengers--young girls her daughter's age--were crying, and one was near hysteria.
Although it was obvious that Bevill's car was boxed in, she later wrote in a statement that "[police] hit my car from front to back" in an attempt to force her out of the parking lot.
When Bevill was able to get free of the gridlock, she pulled her car around to the front of the school and parked. As a parent and staffer, she was torn between the desire to put the scene miles behind her and to stay and help the frightened students who were running past her. Bevill wrote that officers chased students up the school's steps and demanded that those already inside get out of the building.
When she determined that she could do nothing--and that the girls in her car required her attention--Bevill got back in her car and drove away. "I just prayed all the way home that someone, especially God, was looking out for them," Bevill wrote. "I felt the police were out of control and probably scared themselves, but a lot of this was uncalled for. I hope there is some justice, not just for the community's sake but for our kids' sake. They are the ones that will have to deal with this for the rest of their lives."
That officers were frightened is obvious; at least three of them hit the emergency indicators on their radios. Those devices, to be used only in dire situations, send out a distress signal, notifying other cars that an officer needs assistance. According to patrolman Anthony Martinez, "Whenever an officer would make an arrest, he or she would immediately be surrounded by twenty or thirty verbally abusive people from the mob." Bill Hoffman described being surrounded by an angry crowd after he tried to arrest an "obviously intoxicated" Jonathan Hopkins, Jessie's brother. He was rescued, he said, only after "a black female got the crowd to back off."
One of the drivers caught in the gridlock that held Bevill's car captive was Jessie Hopkins, whose fistfight with Bruce Mingo had started the whole thing. Hopkins had made it to his car, but with squad cars blocking the driveways and hundreds of students running in all directions, it was almost impossible to get away. Hopkins stopped his car near the end of a driveway and began honking his horn in an attempt to get officers to move out of his way. He and at least three passengers in his car later told police that the horn-honking prompted Ronald Samson to whack the car's fender with his nightstick. Samson, however, wrote that Hopkins was revving his engine, and he said he "felt threatened" as a result. According to Samson's report, he "tapped the front fender" of Hopkins's vehicle with his baton "to get his attention."
That angered Hopkins. And Hopkins apparently angered Samson when he leaned out the window and asked him what the hell he was doing. "As I walked up to the driver's door," Samson wrote, "[Hopkins] was screaming and flailing around. He was completely out of control. I started to open the door to take him out, as I wasn't going to let him drive in that condition."
Within seconds, however, other officers began pulling Hopkins from the car through the open window. "I was pulled out of the car and hit in the head and stomach and arrested for interference when I was going home," Hopkins wrote in a police report. "I'm eighteen, and I had to stay in jail because I was trying to go home."
Herman Houston witnessed the altercation between Samson and Hopkins, and he adamantly rejects Samson's version of events. Hopkins didn't rev his engine, Houston says. "I was right there," he insists. "If he'd done that, I would have jumped back."
With Hopkins out of the car and out of the picture, officers ordered one of his passengers, a sixteen-year-old girl named Myia Gilkey, to move the car; the fact that she had no driver's license was apparently of no concern to them. "They told me they'd take me to jail if I didn't leave," Gilkey later told police. The teenager subsequently piloted the car and its passengers across town to north-central Denver, where Hopkins lives.
By this time, Herman Houston notes, he was spending most of his time trying to defuse emerging problems between the kids and the cops. "I almost felt like a M.A.S.H. doctor," he says. "I'd look at a [student] and say, 'He's not going to make it,' and then go on to where I was needed and could help." Those who were under arrest, like Hopkins--and later, Jessie's brother Jonathan--he deemed "too late to help."
Houston was also trying to keep tabs on his own sons, who had attended the dance. But that wasn't easy. "There were cops in the building telling kids to get out, and police were in the parking lot, hitting kids and telling them to go back in the building," Houston says. "There was only one way out of the parking lot, because the police cars were blocking the exits. There was never a safe haven. I heard them say, 'Get the hell out of here, nigger!' But there was no place for that 'nigger' to go."
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."
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]."
"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.
"A lot of people believe that there's a lot of anger from the students over this," says Herman Houston. "But what it is, is a lot of hurt. I think it's hard, especially for the younger kids, that something like this could happen. [After the incident], my son Lovell said he had always looked at the Martin Luther King parade as a celebration. He didn't understand the issues of politics and police brutality."
Now, says Houston, his son understands.