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Citizen's Arrest

A Denver reverend with a stubborn streak keeps the city's police-watchdog commission on its toes--and off-balance

The Denver City Council chambers, resplendent in white and gold, are nearly empty the night of May 15 as the seven members of the Public Safety Review Commission file in, businesslike, for their monthly meeting.

There is the feeling that the commission, which reviews citizen complaints of police misconduct, is conducting a dress rehearsal for some real meeting to come later. Maybe next week will be the real performance, and dozens of citizens will crowd the large room to debate the long line of police-conduct incidents that have rocked the city in the past two years.

But not tonight. Only four people are in the audience, and three of them are filming the meeting for the city's public-access cable channel.

Not surprisingly, there are no police officers present. Commissioner Gill Ford, the reverend and community activist who's become the commission's best-known member, says it's been more than a year since a police officer voluntarily attended one of the PSRC's public meetings. "The officers felt the commission's motive was to find some secret agenda," says Ford, a lone wolf among his colleagues both in his support of the police and in his vocal complaints about the commission's inner workings. "The commission would want to bring in you and the cop, all for public drama. You can't find a resolution with two parties shouting."

Now there aren't enough people here to shout. Some commissioners claim that Channel 8's television cameras explain the low turnout. Denver residents and cops presumably aren't turning out because they're watching at home.

But the empty room speaks volumes, especially in light of the numerous recent incidents involving allegations of police misconduct. The litany is a depressing one. Last year Jeff Truax was gunned down by off-duty cops in a nightclub parking lot. For two years running, Cinco de Mayo celebrations have gotten out of hand along Federal Boulevard. An off-duty cop shot a man after being involved in a traffic altercation. Another on-duty officer pumped a bullet into a teenager's car because he thought the youth hadn't pulled over quickly enough during a traffic stop. And a few months ago, police and paramedics were caught on tape forcibly subduing Gil Webb, a black teenager who had just crashed into a Denver police cruiser in a stolen car, fatally injuring rookie officer Ron DeHerrera. Ford himself became a prominent player in an emotional public debate when he obtained a videotape of the Webb incident and went public with his concerns that the teenager may have been mistreated. Yet the commission hasn't investigated the Webb case--or any of the other incidents.

In fact, the commission has done almost nothing of consequence since it was established in 1992, the bastard child of a political compromise between Mayor Wellington Webb and the city council. With the exception of the fighting that broke out between cops and mostly black high-school students at Thomas Jefferson High School last year, the commission has remained mute on almost all of the controversial police incidents that have occurred during its tenure. Even in the TJ case, it has done little more than hire an investigator to look into the matter.

Commissioners have a long list of reasons for their inaction. They note that they lack the power to move proactively; by law, unless someone files a complaint with the commission, their hands are tied. The PSRC can only recommend, not enforce, discipline against police officers--and those recommendations are usually ignored by the mayor, the manager of safety and the chief of police, all of whom have veto power.

"We're not a force set up to take action, but a force to discover things," says Commissioner Denise DeForest, an attorney and activist in Denver's gay and lesbian community. "Politically, that's what was palatable at the time. We can bark, but we cannot bite."

When the commission has tried to step up to the plate, it has faced a wall of opposition from police. Some officers have even refused to testify when subpoenaed. And at times, the antagonism has seemed to work both ways. For example, during the commission's ill-fated "Do the Right Thing" campaign of 1994, teenagers were actively urged to file complaints if they were unhappy with their treatment at the hands of police.

More than 1,700 citizen complaints have been filed with the Denver Police Department since 1993. Police internal-affairs investigators sustained 196 of them. By contrast, the commission has looked at 297 cases since 1993 and has ruled against the police eighty times. Of those eighty PSRC recommendations, most of which involved minor infractions, only seventeen have been upheld by the city. Those officers reportedly were disciplined--but commission members were never told how.

The commissioners also complain that they are understaffed. Yet tonight they have only one item on their docket, from a wheelchair-bound man named Gary Johnson. They make short work of his charge that an officer mediating a dispute between Johnson and another party entered Johnson's home without permission, and once inside, used excessive force by drawing his weapon.

"I've been in this chair 26 years," Johnson says, taking full advantage of his moment on the public stage. "I heard the officer say he immediately knew I was mentally imbalanced. How does he know that? Is he a psychiatrist, is he a judge of character?"

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