Until the cops slapped on the cuffs and loaded her into a paddy wagon, Dellena Aguilar had only heard the stories about police rousting teens on the 16th Street Mall for nothing more than petty infractions. But after she was jailed for simply watching one of these episodes, she saw for herself just how bad things have become.
Dellena is a counselor at The Spot, a downtown center offering computer training, GED courses, studio space and other programs for inner-city kids. A 25-year-old in the process of getting a master's degree in nonprofit management, Dellena helps youths with job referrals, housing and safe-sex information.
"This is my calling," she says. "I can really relate to some of the issues these girls are dealing with. I love my job. I'll do this until the day I die."
Last June, about 6:30 p.m., Dellena and colleague Matt Bobby had walked over to the 16th Street Mall to invite street kids to The Spot's regular Thursday barbecue. A TV news crew was supposed to attend the free feed that night, so Dellena and Matt wanted to round up the kids a little early.
Their first stop: Skyline Park, a two-block pedestrian mall along Arapahoe where street kids often congregate, much to the chagrin of restaurant and shop owners who say their loud music, rough appearance and aggressive panhandling scare customers away.
As soon as Dellena and Matt arrived, several youths told them that "some kids are being harassed in the park for sitting on the grass." That seemed odd to Dellena and Matt, who wondered how anyone could be harassed for sitting in a park, especially Skyline, which features sunken patios, stair-step walkways and landscaped edges practically inviting people to sit. So they investigated.
Near the center of the park, across from the Palomino Euro-Bistro, Dellena and Matt saw Officer Greg Campbell issuing a ticket to a twenty-year-old boy for sitting on a scraggly patch of turf posted with a "Keep Off the Grass" sign. The officer had also issued a ticket to another kid, who was underage, for carrying a pack of cigarettes. Campbell thought the younger boy might be a runaway and told him to stay put.
Matt and Dellena sat at one end of a nearby bench and watched.
A third person, a 22-year-old named Dale Larkin, was sitting on the other end of the bench. He told Campbell that the two boys had not been sitting on the grass at all, but rather on a concrete ledge near the grass.
Campbell told Larkin to shut up.
Larkin said he knew his rights and that they included freedom of speech, so he kept talking.
Campbell again told him to shut up.
Larkin sat back on the bench, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. He then looked over at Dellena and told her that teens were constantly being harassed at Skyline Park. Police would follow them, question them and ticket them for the tiniest of infractions, such as flicking a cigarette butt into the gutter.
Campbell's face turned red. He told Larkin to shut up or he'd be arrested for interfering with police business.
But Larkin kept talking, calmly describing instances when he and his friends had had their identification taken and not returned or their T-shirts removed and tattoos photographed.
Campbell then walked over to Larkin, slapped the cigarette from his hand, twisted his arm behind his back, lifted him from the bench and snapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists.
"See," Larkin said. "This is what happens to me all the time. This is what happens when we come here."
Dellena was shocked. The stocky officer handled the lanky Larkin as if he were a rag doll. She asked Campbell for his name and badge number.
"I'll give it to you when I'm through," the officer said, and radioed for backup.
"Call my mother," Larkin said to Dellena. "Call her and tell her what happened."
Dellena scribbled down his mother's name and number.
Campbell asked who she was. Dellena told him. "Move back," the officer said.
Dellena and Matt did, about 25 feet.
Two more motorcycle officers arrived and told three kids at the other end of the park to leave. The cops then walked over to Matt and said something about sitting on the steps. While they talked, Campbell leaned close to Larkin and muttered something Dellena couldn't hear, so she walked back toward the bench, stopping a good twenty feet from the arrest scene.
As the officers worked, she copied down the name and badge number of a motorcycle cop named Jim Castrodale, who barked, "What are you doing back here? Didn't he already ask you to leave?"
"Yes, but I can't see what is going on," Dellena said. "I feel I have to be a witness."
Campbell walked over with some papers, asked Dellena her name and address and said she'd be subpoenaed as a witness.
When Dellena heard "subpoena," she responded, "No. I'm not signing anything."
"Please," Larkin said. "I need you to be my witness. I need you to sign. You saw what happened. You're the only one who can help me."
Dellena looked at the officers.
"What is it?" she asked, referring to the paperwork.
"I don't have time to explain it to you right now," Campbell said.
She looked at Larkin, who was still cuffed on the bench. "It means you'll be a witness," he said. "Just sign it."
She looked at the officers.
"What does it mean?"
"Either you sign it or you leave."
"But what is it?"
"Either you sign it or you leave."
"But I don't know what it is."
"Either you sign it or you leave."
Dellena hesitated and looked at Larkin, whom she'd never met before.
"Forget it," Castrodale said, then arrested her for disobeying a lawful order.
Dellena, who was wearing a T-shirt, baseball cap and overall shorts, thought she might have been mistaken for a street kid, so she told Castrodale who she was and why she was there. The officer said he didn't care. For all he knew, Castrodale told her, she could be packing a knife.
Dellena was loaded into a police van smelling of urine and splattered with spittle, and for the next half hour, she sat among the drunks, addicts and gang members who were rounded up that evening.
"They pressed themselves to the glass and screamed sick things at me," she recalls. "I've never been so scared in my life."
At the jail, Dellena was transferred to a holding cell with several prostitutes, a homeless woman who kept exposing her breasts and a drug addict going through withdrawal. She was fingerprinted, photographed and held until her bond was posted at 4 a.m.
"I've never had anything like that happen before," she says. "It was just unbelievable."
Dellena could have pleaded guilty, paid her $50 fine and walked away. But she didn't.
"I saw something that wasn't right," she says. "Why should I leave? What was that kid arrested for? Talking to me? Talking? He wasn't inciting anything. He wasn't emotional. He didn't raise his voice. He just sat there with his legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. All he was doing was telling me specific incidents that happened to him and police on the mall. Isn't it my duty as a citizen to stay, especially if there's a kid involved? He asked me to be his witness. As an adult and a counselor, what else was I supposed to do?"
For starters, Campbell and Castrodale say, Larkin wasn't sitting calmly on the bench. While the eighteen-year-old was being ticketed for sitting on the grass, Larkin was yelling "police harassment" to passersby. When Campbell asked him to move, Larkin only yelled louder. Campbell couldn't interview the two teens to get the information he needed, so Larkin was arrested.
Dellena also got in the way, Campbell says, by standing between him and the teens. She interrupted his questions. She talked over his words. Each time Campbell asked her to move, she refused. And when she finally did move, after Campbell threatened to arrest her, Dellena returned a few minutes later and again stood in his way.
"She kept getting in the middle of things," Campbell says. "I couldn't do what I needed to do."
When Castrodale arrived, he saw eight or nine people around Campbell. Castrodale didn't know who Dellena was. He didn't know why she was there. She could have been Larkin's girlfriend or wife. Whoever she was, she had crossed what officers consider to be a safe zone and "put herself within the reach of our weapons." Castrodale says Dellena was arrested only after she refused to be a witness, blocked their way and hindered their jobs.
Nonsense, responds Janet Hoeffel, who handled Dellena's case for the American Civil Liberties Union. Dellena stands five feet tall and weighs ninety pounds. She didn't block anyone's path. She didn't stop anyone from doing his job. She didn't prevent Larkin's arrest or the teens from being ticketed. In fact, by the time she was cuffed, Larkin and the teens had already been detained. Dellena didn't threaten anyone.
"We're talking about three kids getting a ticket for sitting on the grass, smoking cigarettes and talking," Hoeffel says. "No one was about to reach for anyone's gun."
Here's what really happened, Hoeffel says: Police didn't want Dellena watching them. They didn't want her taking notes, writing names and badge numbers or documenting Larkin's arrest. Dellena annoyed them, so they arrested her under the vague charge of "failing to obey a lawful order."
"They use that interfering charge right, left and sideways," Hoeffel adds. "But I don't think they get training in constitutional rights. A lawful order is not anything a cop says. If what they say violates free speech, like 'Shut up,' that is not a lawful order. You can't interfere with an officer, but you have every right to stay, watch and comment. That's what Dellena was doing. And you can't be arrested for that."
Workers at The Spot say Dellena's arrest is part of a larger picture. Downtown merchants--who are paying for a major renovation of Skyline Park--don't want street kids around, though those merchants say otherwise in public. And cops are only too glad to help out, driving out the youths by enforcing laws against minor infractions such as littering, loitering and jaywalking.
"If police can find any reason to stop these kids and run them through their computers, they'll do it," says Doug Gradisar, a former 16th Street Mall outreach worker. "I can understand businesses wanting an inviting environment, but they're giving kids a ticket for jaywalking while other people are jaywalking all around them. You'd think the way police were watching them that they'd be major drug dealers or up to no good on a daily basis. I know that some of these kids might be doing drugs or shoplifting, but a lot of them are at Skyline Park because their home or their neighborhood is not a better place to be. From what I saw, it's definitely selective enforcement."
Dellena took her case to trial. On February 8, a six-member jury found her not guilty.
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In retrospect, she considers herself lucky. She had the contacts and the wherewithal to find an attorney and challenge her arrest. But what about those on the street, like Larkin?
"A lot of these kids don't know what their rights are," Dellena says. "They don't know the resources available or where to get them. They feel like they won't be heard anyway, and if they have a record, they won't fight back, even if they're in the right."
What's worse, she says, no one cares.
"This is not a matter of peace and order and enforcing the rules," Dellena says. "It's gone way beyond that. It's a whole task force dedicated to getting rid of these kids. It's just like what happened to the homeless. They're being moved out. They're being moved from a safe area to an unsafe area. Where they're going is train tracks and crack houses and abandoned warehouses and places we don't even know."
Larkin, for example, has disappeared from the mall.
"That's not right," Dellana continues. "And people are just sitting there on the mall eating and drinking and watching this stuff happen. No one says anything or gets involved. To me, that's sad.