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?"
The commissioners have no answer to Johnson's question, but after thanking him for his time and debating the matter, the majority agrees that the officer did in fact enter without permission. The commission votes 6-1 to forward a recommendation for discipline to the mayor.
The one "no" vote belongs, typically, to Ford. Despite his years as an activist with the NAACP and his frustration at the commission's impotence--"Someone has to get robbed, hurt or beat before we'll do anything," he says--Ford is easily the most pro-police member of the commission. He charges that the group is too bent on rooting out bad seeds in the department and that it never bothers to acknowledge the good work that most police officers do. He says the commission should spend more time looking at overall police policy and less time nitpicking individual incidents.
Today a wide gulf exists between Ford and the other commissioners. The reverend now goes directly to the police if he wants to make recommendations on specific incidents, bypassing his colleagues entirely. The tension between Ford and the others has brought a whole new set of troubles to the review commission. And the last thing this commission needs is more trouble.
Gill Ford was approached for the commission job by the mayor's office in January 1996. He was reluctant to join, worried that the good relationship he'd developed with police in his years as head of the NAACP's legal redress committee would deteriorate. "I like to be productive, not necessarily confrontational," says Ford, who has been the reverend at Salem Baptist Church since 1980.
The son of a Jewish mother and a black businessman father, Ford has been productive for years. Every year he oversees a huge Thanksgiving Day effort to feed the homeless, and he seems to know nearly everyone in northeast Denver. On a recent weekday afternoon, people come by his house seeking his help on their problems; Ford is on the phone in a minute, trying to work things out.
Despite his criticisms of the commission, in conversation Ford comes across as a diplomat, sacrificing raw anger and quick judgment for a calm approach that critics can find maddeningly methodical. It was that unhurried style that was put on public display during the Gil Webb incident.
Early reports portrayed Ford as critical of the way police and paramedics had treated the teenage car thief; Ford even called Chief of Police Dave Michaud and invited him to his house to watch a videotape shot by a local television station and given to Ford by a station employee. But after Ford saw an enhanced version of the tape, he told reporters that perhaps Webb hadn't been treated as badly as he'd first thought; for instance, Ford noted that Webb had not been kicked in the head, as was initially reported.
Now, in light of an investigation by the Jefferson County District Attorney's office, which found no evidence of criminal conduct on the part of police or paramedics, Ford is back on the attack. "When you take a 100-pound kid and put 400 pounds on his back...," he says, "you have to start looking and say something is wrong."
Ford says he isn't waffling, just asking questions. But reflecting on his moment in the media spotlight, he does admit that "I got beat up on that videotape incident." He says he has no regrets, though. He took the incident as one isolated event, as he does all incidents.
Ford's diplomatic tendencies have been honed by years as a minister and fueled by a mixed heritage that forced him to cope with his own complex identity--and the derision it often brought--from early on.
"My world is more diverse than any of them," Ford says, referring to the other commissioners. "In the course of a day I come into contact with everyone. Part of what I do is to talk, listen to what's going on. If I can get along with myself, everybody else can get along with me, 'cause I got a little bit of everybody inside me."
Ford says he had good and bad experiences with police growing up. Sometimes cops "would go the whole nine yards and write me up for garbage things like running a red a block from home," he recalls. "My rationale is, we're gonna have to get along. In relationships, it's gonna get better or worse. You have to get involved."
And Ford is very much involved with the Denver police. Chief Michaud has been a good friend since the two met at the funeral of restaurateur Daddy Bruce Randolph several years ago. Commissioners are supposed to do a ride-along with police four times a year. Ford rides once a month. "If I'm gonna sit down and assess something, I want to make sure I understand it," he says.
That may explain his reluctance to join the commission, which was born out of confrontation with the cops. The commission was founded in 1992, after years of criticism about police conduct came to a head with the 1991 beating of a fifteen-year-old boy following a car chase. A special nineteen-member civilian panel headed by city councilman Hiawatha Davis took testimony about police conduct in general, and after some wrangling between the mayor, who wanted a five-member commission with greatly curtailed powers, and city council members Davis and Tim Sandos, who wanted a stronger, seven-member commission, a deal was cut. Davis and Sandos got their seven members; Webb was successful in stripping the commission of any real muscle--and also won the right to appoint the commissioners.
Since the beginning, the police union has gone head-to-head with the commission. The Police Protective Association challenged the commission's subpoena power in court, and though a Denver judge upheld that subpoena power in late 1995, the case has been appealed.
This past January, two officers took the Fifth when they were summoned by the commission to give testimony. One officer, Jerome Powell, was accused of punching a motorist in the face and throwing him against a wall. By the time the case got to the commission, an internal police investigation had cleared him. The other officer, Scott Blatnick, shot and killed a man in 1995; he was exonerated by the district attorney's office, which said he had used justifiable force. Though subpoenaed by the commission, the two officers refused to testify; city attorneys are currently seeking a court order to force them to talk. The matter is still pending in Denver District Court, according to the city attorney's office.
Most of the commissioners see Powell's and Blatnick's refusal to testify as isolated events; since then, notes commission chairwoman Adrienne Benavidez, other officers have given testimony voluntarily. But while commissioners and even the police department's liaison to the PSRC paint a picture of improved relations, police distrust remains beneath the surface.
"We don't fear civilian oversight," says Captain John Lamb, the police liaison. "What we don't want is people coming in here with their own agenda. Now that we've gone through the curve, the process runs very smoothly."
But for police, the ambivalence rises as the rank lowers. Detective Alex Woods Sr., president of the PPA, calls the commission an unnecessary political fix. "Our problem is, there's a lot of taxpayer money that could be used elsewhere," he says. "I think it's just a frustration."
Two of the commission members are former cops--Joe Sandoval, now a criminal-justice professor at Metro State College, and Brian Muldoon, a Philadelphia police officer turned attorney. But the rest of the members are self-styled community activists. Benavidez is on the Latino Education Coalition and is a constant critic of Denver Public Schools. She also was a Democratic candidate for state representative in 1994. DeForest is prominent in Denver's gay and lesbian community, while Sami Nakazono is active in the city's Asian community. C. Lamont Smith is the lawyer who represented four black women after they got into an altercation with two white customers at a Denny's restaurant in 1994.
Ford is an activist, too, but soon after his appointment in March, he began to realize that he stood apart from his colleagues. He says he was interested in "building bridges," while his colleagues were more concerned with giving cops a hard time. That antagonism has only intensified with time. "There's a couple I'm cordial with," he says of the other commissioners. "The others, it's just a matter of being professional."
The other commissioners don't know what to make of Gill Ford.
"Reverend Ford will be Gill Ford, and he'll do whatever he wants," says Joe Sandoval with some exasperation. Asked whether Ford is consistently pro-police, Sandoval adds, "Yeah, it does appear that way on many occasions. I've heard many similar things from people in the community. Reverend Ford has his own peculiar view of things, and on the one hand I accept it, but on the other I sometimes don't know quite where he's coming from."
Nakazono is similarly perplexed. "I don't understand Reverend Ford's position most of the time," she says. "What troubles me is, there is only one case where he sustained against the police. Everybody else goes every which way. He seems to be able to [take] the police's position on every case, and I find that unusual."
Hiawatha Davis, one of the commission's founders and a friend of Ford's, says the reverend is "preoccupied with making sure the department doesn't get a bad deal. Maybe he feels he has to."
Ford is reluctant to classify himself as pro-cop. But he generally gives the police the benefit of the doubt. That worries Benavidez, who says the commission's job is not to be a cheerleader for the department. "The ordinance requires us to look at complaints," she says. "Complaints never say the police do a good job."
A recent complaint by anti-abortion activist Michael Martin is a good example not only of the kind of petty complaints the commission tends to look at, but also of the gulf between Ford and the others. In November 1995, Martin was attending an anti-abortion protest and was arrested by police officer Yolanda Johnson, who knew Martin from past rallies.
Martin complained he had not been informed when he got in Johnson's police cruiser that he was under arrest. "When I'm arrested, I want to know I'm under arrest," Martin told commissioners at a public hearing last December.
The commission, though, was more interested that the officer had violated police policy by not handcuffing Martin--even though Martin told commissioners he was glad she hadn't.
"We don't make the rules and the operations manual," Benavidez explains. "Officers have an obligation to understand rules. If you don't handcuff someone, how do you know they're not gonna jump out of the car or try to attack you?"
To Ford, though, the Martin case was just another example of the commission's tendency to nail cops for bogus violations. "You have to look at the original nature of the complaint," Ford says. "It's always a point of 'Am I addressing the complaint or am I using something outside the scope?' What is it you're attempting to achieve?"
Ford was outvoted 6-1. Officer Johnson was disciplined.
While Ford and the other commissioners have clashed over the Martin case and other incidents, however, they have no trouble agreeing on the commission's lack of authority. "As far as its ineffectiveness," Ford says of the group, "they've had one case open since 1993. How do you go back and discipline officers for something that happened four years ago?"
"The commission is not well set up for heavy-duty use," agrees DeForest. "We're all volunteers. That alone makes everything we do difficult." DeForest found that out for herself after her fellow commissioners assigned her to the Thomas Jefferson case. It took her a month and a half of red tape, she says, just to hire an investigator to look into the incident. The commission has not yet weighed in on that matter, and its investigator, says Benavidez, is just compiling summaries of witness statements. "It's hard enough to do what we're supposed to do," adds Benavidez. "To be more involved with the police, we'd have to have more authority and more resources."
"The mayor and city council control our budget," adds PSRC administrator Victoria Calvillo. "All they need to do is ask us to stop, in any tone of voice, and we have to cooperate."
Both Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson and Benavidez deny a claim by Calvillo that the mayor pressured the commission to back away from its "Do the Right Thing" campaign. But even Benavidez admits that the commission's reliance on the mayor and council for its $90,000-per-year budget leaves it with little clout. "We can only work within the authority we've been given and the resources we've been given," she says. "Unless the mayor's office or city council is willing to expand those resources, we don't have the kind of staff to do that kind of research."
Sandoval says the commission does serve a purpose--to "open up the process." But he says people sometimes have unrealistic expectations. "There may be high expectations that develop when they hear of the commission--'Here's the body that will right all the wrongs,'" notes the commissioner. "It's similar to the expectation that 'I'll take my claim to court and prevail 'cause there is justice in the world.'"
Gill Ford has the look of a man resigned to his duties on the commission and waiting for the day when his term is up. "I've enjoyed making a bit of difference," he says. "But is it worth all the headache?"
Ford says he has no immediate plans to leave the commission and talks about how change is a gradual process. But his frustration with the PSRC seems to be growing. His greatest headache is that the commission doesn't spend much time looking at the rules and regulations that govern police activity. "Ninety-five percent of the time, the commission focuses on police misconduct," Ford says. "With policy stuff, the commission does very little."
The commission did make a recommendation in 1994 that led to limitations on the use of the police department's notorious gang list, notes Benavidez. So far, though, the commission's most lasting policy recommendation has been on so-called "civil standby" incidents. Civil standby refers to cases--like Gary Johnson's--where one citizen tries to retrieve belongings from another under police supervision. People complained that police officers were too often siding with one party against another, and at the commission's behest, Chief Michaud approved a change in policy that resulted in more clearly defined guidelines requiring officers to "remain neutral in these situations and...not actively participate in the recovery."
Though no formal complaints were ever filed following this year's or last year's Cinco de Mayo celebration, Benavidez says the commission has set up a task force comprising three commissioners to look into police policy regarding crowd control. So far, that group has not come back with any recommendations. As for the Truax case, Benavidez says, "we talked about some of the policy issues, but we're volunteers, and we don't have the ability to look at every policy."
Benavidez agrees with Ford that the commission hasn't "looked at policy as much as we should." But she questions whether the reverend brings anything to the table in that regard. "I never heard him bring an issue to the council," says the chairwoman.
Ford admits that when he sees something wrong, such as the Gil Webb incident, he's more likely to talk to Michaud than to his fellow commissioners. "I'm not dumb," he says. "I'm gonna take it somewhere where it'll do some good."
And while the other commissioners seem either content or resigned to play their parts on the limited stage that's been set before them, Ford continues to go it alone, complaining about the commission's treatment of both cops and citizens. His mind is always spinning--sometimes too much, he acknowledges. "That's probably my biggest problem," he says. "I have a hard time accepting what people tell me. I have to find out for myself."
Maybe, says Ford, that's why he tends to schmooze his way through difficult situations--just as he did in the Gil Webb case. "I've been in the city over forty years, been in the clergy more than twenty years," Ford notes. "I know a lot of people. What, am I supposed to be morbid with everybody?"
Certainly not. The phone rings. It's Michaud. And the chief is quickly invited over to Ford's place for Memorial Day.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.