Three Denver law enforcement leaders sat in the front pew of the Shorter Community AME Church sanctuary, surrounded by roughly a thousand people who were alternately angry and respectful as they demanded reform. By the end of the January 17 meeting, the officials looked nearly as emotionally battered as the community members they pledge to serve.
This wasn’t a chance for Sheriff Patrick Firman to defend a massive overhaul of his department. Or for Police Chief Robert White to tout his new use-of-force policy draft, written without community input, and his commitment to 21st-century policing. Or for Stephanie O’Malley, who oversees the city’s safety department, to defend Mayor Michael Hancock and his leadership on issues of criminal-justice reform.
Each official had just minutes to answer questions from the community. Otherwise, they were instructed, by clergy, to sit and listen.
Notably absent from the proceedings: the mayor and newly elected Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, both of whom were elected to office, at least in part, by luring voters with promises of criminal-justice reform.
For an hour and a half, rabbis, preachers, a lawmaker, activists and the niece of Michael Lee Marshall, a homeless man killed by sheriff’s deputies in the Denver jail, reproached the officials. The three were accused of being complicit in murder. Their law enforcement strategies were described as racist and disproportionately aimed at black and brown people. They were blasted for failing to discipline brutal cops who engage in excessive force, for overcrowding in the jail, and for creating an unsafe environment for people of color in the city.
Whatever else can be said about the law enforcement brass in attendance — and there were many things said last night — these three leaders showed up. They listened. And in the couple of minutes each had to respond to pointed questions about concrete changes they could make, they answered — albeit not always to the community’s satisfaction.
Early on, the clergy who led the meeting, organized by the progressive faith coalition Together Colorado, cautioned all sides to maintain a respectful demeanor and to be willing to listen. Most people did.
Representative Joe Salazar unrolled a string of proposals he is introducing at the Statehouse this session. One, a “point of contact” bill, would make it harder and more costly for law enforcement officers to pull people over and stop them without cause. Salazar, looking directly at White, blasted a group of police chiefs for killing criminal-justice legislation introduced in a prior year.
Another measure that Salazar will propose at the Statehouse, the Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act, would ensure that Colorado, as a state, would not comply with any policies adopted by the federal government that target people based on their identity. Salazar hopes the bill will inspire other states to “Rise up, right now, and stop the spread of hatred across the country.”
Rabbi Anat Moskowitz spoke about the Jewish people’s exile from slavery and lessons from the Holocaust that should inform how people approach the new presidential administration. She also cautioned law enforcement against racial profiling.
After she spoke, a robed AME choir stood and sang an uplifting ecumenical hymn. The audience rose, many clapping and singing along. That interlude renewed the crowd's energy and gave people strength and a sense of calm as they entered the hardest conversation of the night: direct criticism aimed at Denver law enforcement.
Part of that conversation involved screening a short recut of Wade Gardner’s documentary Marvin Booker Was Murdered, about a homeless black street preacher killed at the hands of Denver sheriff’s deputies. The clip Gardner cobbled together for the night was a direct indictment of what he says was the city’s “sham” investigation.
Lisa Calderón, of the Colorado Latino Forum, decried overcrowding in the jail and reminded Sheriff Firman, “This is not your jail.... You are accountable to us, and not just the politicians.”
Natalia Marshall, the niece of another homeless man killed by deputies in the Denver jail, delivered a soft, mournful speech about her schizophrenic uncle who had called the police because his Bible was missing and who was arrested, held on a $100 bond and murdered by deputies, she said.
She evoked the name of others killed by Denver law enforcement — Paul Castaway, Ryan Ronquillo, Jessica Hernandez and Booker — and asked the city brass what could be done to ensure that this never happens again.
After other activists and clergy spoke, Lee McNeil, of the Shorter Community AME Church and a leader with Together Colorado, took to the podium to ask each of the three officials a question about excessive force.
She invited Chief White to the stage first. As he walked up, she described a meeting she'd had with him earlier in the afternoon, in which she and others expressed a desire to have a transparent, ongoing relationship with him. They'd talked about strengthening trust and building relationships. “We are hopeful we are able to move forward with this,” McNeil said. “So, Chief White, a use-of-force policy has been created without any community input, [and without participation from] the Citizen Oversight Board, the Office of the Independent Monitor, officers and the directly impacted community.”
After summing up the other speakers' comments, she asked: “Therefore, Chief White, will you co-create an active community advisory board made of representatives of the Citizen Oversight Board, the Office of the Independent Monitor, police officers and community leaders, to partner in writing the use-of-force policy?”
That policy has already been drafted, and after earlier complaints over a lack of input, White will present it to the community at three public meetings over the next few weeks.
Now, before giving him a chance to speak, McNeil said with a smile, “You have one and a half minutes to answer,” giving White little time for more than a "yes" or "no."
White and the crowd laughed. “I guess I have to talk relatively fast,” he said. He began his speech mumbling, and an audience member shouted, “Talk up.”
"Actually, I've never had trouble speaking out loud. I have a big mouth," or so his wife tells him, White joked. He went on to thank the clergy for the opportunity to be there and asked them to pray for him to have the strength and courage to do the right thing as chief of police. The crowd applauded.
“With that being said,” he went on, “I think it’s important for you to understand that I am your chief, not just the chief of the 1,500 members that work in our police department…
“I see my responsibility to you. Understand that I heard you loud,” White said. “We need reform in our police department. We've spent the last five years doing that reform. Reform goes beyond the policy. You have to change the culture. You have to change what you value.... I've talked to many of you about that."
He went on to say that because the use-of-force policy impacted so many other policies, "we created a draft. I agree that we need to have community engagement."
After the draft was written, he said, he and the department sent out a press release soliciting public input: "Not just one group or two groups, but asking the entire community to review that draft. And if you think it could be better or different or you have something to bring to the table that would change that, you have my commitment, as your chief, to make sure that is part of the...final policy.”
Upon that, a timekeeper yelled out, “Time.”
White continued to talk about the citywide gatherings he has planned. “Those community meetings are scheduled to be three hours long. I will stay there for ten hours if it’s necessary,” he said. He pledged to go through every component of the draft, and “whatever needs to be changed that can be done legally and that the officers can implement, I have an absolute commitment to make that part of the final policy. That is my response to my question.”
The crowd applauded.
But McNeil wanted clarity; as she saw it, White didn't really answer the question: “So you are saying you will not create a community advisory board?” she said.
“I just said exactly what I was going to do,” White responded.
“Okay,” said McNeil. “We are appalled…”
White tried to defend himself, without directly answering the yes/no question. As he stated that he agreed the policy needs to be shaped with community input, the timekeeper weighed in and told him to stop.
McNeil pointed to the roughly 1,000 people in the crowd, noting that in other cities, police and communities partner on writing drafts. “We are going to have a community that is safe for all," she said. "We are moving forward in our efforts to address this issue.”
What those efforts are, she did not say. But she added that she and others are willing to continue to meet with White.
After dismissing White, who walked back to his seat with a grim expression on his face, McNeil called up Firman and O’Malley to talk about the downtown jail.
“It's a problem of overcrowding in the Denver jails, which operates at a 92 percent capacity with a population that is disproportionately composed of black women, black and brown inmates,” McNeil said. “Sheriff Firman, will you reinstate the community engagement group of officers and people of color, to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce the Denver jail population, with the goal of identifying alternative responses to detention and over-incarceration?”
Firman acknowledged that the jail is crowded and houses a disproportionate number of people of color. He expressed the department’s commitment to looking at these issues, at who’s in jail and why.
“I think it’s a bigger issue than just the Denver Sheriff Department,” he said, pointing out that “we don’t control who’s arrested and brought to jail…. The issue is not just involving the Denver Sheriff Department. The issue is involving the Denver Police Department. The issue is involving the court and judiciary system and the district attorney’s office. We need to bring all of these people to the table to talk about what their individual role is.”
He referred to a “systemic problem in the way the criminal-justice system is happening.” He offered to provide leadership and data, to show who’s in jail, to help address systemic issues.
McNeil, exasperated, said, “Can you please answer the question. Will you re-create the community engagement group?”
The two went back and forth about the technicalities of what reinstating a community-engagement board would look like, but eventually, Firman said yes, he would — and much more.
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Finally, O’Malley answered McNeil, speaking about her "tireless hard work" enhancing the relationship between the public and law enforcement, and the meetings and working groups she has organized to ensure that critical conversations happen about criminal-justice reform.
After that, the meeting finally wound down. Reverend Alan Pettis from Shorter AME Church recapped what the officials had said. Moskowitz offered a prayer. And the activists in the crowd, uncertain about what the officials' promises would actually amount to, left the church, all discussing what's next.