The Denver Police Department wants its officers to start being more polite. After a slew of complaints about cops using ethnic slurs and intimidating language, the department drafted a new regulation for its updated October operations manual. The one-sentence regulation, labeled RR-138, reads: "Officers shall not use any language or display any gesture that may be construed as threatening, obscene, sexually or racially provocative."
Some local watchdogs say the new conduct rule reveals a lot about the police department. "This is something that shouldn't even be an issue," says Reverend Gill Ford, a former commissioner on the Denver Public Safety Review Commission. "But we're living in a city that needs an ordinance that says police officers can't refer to blacks as 'niggers.'
"Why get caught up in this kind of issue?" asks Ford. "It should be a no-brainer. But we had to do it with the Denver Police Department. I'm asking, 'How did we get to this point?'"
Ford says that the impetus for the ordinance was a 1996 incident at Thomas Jefferson High School. On May 4 of that year, hundreds of black students from TJ and other local high schools got together for a "Brotha 2 Brotha" conference. A fight broke out in the parking lot outside the event, and additional troops were called to back up off-duty officers already on the scene. According to reports, when more than seventy cops responded to the call for help, the fight escalated into a near riot. Police used tear gas on the unruly kids, and some students say they were billy-clubbed by police.
After the smoke cleared, dozens of students filed complaints against the police. Many reported that officers had hurled racial epithets along with the tear gas. The complaints resulted in an internal investigation by the police department, and in the end, two supervising officers were disciplined because of their role in the incident.
But the Thomas Jefferson incident isn't the only one in which police have been accused of using ethnic slurs.
"When I first came to Denver from L.A. in the spring of 1996, I thought about what issues might come up," says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, "and police misconduct or racism didn't come to mind as potential big deals."
But Silverstein says that within a month of his arrival cops were criticized for what many believed was their harassment of Cinco de Mayo revelers on Federal Boulevard; a day later, the Thomas Jefferson incident occurred. A year later, the city was shocked by television footage of cops and paramedics roughing up Gil Webb after the black teenager's stolen car rammed a police cruiser, causing the death of rookie officer Ron DeHerrera.
"And when we started asking questions about racism," says Silverstein, "we found out that the DPD didn't even track [racial] complaints. They lumped them together with complaints about officers being rude to citizens. That, along with the number of complaints we've heard about, leads me to take it as a sign that the police department has been insensitive to the problem."
More than two years later, the new regulation appears to address those possible "insensitivities." But DPD spokespeople insist that the new regulation had nothing to do with these specific incidents. Detective David Metzler, a department spokesman, says the new regulation is no big deal. "It's just an area that the chief felt needed to be addressed," says Metzler. "We do clarifications like this all the time."
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However, rank-and-file police officers aren't happy about the new rule.
"The rule is very ambiguous," says Officer Al Archuleta. "It just opens another door for people to file a complaint. As it is, you can say 'Have a nice day' to someone you pulled over for a traffic violation and they'll complain about it. We've got enough to deal with as it is. But if I'm in a felony situation and I've got my gun on a suspect, I'm not going to talk politely, like, 'Sir, get out of the car.' Sometimes you have to intimidate someone to get them to cooperate."
Sergeant Sessions Harlan agrees with Archuleta but says he understands why the rule was adopted. "You have to have rules and regulations set forth so you can enforce them," says Harlan. "It's something concrete to go on. It doesn't mean anything terrible is going on in the Denver Police Department. I'd say this has always been an unwritten rule. But visible written rules are better than unspoken laws."
Silverstein says he has mixed feelings now that the rule is down in the police operations manual. "I don't know if this effectively implements the policy or not," he says, "but it will make these incidents easier to track.
"Still," Silverstein says, "in some ways this is disappointing, because it's along the lines of: The police shouldn't need a regulation saying they can't beat up citizens.