4/20 at Civic Center Park: Cops pledge greater presence, "discretion" with smokers

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There'll be a lot of pressure on Denver police officers working this weekend's annual 4/20 event at Civic Center Park. Organizers have been asked to discourage public smoking even though lighting up at 4:20 p.m. on April 20 is arguably the gathering's most sacred tradition -- and security concerns are higher than ever given a still-unsolved shooting last year that resulted in one day's worth of festivities being canceled.

We asked Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson about these issues and how the department plans to approach them. Here's what he had to say.

"There will be a large police presence in the downtown area at the event," Jackson says. When asked for an estimate of the force's size, however, he defers. "What I can tell you is that officers will be patrolling the area to ensure the safety of the public -- people involved in the festival and people traveling nearby.

"Officers will be very visible," he adds. "We'll enforce the laws but exercise the proper discretion as we do so."

Does that mean the DPD will steer clear of mass arrests for public marijuana smoking, mirroring the department's actions in past years?

"We want people to respect the laws and the ordinances," Jackson replies. "Voters said marijuana was legal and we respect that. And we also want people to respect the laws as written -- and the law says not to smoke publicly. But we want to exercise discretion for the safety of everyone involved."

Does that mean backing off if a confrontation between law enforcement and 4/20 participants seems to be brewing? Rather than directly addressing this issue, Jackson sticks to his talking points.

"I'm not trying to be coy or difficult," he says at one point. "But we have to consider the public safety. So we're going to take everything into consideration -- officer safety and community safety -- whenever we take action."

Meanwhile, Jackson notes that "we're very cognizant about what happened last year" in terms of the shooting.

Continue for more of our interview with Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson about the law-enforcement approach to this year's 4/20 event, including more photos. Just after 5 p.m. on April 20, 2013, as we've reported, shots rang out in the park during a performance by hip-hop act Lil' Flip, causing the enormous crowd, estimated in the tens of thousands, to scatter. In the end, three people were wounded: Two were hit in the leg, while a third person was grazed by a bullet.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the DPD issued photos of an individual considered to be a suspect. However, that person voluntarily spoke to investigators, who subsequently cleared him of any involvement in the violence.

Over the year since then, Jackson confirms that there have been no arrests. "It's still an open case," he says. "We're asking for anyone with information about what happened to come forward and speak to us, because it's still an active investigation that we're pursuing."

How will officers try to prevent something like this from happening again? After all, the possibility of record crowds is very real given the global publicity generated by the beginning of recreational marijuana sales on January 1. And performances by nationally known artists such as Wyclef Jean and B.o.B. will undoubtedly attract a great deal of attention, too.

"I really can't talk about our tactics," Jackson says. "But we're aware [the organizers] have changed things" by increasing the amount of scheduled entertainment, "so we'll have to adjust our plans accordingly. As the landscape changes, you have to change your tactics and how you deploy.

"We recognize this is a major event in the city," Jackson continues. "So we're going to do our best to make it as safe as possible for everyone. But we'll use discretion, too."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive circa April 21, 2014: "Photos: 4/20 shooting at Civic Center Park -- and an activist's take."

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