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?"