Longform

Citizen's Arrest

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"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."

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T.R. Witcher