Citizen's Arrest

Page 4 of 5

Nakazono is similarly perplexed. "I don't understand Reverend Ford's position most of the time," she says. "What troubles me is, there is only one case where he sustained against the police. Everybody else goes every which way. He seems to be able to [take] the police's position on every case, and I find that unusual."

Hiawatha Davis, one of the commission's founders and a friend of Ford's, says the reverend is "preoccupied with making sure the department doesn't get a bad deal. Maybe he feels he has to."

Ford is reluctant to classify himself as pro-cop. But he generally gives the police the benefit of the doubt. That worries Benavidez, who says the commission's job is not to be a cheerleader for the department. "The ordinance requires us to look at complaints," she says. "Complaints never say the police do a good job."

A recent complaint by anti-abortion activist Michael Martin is a good example not only of the kind of petty complaints the commission tends to look at, but also of the gulf between Ford and the others. In November 1995, Martin was attending an anti-abortion protest and was arrested by police officer Yolanda Johnson, who knew Martin from past rallies.

Martin complained he had not been informed when he got in Johnson's police cruiser that he was under arrest. "When I'm arrested, I want to know I'm under arrest," Martin told commissioners at a public hearing last December.

The commission, though, was more interested that the officer had violated police policy by not handcuffing Martin--even though Martin told commissioners he was glad she hadn't.

"We don't make the rules and the operations manual," Benavidez explains. "Officers have an obligation to understand rules. If you don't handcuff someone, how do you know they're not gonna jump out of the car or try to attack you?"

To Ford, though, the Martin case was just another example of the commission's tendency to nail cops for bogus violations. "You have to look at the original nature of the complaint," Ford says. "It's always a point of 'Am I addressing the complaint or am I using something outside the scope?' What is it you're attempting to achieve?"

Ford was outvoted 6-1. Officer Johnson was disciplined.
While Ford and the other commissioners have clashed over the Martin case and other incidents, however, they have no trouble agreeing on the commission's lack of authority. "As far as its ineffectiveness," Ford says of the group, "they've had one case open since 1993. How do you go back and discipline officers for something that happened four years ago?"

"The commission is not well set up for heavy-duty use," agrees DeForest. "We're all volunteers. That alone makes everything we do difficult." DeForest found that out for herself after her fellow commissioners assigned her to the Thomas Jefferson case. It took her a month and a half of red tape, she says, just to hire an investigator to look into the incident. The commission has not yet weighed in on that matter, and its investigator, says Benavidez, is just compiling summaries of witness statements. "It's hard enough to do what we're supposed to do," adds Benavidez. "To be more involved with the police, we'd have to have more authority and more resources."

"The mayor and city council control our budget," adds PSRC administrator Victoria Calvillo. "All they need to do is ask us to stop, in any tone of voice, and we have to cooperate."

Both Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson and Benavidez deny a claim by Calvillo that the mayor pressured the commission to back away from its "Do the Right Thing" campaign. But even Benavidez admits that the commission's reliance on the mayor and council for its $90,000-per-year budget leaves it with little clout. "We can only work within the authority we've been given and the resources we've been given," she says. "Unless the mayor's office or city council is willing to expand those resources, we don't have the kind of staff to do that kind of research."

Sandoval says the commission does serve a purpose--to "open up the process." But he says people sometimes have unrealistic expectations. "There may be high expectations that develop when they hear of the commission--'Here's the body that will right all the wrongs,'" notes the commissioner. "It's similar to the expectation that 'I'll take my claim to court and prevail 'cause there is justice in the world.'"

Gill Ford has the look of a man resigned to his duties on the commission and waiting for the day when his term is up. "I've enjoyed making a bit of difference," he says. "But is it worth all the headache?"

Ford says he has no immediate plans to leave the commission and talks about how change is a gradual process. But his frustration with the PSRC seems to be growing. His greatest headache is that the commission doesn't spend much time looking at the rules and regulations that govern police activity. "Ninety-five percent of the time, the commission focuses on police misconduct," Ford says. "With policy stuff, the commission does very little."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
T.R. Witcher