On August 17, Denver City Council voted down a rushed charter-change proposal from Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca that sought to abolish the Denver Police Department and replace it with a "peace force" that would have given only a minority of officers arrest powers and the right to use firearms.
"There was no comprehensive robust community input," said Denver City Council President Stacie Gilmore before joining ten other members in voting against referring the measure to the November ballot. "None of us, none of us are afforded the privilege to change our charter so drastically without talking to our communities and each other."
CdeBaca was the lone "yes" vote, while Councilman Chris Hinds abstained.
CdeBaca, who has shown a penchant for defying council's standard operating procedure, sprang the sweeping proposal on fellow councilmembers just days before she planned to introduce it.
"These proposed ballot initiatives represent the first meaningful actions being taken to address police brutality and abuses of power in Denver," CdeBaca said in a Facebook post that explained her "peace force" initiative, a second proposal dealing with how the city attorney is chosen, and a third that was framed as a way to increase the independence of Denver's independent monitor. Those latter two proposals were re-referred to committee at last night's council meeting, which means that they won't make the November ballot.
The proposal to abolish the police department and create a peace force was the brainchild of two members of the public who'd come up with the language in the aftermath of the massive George Floyd protests that swept through the streets of Denver starting in late May.
CdeBaca had filed placeholder text in Denver City Council's online system late on August 14, indicating that she would be putting forth a proposal to abolish the DPD and create a peace force via direct file, skipping the usual first step of going to a city council committee. The details of CdeBaca's proposal finally went live on August 16, giving councilmembers a day to weigh the merits of the initiative.
Some members were dismayed at the lack of time to consider the measure.
"It's the classic 'false dilemma' situation — either you support abolishing the police or you support racism and oppression. That's a false dichotomy," said Councilman Kevin Flynn before the August 17 meeting. "It is obvious from the manner in which it was brought that it is political theater. The sponsor indicated in the media that she doesn't expect it to pass, so I don't believe it was brought forward with that intent, either. It completely lacks transparency and engagement with community. But primarily, it is hijacking from the larger community that already has been engaged in work surrounding policing in our community."
Added Councilwoman Kendra Black, "I don't support any major legislation that didn't go through a thorough council and public process. This is a very serious proposal and deserves time, attention, research, feedback and involvement of all of Denver's residents."
During the August 17 meeting, tensions that had been building between CdeBaca and other councilmembers over the past year hit a breaking point.
"Councilman CdeBaca, you make us feel like it’s us versus you," said Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval. "I have received overwhelming phone calls and emails from people who were flabbergasted at the way this was done, and asking me questions about the bill when I don’t even have any answers."
Councilwoman Debbie Ortega expressed similar sentiments. "It feels like we’re creating a movement into bullying us into how we should be voting on some of these bills," she said, characterizing the proposal as a "last-minute push."
Given the short time frame, the measure hadn't gotten a green light from council's legal counsel, which usually is able to review proposals to make sure they're legally sound before they go to a vote.
"Our ethical obligation is to city council, and we have to be able to say to city council that we don’t have any objections. I just felt concerned that we didn’t have time to analyze any issues that the bill might have raised," said Kirsten Crawford, one of the lawyers who advises council.
Some advocates of alternative policing and jailing systems had concerns about the measure, too.
"This proposal does more to merely rebrand a violent, dehumanizing approach to public safety crises, rather than transform it. This proposal also carries problematic implications for combining the current department with its rebrand together with other departments and agencies, resulting in even more funding for a system we don’t trust," Denver Alliance for Street Health Response posted on its Facebook page on August 17, adding that the advocacy organization "still believes in creating real alternatives to police and not being resigned to call them anything but alternatives. This includes divesting the bloated public safety budget into meeting basic human needs, community empowerment, alternative responses, and healing mechanisms such as restorative practices."
In addition to limiting the number of officers on the "peace force" who could bear arms and arrest individuals, the proposal would have mandated that the agency "adopt a comprehensive policy on safety that force will be used only as a last and least favored resource."
The proposal called for the exact structure of the "peace force" to be formulated over the course of a year, and be headed by a director who "shall have non-law enforcement experience in community safety services, including but not limited to public health or restorative justice approaches, and shall have significant ties to the community or work experience with similar communities."
At a press conference six hours before the council meeting, Mayor Michael Hancock had described the way that CdeBaca unveiled the proposal as "reckless and hypocritical."
"Defund, abolish or replace the police will likely have a devastating impact on our city," said Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen at the same press conference. "People likely will not choose to live, work or play in a community they feel less safe in."
Although CdeBaca's proposal to abolish DPD is now on the back burner, other councilmembers have expressed a desire to defund the police department, which would involve reallocating funds that go toward traditional policing into alternative services, such as sending social workers rather than armed officers to crisis situations.
The $1.49 billion general fund budget for the City of Denver in 2020 included an allocation of approximately $405 million for the police and sheriff departments, over 27 percent of the total.
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