Police brutality: Were Michael DeHerrera and Shawn Johnson targeted because they're gay?

The resignation of Denver Manager of Safety Ron Perea has hardly dulled the uproar over a series of incidents critics see as police brutality. Most prominent among them: the brutal 2009 beating of Michael DeHerrera, who is seen on video making a cell-phone call just prior to being sapped. But was DeHerrera and his partner, Shawn Johnson, targeted because they're gay?

Jessie Ulibarri, a longtime activist focusing on gay issues and anti-violence who served as the event's spokesman, doesn't know for certain. But as he and others made clear at a press event beginning at 11:30, the DeHerrera-Johnson assault hardly qualifies as an isolated incident.

According to the Colorado Anti-Violence Program (, Ulibarri says, "there have been five incidents of police misconduct and brutality against members of the LGBTQ community in Denver this year, and four in others reported across the state.

"And in a poll conducted by One Colorado, over 5,000 individuals in Colorado were asked specific questions about police misconduct and brutality. Of all respondents, one out of ten indicated that they had been mistreated by a police officer or other civil servant. And that number almost doubles when the person is African-American or transgender. It jumps to 19 percent for both of those identities, and for Latinos, it goes to 12 percent."

Why have these incidents received so little attention in comparison with the DeHerrera case? Ulibarri suspects that the shocking video footage of the incident is a major factor. And he also believes the documentation of brutality cases, whether they involve the LGBTQ community or ethnic groups, is shoddy and in need of significant improvement.

"In Denver in 2000, a piece of legislation mandated that Denver track information regarding racial profiling," he says. "That legislation sunsetted in 2004, and we don't have access to the data that was collected. But we know from our own reporting and our hotline that people report incidents to use that aren't reflected in the statistics," oftentimes because they're afraid of retaliation if they come forward, or they don't believe the issues will be properly addressed. A meeting with different community groups on Thursday will tackle this topic.

Does Perea's resignation suggest that Denver is belatedly coming to grips with the seriousness of this subject?

"We respect Manager of Safety Perea's decision to step down," Ulibarri allows. "But he had done little to inspire confidence in the process, which should have been clear and transparent and made sure the officers involved were held responsible."

With that in mind, Ulibarri says, "we are calling for the job termination of the two officers involved in the DeHerrera-Johnson incident, as the Independent Monitor already recommended. And we want other pending cases to be fully reviewed and approached with the same level of scrutiny we've seen in the DeHerrera-Johnson case. We're standing in solidarity, saying police brutality isn't okay. It undermines people's trust in the police, and their willingness to call if there's an issue for fear they'll be beaten or tasered to death" -- a reference to the still-unexplained demise of Marvin Booker at the main Denver jail.

In addition, Ulibarri says, "we're calling for more community input in the hiring of a new manager of safety -- input from the black and Latino communities, as well as the LGBTQ community. Because what happened, I think, demonstrates a structural issue rather than a person-for-person issue. When officers are able to play outside the rules and then are given a slap on the wrist, we need to be strong in saying it's time to change the system."

Below, find organizers' statement about this afternoons event:

LGBTQ Community Leaders Decry Police Brutality, React to Resignation

Denver, CO -- Last week video of an incident was released in which two police officers beat a gay couple, Shawn Johnson and Michael DeHerrera, without apparent provocation. In response to reports that the two victims of police brutality in Denver are also gay, members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community joined in calls for a zero tolerance policy on excessive force violations and demanded the termination of the offending officers on the heels of the resignation of Denver's Manager of Safety, Ron Perea. This news comes as the Denver Police Department and the Denver Jail have come under fire for three high-profile cases of excessive force.

The officers in question were given only three days suspension without pay by Manager Perea, although Denver's Independent Monitor, Richard Rosenthal, suggested their dismissal after his report found that the officers had falsified their accounts relating to the incident. Mayor Hickenlooper has called for an independent investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Manager Perea offered his resignation on Monday, August 23 in response to multiple demands for him to step down from community leaders.

According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program's 2009 Anti-LGBTQ Hate Violence Report, while total incidents declined, bias-motivated police misconduct, such as unjustified arrest, police entrapment, and police raids all represent higher proportions of all hate violence incidents reported in 2009 than they did in 2008. Additionally 79 of the reported offenders of this hate violence were law enforcement. Locally, a recent poll conducted by One Colorado found that 10% of LGBTQ Coloradans experienced harassment by a police officer or other civil servant in the last year, although the rates are significantly higher if the person was African American (19%), Latino (12%) or transgender (19%).

"We've already documented five cases of police misconduct in Denver, alone this year, with four additional cases reported in other parts of the state," stated Crystal Middlestadt, a co-director for the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, a statewide community organization that works to end violence within and against the LGBTQ community. "Despite inclusive local and state anti-discrimination laws as well as an inclusive federal hate crimes law, LGBTQ people of color continue to be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. It is time for us as a community to come together and organize responses to violence that do not rely on criminal legal systems, systems that continue to discriminate and even re-victimize us."

"As we wait for the findings from the FBI investigation, we must recognize that this is not an isolated incident. Our Legal Helpline hears regularly from people about civil rights complaints against the Denver Police Department," declared Mindy Barton, the Legal Director for The GLBT Community Center of Colorado. "We need a criminal justice system that works to build trust and security among our communities, rather than terrorizing people with fear and violence."

"With the Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco in 1966 and the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 as the most notorious examples, the roots of the current LGBTQ movement are directly related to police brutality," stated Jessie Ulibarri, a gay Latino community activist. "Nearly 50 years later we are still fighting against this type of violence. The resignation of Manager Perea is the first step in a longer process of community healing."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts