Anatomy of a Denver Police Search Sh*tshow at RiseUp School

Anatomy of a Denver Police Search Sh*tshow at RiseUp School
Thinkstock file photo
At tonight's meeting of the Denver Public Schools board, students, parents and faculty from RiseUp Community School, a downtown charter, plan to demand an investigation into an April 24 incident during which armed Denver police officers allegedly conducted a room-by-room search for a student even after being told, accurately, that he wasn't in the building. At one point, cops are said to have drawn weapons on a RiseUp staffer.

In the 24 hours or so since the advocacy organization Padres & Jóvenes Unidos made this story public, claims and counterclaims have come from most of the parties involved, including DPS and the Denver Police Department, whose statements are included below. Here's an account of what's gone down so far.

Padres sent out a news release about the incident at 6:34 a.m. on May 16, and just before 9 a.m., after we sent a request for comment to Denver Public Schools (our inquiry to the DPD went out at 9:19 a.m.), we were on the phone with Jake Cousins, the group's director of communications. After noting that a Padres rep was already on the agenda to speak at the May 17 board meeting on the subject of the school-to-prison pipeline, he said it remained unclear which was more potentially dangerous: the absent student suspect or the DPD's unsuccessful attempt to find him.

"It looks a lot like the Denver Police Department prioritized apprehending one student over the safety of all the other students," Cousins said. "And we still don't know who authorized them to go into the school and why."

Cousins then recapped what took place on April 24 at the RiseUp campus, located at 2342 Broadway, according to witnesses with whom Padres had communicated.

"From what students and staff have told us, the DPD arrived at the school asking for a student," he began. "They were told by the administration that the student wasn't there. Then there was a long lapse of time when the police department conferred with the Department of Safety from DPS — and they didn't communicate any further information to the school."

click to enlarge Students at RiseUp Community School among demonstrators at a protest last year. - FACEBOOK
Students at RiseUp Community School among demonstrators at a protest last year.
After about fifteen minutes or so, "officers entered the school and went from classroom to classroom looking for the student," Cousins continued, adding that one member of the staff reported that officers actually showed their firearms.

Cousins was reluctant to get into too much detail about why the student was being sought "because the school has received different accounts from different people — and maybe DPS Safety received different accounts from different folks, too," he said. "We heard they were looking for a student to question related to another student. Then we heard the student was a suspect. There was also a claim that the student was in the school with a gun, and if that was true, it would admittedly have changed the calculus for DPS and the DPD. But the school was never locked down as you'd expect for an active safety threat."

In the search's wake, "the school has gotten bits and pieces of information, but not necessarily the whole story," Cousins acknowledged. "We still don't know why the school wasn't put on lockdown or why the police didn't accept the principal's explanation that the student wasn't there, which was true. There's been a lot of ambiguity, and that doesn't sit well with the community."

Plenty of RiseUp stakeholders are expected to be at the school-board meeting, but there won't be a rally beforehand, because "we want to give the community time to directly share their stories, share the impact and then ask the questions that are really on their minds," Cousins said.

Among those questions: "If the police on the scene didn't present a warrant and were told they couldn't come into the building, why were they allowed in? And who made that decision?"

Cut to 3:42 p.m. on May 16, when Padres issued a Facebook video in which several students (one with his identity disguised) talked about their experiences. As you'll see, the first student on screen says police officers unexpectedly burst into her classroom and got into assorted faces before grabbing one male student and ordering him to remove his hat. She recalls one of the cops saying he looked like the suspect and a colleague responding, "No, he doesn't."

Here's the clip:

A short time later, at 4:02 p.m., the Denver Police Department belatedly weighed in with a statement that revealed that the thus-far-unidentified suspect was wanted for attempted first-degree murder connected with an incident that took place outside the city the previous night. The DPD also maintained that it worked with RiseUp's principal to gain access to the building after being told the student was in the school, and stressed that no officers deployed weapons amid the fruitless search.

The DPD's take reads:
The goal of the Denver Police Department in partnership with Denver Public Schools Safety and Security is to keep students and staff members safe on all school campuses. The Denver Police Department has a strong working relationship with Denver Public Schools administration as well as the safety and security department. On April 24th, 2018, Denver Police officers responded to Rise Up Community School in search of a suspect wanted for attempted first degree murder — this incident occurred the night before in another metro-area jurisdiction. Officers received information that the suspect was in the school, and given the nature of the allegations, believed the suspect posed a possible threat to students and staff.

When officers arrived, they set up outside of the school to ensure the suspect did not leave the building. Given the imminent and potentially dangerous circumstances, and confirmation from a staff member that the suspect was inside, a warrant was not required to search inside the building for the suspect. After working with the principal to eventually gain access to the building, DPD officers conducted a search, but did not locate the suspect. Officers that were inside did not draw their weapons at any point during the search for the suspect.

Immediately following the incident, the Denver Police Department command staff met with the principal to discuss the situation and offered a follow-up meeting to further discuss the best, safest ways to manage any future incidents.

Our main goal in any situation involving a school is to ensure the safety of the students and staff.
Shortly thereafter, we reached out again to Padres' Cousins, who sent the following reply at 6:02 p.m. It includes a quote from RiseUp's principal, Lucas Ketzer.

"Denver Police Department's portrayal of the events on April 24, 2018 does not match the firsthand accounts of the staff or students of RiseUp Community School," Cousins wrote. "They were informed by the administration that the suspect was not present, and weapons were brandished at a staff member immediately outside of the building. RiseUp Principal Lucas Ketzer, speaking directly to DPS's statement, said: 'If DPD had ever made it clear that there was an imminent danger in the building, I would have locked down the building and immediately approved the search. They did not. Either they put 100 students at risk by refusing to make their intentions clear, or they are asserting that there was a threat only after the fact.'"

click to enlarge Graduates at a RiseUp Community School ceremony in January. - FACEBOOK
Graduates at a RiseUp Community School ceremony in January.
Finally, at the unusual time of 6:55 p.m., the Denver Public Schools statement arrived. It speaks of jumbled communication with police before expressing empathy for the folks at RiseUp.

This is the complete DPS statement:
On April 24, Denver Police asked our Denver Public Schools Department of Safety to respond to a situation at RiseUp Community School, a DPS charter school. Denver Police informed us that they were surrounding the building, and a shooting suspect was inside. Understandably alarmed by the urgency of the dispatch, multiple DPS officers responded to the school, including our Chief of Safety [Michael Eaton]. Our Department of Safety officers believed they were responding to a critical incident involving a person with a weapon inside the school. The school leader informed Chief Eaton that DPD had not described an imminent safety risk, and that he told responding DPD officers that the student was not present at school. Our Chief of Safety, recognizing the conflicting information but acknowledging the risk that there could be an armed student on campus, allowed DPD to search the classrooms.

We recognize that this experience was incredibly traumatic for our students, staff and the entire RiseUp family, and are troubled by the reports we have received from the school staff and students. As a diverse and inclusive school district, we are deeply aware that experiences with and perceptions of law enforcement have a profound impact on our city, particularly in our communities of color. We are committed to ensuring the safety of our students, both physically and emotionally, and this situation has brought to the forefront the importance of conversations about how policing looks and feels inside our schools. We look forward to working with our schools, community partners, and the Denver Police Department to ensure that our school-based policing practices preserve the safety and dignity of all involved.
The debate over whose version of events is closer to reality will no doubt continue at tonight's meeting — but it's not the only item on the agenda. Indeed, Padres reps want to address topics of their own that are separate from but possibly related to what happened at RiseUp. According to Cousins, DPS safety chief Eaton has floated the idea of requiring that all DPS safety officers undergo Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training, shorthand for being "POST-certified," which would presumably let them carry weapons, make arrests and use deadly force if necessary.

If that's the case, this proposal has not yet been shared with the community, Cousins said, and the people at Padres want to know why. The group's original release also noted that it's calling for DPS to "provide our communities with honest data on school policing" and "commit to ending school policing, and instead invest in proactive programs that make our communities safe and just."

The meeting is scheduled to get under way at 5:30 p.m. tonight, May 17, at 1860 Lincoln Street.
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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