Following the death of George Floyd, protesters in Denver, the Front Range and across the nation have been marching through the streets demanding police reform.
“I hate to say this but I know exactly how George’s family feels,” said Natalia Marshall, referring to George Floyd’s family, during a recent press conference at the state Capitol. Her uncle, Michael Marshall, was killed by deputies in a Denver jail in 2015.
“Let’s put these murderers behind bars where they belong,” she said.
One major target of these calls for change is what police departments call “use of force.” Although the phrase lacks a singular, widely used definition, the International Association of Chiefs of Police defines it as “the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.”
But at the heart of the movement sparked by Floyd’s death is the strong doubt that these rules are being followed or enforced and that they allow for too much force to begin with. Black people experience use of force at higher rates, according to data from police departments in cities across the country like Minneapolis and San Francisco.
“Over the years there’s been a devaluing, because that’s what it is, a devaluing, of black lives,” said Carla Havard, a Denver Police sergeant and president of the Denver Black Police Officer’s Organization, during a virtual community roundtable that the Denver Department of Public Safety held on Tuesday to get community input. “Certainly in policing but we can look at that in any profession, but certainly in policing.”
“I know about all those cases, I stay up on those cases,” she said.
Use of force in Colorado
The Denver Police Department released its numbers from 2015-2018. In each year, around 25% of all DPD arrests involved force. About quarter of each year’s force incidents were against black people even though they make up less than 10% of the city’s population.
But in general, police departments’ reporting on use of force in Colorado is lacking. Official statewide data don’t exist.
According to a Denver Post statewide analysis, 67 people were shot by police in 2019. Black and Latinx people were disproportionately represented. State data on this is incomplete and in a report from the first half of the year, the state admitted it has no way of knowing for sure whether every incident was reported as required by law.
The Department of Justice releases a periodic report on contacts people have with police based on a national sample. The last one, from 2015, found that police threatened or used force in slightly less than 2% of contacts. Black and Hispanic people were more likely to be subjected to force. Most people who experienced force across all races said they felt the force used was “excessive.” Previous iterations of that report from 2008, 2005 and 2002 had similar results.
Protests for change
Underpinning the recent protests in Colorado and across the country has been the call to address police brutality and racism. Some want to see change that starts with the hiring process and more or better training in de-escalation and implicit biases.
During the demonstrations in Denver last week, one protester, who wished to remain anonymous, wanted to see police departments be more intentional about tending to relationships with the communities they patrol.
“Go in there, make sure that those people are educated in different communities, that they know how to work with all diverse types of people,” she said. “If they’re scared to be in the neighborhood then they shouldn’t be out here patrolling.”
She said there is a need for a stronger use of force policy with more enforcement “so that they can’t go rogue and hurt us just because they have a ... power complex.”
Others also want to end the use of military grade armor and weapons by police and create stronger requirements for officers who witness colleagues’ bad behavior. There are also demands for increased transparency and accountability.
Some activists say that many of these are half measures — that the issues with how police use force run so deep that the only way to properly deal with it is to abolish or defund the police.
Official response to calls for reform
State Rep. Leslie Herod announced sweeping police reform legislation during the protests last week. That bill has since moved through the legislature at breakneck speed. It aims to beef up accountability with a host of new or stronger measures and could land on the governor’s desk this week.
Even crowd control methods against protesters have been under scrutiny. A district court judge last week restricted the use of tear gas and projectiles against protesters and required more body camera use.
“The time is past to rely solely on the good faith and discretion of the Denver Police Department and its colleagues from other jurisdictions,” Judge R. Brooke Jackson wrote in his initial decision.
Alternatives to policing
As cities around the country consider how to reform their police departments, another idea on the table is to simply replace police officers, in some situations, with mental health workers or emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who may be better equipped to deal with certain kinds of 911 calls.
Earlier this month, Denver rolled out a program testing this concept on actual calls for service, called the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR). The six-month pilot program launched on June 1, serving downtown Denver only.
But the nonprofit groups behind it say the timing is just a coincidence; the STAR service has been in the works since 2017. But the goal — to divert some 911 calls away from police to outreach workers instead — aligns with some protester demands.
Chris Richardson, a licensed social worker and program manager with the Mental Health Center of Denver, has been staffing STAR’s mobile response van over the past two weeks. His first call for service involved a homeless veteran. Workers drove him to the Veterans Affairs hospital; the VA’s homeless outreach team had been looking for this man for months and had housing ready for him.
Richardson said the outcome of that call might have been different if police had responded instead of the STAR service. “They don’t come from the social work mindset — who are you connected to in the community, do you have support. It’s usually what’s going on, how do we manage it and then move onto the next call,” he said.
A more common model is the co-responder model, in which police officers and mental health clinicians are paired up, sometimes with a paramedic, to go out on calls together. Co-responder programs are in place in Denver and other Front Range towns like Longmont and Boulder.
Denver’s STAR service is different because it does not involve police at all. The program is modeled off Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), an initiative in Eugene, Oregon that has been in place for decades. A delegation from Colorado, including Chris Richardson, went to Eugene last year to observe that program.
Now, with protests against police violence happening across the country, Eugene’s CAHOOTS program is getting a lot of attention; a staffer said they have been getting “non-stop calls” over the past few weeks. For now, though, the CAHOOTS model is not widespread.
With Denver’s STAR program, the plan is for dispatchers to send over calls about people who are overdosing, suicidal, intoxicated or in some sort of mental health crisis. Chris Richardson said that police have been tasked with too many problems. He thinks this new pilot program can engage populations in “a more productive, less threatening, less militarized way.”
“It’s really hard to have a trauma-informed conversation when you have the utility belt that has some of the stuff that has historically been scary,” Richardson said. “I literally wear jeans and a t-shirt and literally pop out of a van with a can-do attitude. It’s less threatening and comes across as much more humanistic and much easier to connect with people: what’s going on and how can we help.”
Defining “defund” or “abolish” the police
Abolishment was a point of contention during the Denver Department of Public Safety roundtable Tuesday. During some back and forth about whether that language explicitly means people want a world without any police, one of the citizens in attendance, Katie Leonard, explained that abolishing police doesn’t necessarily mean an end to public safety services.
“(With) something that is like the policing system based in white supremacy, you really have to just overhaul,” Leonard said. “So we don’t mean no police, we obviously need public safety, we need real public safety, right? We need first responders — not people who come in with excessive force more often than not.”
She later compared just reforming police to fixing a leaky sink by cleaning up the water on the floor.
Her definition of abolishment is close to what a majority of Minneapolis’ city council has decided to do, according to the Star Tribune. They’re looking to completely disband the city’s police force and rebuild a new system of safety from the ground up with the community in mind. They wouldn’t be the first to do this: Camden, New Jersey also dismantled and then rebooted its police department seven years ago.
While some use the phrases interchangeably, defunding is being seriously considered in several major cities and looks different in practice compared to what we see in Minneapolis.
Those efforts focus on removing a chunk of money from police departments and using the funds to provide more community and mental health services instead, ultimately leaving the departments intact. In Los Angeles, the mayor promised to take up to $150 million out of the police department and put it toward community and mental health services.
Candi CdeBaca is on Denver’s City Council and showed support for these movements during Tuesday’s roundtable.
“All of the reasons mentioned before that we can’t get rid of police, I think that those are all justifications for how we divert our resources more appropriately to people who are skilled to deal with different issues we call the police for,” she said, referring to public safety officers and citizens who pushed back against abolishing or defunding during the virtual conversation.
While it’s not clear how many support each of these particular calls for change, it is clear some officials are taking them seriously and acting across the country.
At the same time, there is plenty of pushback to parts or the entirety of these ideas from politicians on both sides of the aisle, police officers and some within the larger movement.
“We’re not far away from each other with what we think needs to happen,” said Carla Havard, Denver Police sergeant and Denver Black Police Officer’s Organization president. “Certainly we may have a different way of going there, but we’re not far away.”