To fully appreciate why the Denver City Council last week quickly approved a $4.7 million settlement with Black Lives Matter protesters, let’s time-travel back to what it was like in the days after George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25, 2020.
All of us were already reeling from the widespread deaths from COVID across the globe as well as the efforts we were making to protect ourselves and reduce transmission. We were cloistered inside our homes feeling anxious and vulnerable. The world was a scary place.
Then, the videos of Minneapolis police officers crushing the life out of a 46-year-old Black man pleading for his mother raced across the media, and the cruelty and injustice of it all was simply too much for our fraught psyches to bear.
From Minneapolis to Los Angeles, Paris, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Johannesburg and, yes, Denver, people took to the streets to demand justice, dignity and an end to systemic racism.
For several days, protesters demonstrated outside the Colorado State Capitol. They blocked traffic on Interstate 25 and skirmishes with police erupted. Officers fired rubber bullets into the crowds, complaints of police misconduct poured into the Office of the Independent Monitor and some 300 people were arrested and jailed for violating a curfew imposed by then-Mayor Michael Hancock.
It’s taken three years for the ramifications of those often-bloody street battles to be litigated and the cost to taxpayers has been exorbitant.
In addition to the recent $4.7 million settlement to protesters who said they were unfairly detained for curfew violations when others across the city were allowed to move freely, a jury in 2022 found Denver police used excessive force and ordered the city to pay $14 million in damages to 12 demonstrators. Then, last March the City Council approved $1.6 million in settlements to seven protesters who were injured by police.
That’s more than $20 million that the city could have used to shelter the unhoused, fill the potholes, treat the mentally ill in our jails or maybe even train police officers.
The impact of all this scrutiny of the police is not just financial, though, it’s cultural.
Some of it might be considered positive.
Across the country, police departments have been forced to change the way they operate, said Mary Dodge, a professor and director of the Master of Criminal Justice program at the University of Colorado Denver.
Here, that has led to the creation of STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) and the Crisis Intervention Team.
“These are good programs that use social workers and EMTs with real expertise in de-escalating situations,” she said.
That’s nice, but the negative impact of the high-profile stories of police misconduct is overwhelming. The horrifying body cam videos keep reinforcing our negative images of cops.
In a recent class, Dodge said she used the Aurora police videos of the Elijah McClain arrest to spark a discussion about policing.
“The police reaction every step of the way was wrong,” she said. “It was awful.”
Call it racism, ignorance or just plain bullying, it doesn’t matter. An incident like that tars the reputation of every cop in America.
Since the murder of George Floyd, “very few people anywhere want to be police officers,” Dodge said. “It’s a serious problem.”
As a result, law enforcement agencies are critically understaffed in Denver and across the country, putting pressure on the remaining overworked cops and inhibiting the ability of departments to pull officers off the streets to undergo critically important training programs.
“They’re in a terrible cycle,” she said.
Cops are taught to react quickly to protect public safety, Dodge explained, but they also need training in the use of less-than-lethal force and critical thinking skills.
And, somehow, if they want to be effective, they need to earn the support and respect of the public they serve.
“The way the public views the police right now, who wants to do that job?” she said.
Dodge attended a recent community meeting in District 3 that could provide a template for restoring public confidence. The meeting was designed to engage the public in a discussion about homicides in the area.
“There were a lot of people from the community at the meeting, and a lot of useful information was exchanged,” she said. “The police can’t always be transparent because of the need to protect due process rights, but this was a big step toward greater openness, and it was really helpful.”
That kind of cooperation not only enhances respect for the police, but it can provide valuable information that can make policing a lot more successful.
Dodge is not naïve. She knows an occasional community meeting can only go so far. It’s a tough job and there are no easy answers.
She also knows that police screw-ups can sandbag a mayor like nothing else.
She spoke of cities where the mayor replaced the police chief every two years, essentially every time something bad happened.
“That’s not enough time to effect change,” she said.
Mayors can’t just appoint someone else and expect a transformation to occur in the force overnight. Leaders have to be well informed and thoughtful.
“A mayor who values evaluation and research is going to be much more successful” in managing the police department, she said. “They all say they don’t have the money for evaluation, but that’s a mistake.”
Taking a hard look at what’s going on in the recruitment, training and supervision of police officers can reveal a lot about what’s going wrong on the streets and enable leaders to address problems.
For Denver and other cities strapped for money, it’s too expensive not to do it.
Paying millions in settlements over police misbehavior year after year is not a solution. It’s a doom loop.
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