Lingering Questions Over St. Paddy’s Day Melee

A week after a St. Patrick’s Day parade turned ugly in Colorado Springs, many questions remain unanswered -including why Colorado Springs police followed parade organizer John O’Donnell’s instructions to eject a group of people who had a permit, issued to Bookman bookmobile owner Eric Verlo, to march in the parade. The group was not breaking any laws, and there was no indication that they intended to break any laws. Yet on the request of O’Donnell, who is not an officer of the law, CSPD moved in at his request. In the resulting melee, seven people were arrested, including a 65-year old woman who was sent to the hospital after being dragged across the street by two cops.

Also unclear: What additional training, if any, Colorado Springs police officers have received in crowd control since another well-publicized incident involving the department in February, 2003. Then, as thousands gathered from around Colorado in Palmer Park to protest the impending war in Iraq, police lobbed tear gas into the crowd when a couple dozen did not disperse as ordered.

At the start of the war in ’03, Colorado Springs was one of 603 cities that was part of the International Day of Protest. Organizers picked the state’s second-largest city because it is home to several military installations, including Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy.

All told an estimated one million people participated in the day’s activities around the globe.

The protests went off smoothly – in all but two of those 603 cities. In Athens, where the protest was 50,000 strong, riot police lobbed tear gas after they were pummeled with gasoline bombs and stones. In Colorado Springs, some 3,000-4,000 people gathered in Palmer Park, in the north-central part of the city. When a group of protesters refused to clear the street, police in riot gear fired tear gas into the crowd – which included families with children.

At an emergency city council meeting called a couple of days later, then-Police Chief Luis Velez defended the riot-control tactics. But many accused the cops of overreacting, using unnecessary force and confusing a crowd that was actually trying to disperse. Outraged, many witnesses, and observers, wrote letters to the editor, including to the Colorado Springs Independent:

“Among the crowd were many children, babies and elderly, and I personally witnessed a 12-year-old girl lying on the ground crying while her parents frantically flushed her eyes out with water,”  wrote Chris Huffine of Colorado Springs. “I’m not a doctor, but I imagine that if any of the small babies in the crowd had inhaled any gas, the results could have been deadly. The police say they were ‘dispersing the crowd,’ however tear gas was fired into the parking area, making it impossible for most of the demonstrators to leave.”

“It seems as if [the police] were scared of the crowd and as though they thought going to this extreme was desirable,” wrote Stirling Cousins of Superior, Colo. “It wasn’t. It was completely unnecessary, wasteful and harmful. I hope they get some training in how to handle situations like this, because there are alternatives to firing tear gas among innocent people.

I do not contest the right of the police to use force when facing a reasonable threat. If the protest had turned violent, the use of tear gas and other nonlethal weapons would have been warranted,” wrote Nicholas Plumb. “. . . Officers in riot gear used tear gas to disperse the crowd. They fired the gas extremely close to the parking lot where the vast majority of protesters’ cars were located. It doesn’t take a physicist like me to figure out that this is not a very good strategy if you want people to vacate the area.

Wrote Jesse Putnam of Seattle: “All around the world there were peaceful protests to a war that the vast majority of human beings feel is unjust and unnecessary. In Colorado there is little peace and seemingly a whole lot of rage. My view of Colorado as moderate and civilized place is changing, as are my plans to visit.”

Colorado Springs police did not lob tear gas into the St. Patrick’s Day crowd last week, but the latest images – including those of 65-year old Elizabeth Fineron being dragged across the street, and retired priest Frank Cordaro being held in what looks like a chokehold (police call it a pain-inducing “pressure point control”) – has brought renewed outrage and allegations of excessive force.

In a statement, the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission said, “There was never an intention on the part of any of our members and the other participants to interrupt the parade or in any way disturb the city’s celebration. Rather, we were stopped, by an unidentified individual and the police, and so began the confusion.”

Wearing the same green T-shirts with white peace signs, the same group also walked, without incident, in last year’s parade. However O’Donnell, the parade organizer, maintains he feared a violent reaction from the crowd this year, thus his request that police remove the peaceful marchers.

O’Donnell estimates between 30,000 to 35,000 were at the parade in downtown Colorado Springs. He also accused Verlo and other  St. Patrick’s Day marchers of obtaining their license to march this year under “false pretenses.”

An internal investigation is continuing. However, last week Lt. Rafael Cintron and Sgt. Mark Stevens said that they were unsure what policy changes related to crowd control tactics, if any, were adopted after the events of 2003.

Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential, and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at