Colorado Springs is expected to send 58 police officers to Denver to assist operations at the Democratic National Convention next month. Are cops from the state’s second-largest city ready for the big time? If historic events — including those from as recently as last Saturday — are any gauge, clashes involving Colorado Springs police and citizens have raised questions about their ability to effectively handle crowds, large and small.
Officials in Denver and Colorado Springs are not releasing details on how cops traveling from the city 70 miles to the south of the convention site are being trained to deal with protesters and crowds — nor has Denver revealed how law enforcement officials from dozens of participating agencies will be trained in crowd control. And some activists, who have experienced firsthand interactions with Colorado Springs cops, say they’re concerned.
Just last weekend a Colorado Springs officer was captured on video in downtown’s Acacia Park tasing a man who can be seen struggling only slightly while being subdued by three other officers.
Then there was the 2007 St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Colorado Springs, where seven peace activists wearing green T-shirts with white peace symbols — who had obtained a city permit to participate in the parade — were physically restrained and in one case dragged across the street by police before being arrested for refusing to disperse.
gas as war protesters were dispersing in
2003. (Photo/August Allen)
And then there is the raw memory of the city’s 2003 protest against the impending War in Iraq, in Palmer Park northeast of downtown. On Feb. 15 that year, Colorado Springs police lobbed tear gas into the crowd, citing failure to disperse — as the crowd was leaving the park at the end of an anti-war rally that drew 3,000 to 4,000 people from across the state, choking children, bystanders and activists.
Notably, of the 603 cities around the globe that year where anti-war activists were rallying in an effort to stop military action against Iraq, the only cities where police resorted to tear gas were Colorado Springs and Athens, Greece — where an estimated 50,000 people gathered and began throwing rocks and exploding gas cylinders at police.
The tumultuous history of police dealing with political events and crowds in Colorado Springs, with a population of about 361,000, is nothing new to longtime peace activist and photographer Mark Lewis, who has lived in the city for more than 25 years. Lewis shot the video (embedded below) of last Saturday’s tasing and arrest of a man while he was at Acacia Park shooting scenes for a documentary about the city’s local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He subsequently posted the footage to the Web site Csaction.org, which Lewis describes as an “anti-war environmentalist group” that was created in response to the tear gas incident five years ago at Palmer Park.
“A lot of people had brought kids in strollers, that type of thing,” says Lewis of the Palmer Park rally. “A lot of people left, but everybody wasn’t able to get out of the way. The police chased people into the neighborhood surrounding the area. The tear gas was carried into the neighborhoods. It got into a bunch of houses, and people went to the hospital.”
Police later claimed that gas was released after a renegade group of more than 100 activists attempted to block busy Academy Boulevard next to the park, but such details were disputed by eyewitness accounts that identify a much smaller group of people who blocked the road. The majority of the crowd was actually dispersing from the area, many say.
After a civil-rights lawsuit was filed over police tactics used during the demonstration, the city of Colorado Springs settled with eight activists in 2006, admitting and apologizing for “improper” arrests that occurred after the rally. The settlement also required the city to participate in a public forum with activists to discuss First Amendment concerns and avoid future incidents. Some boycotted the meeting when it was revealed that the city would control editing of the discussion for TV broadcasting. Many activists and others have continued to raise questions about whether Colorado Springs police are adequately trained in dealing with large crowds.
2007. (Photo/Mark Lewis)
During last year’s St. Patrick’s day incident, Lewis also captured shocking photographs, including some of 67-year-old Elizabeth Fineron being dragged across the street, sustaining a road rash that required hospitalization; other Lewis photos showed a retired priest in what looked like a police headlock.
“We didn’t expect anything at all,” says Lewis, who was not arrested. “We didn’t attempt to obstruct the parade. It was halted for a few minutes by police.”
Says Bill Durland, another longtime Colorado Springs peace activist, “We walked in the parade for several blocks until we were stopped.”
“Next thing I know the police are there,” Durland remembers. “They handcuffed us, dragged us on the street and got us off of it. A lot of people were concerned that this was just another Colorado Springs Police Department overreaction.”
2007. (Photo/Mark Lewis)
The seven activists arrested at the St. Patrick’s Day event, including Durland, became known as the "St. Paddy’s Day 7." They were later charged by the city for attempting to interfere with the parade, though the defendants had a valid permit and an internal investigation at the Colorado Springs Police Department determined that officers had responded to the activists inappropriately.
After a hung jury, a mistral was declared against the St. Paddy’s Day defendants, and the city ultimately declined to pursue the matter further.
Durland says members of the Colorado Springs chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as peace groups, have been meeting intermittently with city police since April to address potential civil rights concerns that could arise at the Democratic convention.
“I think we were able to share where we’re each coming from and the personal problems we have with doing our own jobs and what we think is right,” says Durland, describing the meetings as fruitful opportunities to help Colorado Springs police understand nonviolent protesters. Durland was a delegate during the chaos-ridden 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
Concerns over the Colorado Springs Police Department’s track record with activists and crowds are not eased by the fact that it is unknown how the officers attending the convention will be trained to deal with crowds.
Sgt. Mark Stevens, spokesman for the police department, says he cannot comment on specific convention training for officers. In response to questions about past police conduct, Stevens says only that the city has incorporated successful practices from around the country to deal with crowds.
“The training for Colorado Springs police on crowd control is always ongoing,” says Stevens. “What I can say is that crowd control training for Colorado Springs police is not new. It’s not done specifically for the convention.”
Stevens would not elaborate on what the department’s crowd control training entails, but he did say that all patrol officers in Colorado Springs are trained to deal with crowds when becoming a cop at the police academy, and that a number of officers receive specialized training as “crowd control team members.”
In Denver, the mayor’s office, which has been coordinating security for the Democratic convention, has not responded to inquiries seeking details of how law enforcement officers from out-of-town are being trained to handle crowds, including protesters, at the political event. All told, a reported 900 officers from dozens of police departments, as well as the Secret Service, will be traveling to Denver to assist with law enforcement during the convention.
With the experience of monitoring and interacting with the Colorado Springs police over the past five years, Lewis says he’ll be cautious while protesting at the convention.
“There are a couple of wild guns in any department,” Lewis says.“They’ll be more stressed out and more on guard and ready to pop off than normal because they’re on somebody else’s territory in a big town. They’re going to be faced with crowds the size they’ve never seen in [Colorado Springs]. So I don’t know. I’m going to be there filming. I’d hate to see it go badly.”
Taser in Acacia Park