Denver mayoral race trains spotlight on city police force

Doug Linkhart

Denver police may be facing a shakedown if Denver mayoral candidates adhere to statements made Thursday night. During a forum held by community advocates, most mayoral candidates vowed to ensure transparency, change flawed practices of the past and improve community policing efforts.

Doug Linkhart (Boven)

At the forum, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the National Lawyers Guild, candidates were asked questions that targeted the broken windows campaign, excessive police brutality, levels of community involvement, access to video records, and immigration.

“My police department will have zero tolerance for excessive force. There is no excuse for the level of force that we have experienced over the last few years,” City Councilman Doug Linkhart said. “And there is no excuse for Denver being number six in the nation for incidents of excessive force. That is a black eye for our city.”

Linkhart called for replacing many members on the civilian oversight board with people who more closely represent the community while strengthening both the oversight board and the office of the independent monitor.

Mayoral candidate Michael Hancock speaks at a mayoral debate. (Boven)

Candidates roundly agreed to work on developing better oversight of police officers on duty and on investigations into their wrongdoing.
“It is about transparency and right now, wherever you go around the city, our citizens don’t have confidence on this issue,” Theresa Spahn said.

Spahn said that she would look to best practices and national accreditation models to help provide greater transparency in Denver’s bruised system.

All the candidates including Carol Boigon, Chris Romer, James Mejia, Michael Hancock, Thomas Wolf, Jeff Peckman, Linkhart and Spahn called for greater police accountability, with many using personal or family experiences to bolster their arguments.

Hancock said that when he is driving down the street and a police officer is behind him “the alarm goes off.

“I am sensitized to that as a man of color,” Hancock said. “What we need to do as a community is set the values that racial harassment simply won’t be tolerated…. and that we need a comprehensive approach.”

The Broken Windows Campaign was seen by candidates as a program shattered by misuse.  They said it had allowed police officers to profile and conduct unwarranted stops.  They said policing efforts had to move toward a more data driven model that provides greater community involvement in the decision making.

Mejia, however, warned that the city should not stop with data analysis but look at the roots of racial profiling and investigate what the numbers actually mean.

“Not only do we need to collect it, we need to look at the root cause of why it is happening to make sure that black and brown people are treated with the same respect and dignity as everyone else in our community,” Mejia said.

In dealing with the firing of police officers, Chris Romer said that one of his proudest votes as a state senator was the one that allowed for bad teachers to be fired. He said he would eliminate poorly performing police officers.

Hancock followed up on the sentiments saying that bad officers affected communities like teachers affect classrooms.

“There must be a value of excellence and accountability, integrity and transparency in both situations,” Hancock said. Hancock went on to say that the system is already in place to fire bad officers but that there exists a lack of will to do so.

Though agreeing with the need to fire bad police officers, Mejia said poorly performing teachers should be removed in some cases, but that in other cases their performance is related not to their own efforts but to the tools they are provided.

Mejia also touched on the concerns of many in the audience that a policing program in schools meant to help students avoid the judicial system is doing just the opposite. “We have to make sure that we go back to the original intent. The intent is not to create a rap sheet by the time you graduate high school. The intent is to correct behaviors and make sure there is a positive rapport and partnership with that police department.”

Asked what they would do to support those who have been in prison and are now making an effort to become members of the community, candidates pointed to the need to increase programs focusing on keeping people out of prison in the first place, but said programs designed to aid reintroduction should also be improved.

Chris Romer speaking to police excessive force. (Boven)

Linkhart said that in many cases what really needs to be focused on is the mental health of those individuals entering and exiting the judicial system. He said programs focused on tackling those issues were key in helping to reduce overall recidivism.

City planning, according to Hancock, Boigon and Mejia, also would play a crucial role in their administrations. They said clean streets and better environments aid in decreasing the number of individuals entering into the penal system in the first place.

Boigon went on to say that she was currently working in the community to bring formerly incarcerated women to jobs and said she would work in the same vein as mayor to ensure those with a record are given training and employers are engaged.

In spite of all the agreement, a lightning round provided the audience with more than rhetorical differences in policy.

Asked if local law enforcement should enforce federal immigration law, Linkhart provided an immediate “no” to the question, with Thomas Wolf answering “yes” almost as quickly. Other candidates answered more slowly but most sided with Linkhart.

James Mejia speaking at panel discussion.

Only former Colorado State Sen. Chris Romer, after some encouragement from the crowd, joined Wolf in a halfhearted raise of his yes panel.

Romer later clarified his position, telling The Colorado Independent that local law enforcement should only be used when dealing with felons.

The panelists were also asked if they would opt out of the federal Secure Communities Program, which is designed to remove criminal illegal aliens from the country but also targets many without criminal records. Only Hancock and Wolf said “no.”

“Like it or not, Secure Communities will be federally mandated throughout the country by 2013,” Hancock told the Colorado Independent when asked about his answer. “Beginning to implement these strategies now will allow us to ensure that the program reflects Denver’s values of diversity and fairness. We will require that our officers are properly educated and trained to apply these tools impartially and establish clear protocols for domestic violence victims to rely on law enforcement without fear of retribution. This is essential to providing transparency, allowing us to target violent criminals, and not contribute to racial and ethnic profiling.”

In the end, each candidate was adamant that the reforms they institute to bandage Denver’s wounded reputation for police violence would bring greater trust and safety to the people they serve.

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