In the first few months of 2009 Alex Landau was driving with a friend in an white 1984 Lincoln Town Car. He took an alleged illegal left turn and was pulled over by officer Ricky Nixon.
Not long after Landau was asked to turn over his license and registration, he found his arms held by two backup officers while Nixon struck him in the face hard enough to topple the group onto the sidewalk. All three officers proceeded to beat Landau unconscious with radios and flashlights, eventually pressing the barrel of a gun to his head while he lay in the gutter.
“I woke up to them laughing about it,” said Landau. “Someone said, ‘Where’s your fucking warrant now, nigger?’”
Landau made it clear at the hospital that he wanted pictures of himself before doctors threaded his skin with the 45 stitches it would take to close the lacerations. He got the images and was also immediately sent to jail.
A few days later, out on bail, Landau tried to file a complaint.
“I was told to own my own actions and not to play the race card,” he said.
Within six months two of the officers were involved in two other high-profile cases against youths of color, some of whom identified as gay or lesbian. Then-Denver Manager of Safety Ronal Perea eventually resigned as bad press accumulated around increasing instances of police brutality that were met with too-little-too-late disciplinary action.
Joseph Sandoval, a professor of criminology at Denver Metro, says there’s long history in Denver of appointing safety managers who are either ex-police or cronies of the mayor. Recently, that’s been shifting, according to Sandoval, and the manager position is evolving to become something like a moderating citizen, as was intended.
“With a little bit of work and some innovation, a good manager of safety can go a long way,” said Sandoval. “Al LaCabe [who preceded Perea] was able to change the disciplinary matrix in the police force so that it was not only fair to those who complain but also to officers.”
Manager Alex Martinez, Perea’s successor, was quickly appointed in the early days of Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration with little to no community input or transparency.
Martinez took further steps to streamline the police department’s disciplinary process, but he also excused some part at least of past transgressions, including the beating rained down on Landau.
In September, Martinez announced that he will be taking a position as legal counsel for Denver Public Schools.
On Friday, Landau and members of the Colorado Progressive Coalition will ask the Citizen Oversight Board, an official group appointed by Mayor Hancock, to work with them to encourage the city to work with community input as it looks to replace Martinez.
“Part of the fight today is making sure we don’t slip back into a veiled process of police discipline, that it remains and becomes more open and transparent,” said Lisa Calderon, speaking for the Denver chapter of the Colorado Latino Forum.
While Calderon said the oversight board doesn’t have the best history of accessibility when it comes to including the community, she says the support of the board is extremely important — they’re the only official mechanism for community input into the city’s affairs.
Even if the board doesn’t officially take up the issue, the community will be closely monitoring the mayor’s office as Hancock moves to fill this high-turnover position.
There’s no set date for when the appointment will be made but the search for candidates is underway.
“Right now the mayor’s office is moving quickly to find the best person for the job. Obviously the emphasis is to find the right candidate,” said press secretary Amber Miller.
Advocates and survivors of police violence have strong ideas about the kind of kind person they’d like to see in the job.
“We believe in transparency and we know there have been a lot of complaints about not following up on police misconduct and brutality. Officers aren’t given the discipline we believe they deserve,” said Tania Valenzuela, an organizer at CPC. “Having a manager of safety who can hear and work with the community is so important. We believe having community input in the hiring could help us create that relationship.”
So far, Hancock’s office is making no promises to officially include community input in the hiring process.
“I think that Mayor Hancock is always listening to the community and what they need,” said Miller. “That’s why we believed that Alex [Martinez] was the right choice at that time… We need to stabilize leadership and give continuity to the changes he made.”
Sandoval agrees that finding a candidate determined to stick around should be a priority.
“Alex, we hardly knew you as manager,” said Sandoval. “It’s a critical position … I would like to have seen him stay longer.”