Tensions long have festered between Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver’s black pastors. Especially since the recent death of a mentally ill homeless man restrained by deputies at the city jail, Hancock’s continuing failure to fix his wayward Sheriff’s Department is further fraying his relationship with the clergy.
“Until we get some real reform, we have no reason to trust this administration,” says Pastor Reginald C. Holmes, vice president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance.
The group called a meeting with Hancock this week during which members accused his administration of covering up evidence about Michael Marshall’s death in November. They called Hancock’s reform efforts hollow and ineffective. And they said the Mayor’s responses to their concerns sound tone deaf given the ongoing string of officer violence against black and brown detainees.
Tired of what they see as Hancock’s excuses and prevarications, black pastors are demanding that he stop trying to defend the indefensible and finally take control.
“Who’s running what,” Pastor Acen Phillips asked Hancock. “The tail is wagging the whole dog.”
“If you bark loud enough, I guarantee you things will change inside that department.”
Hancock rose up as a city councilman and then Denver’s second black mayor with strong backing from the North Denver community where he grew up and has served as a church deacon.
Yet hard feelings among some of his longtime spiritual leaders, mentors and friends set in during the three-plus years his administration attempted to defend itself and the five sheriff’s deputies who killed Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher, in the jail. The city did nothing to discipline those deputies. Yet a federal jury last year found them to have used excessive force and lied – along with their supervisors — about the incident. Jurors awarded Booker’s family a record $6 million in its civil rights lawsuit against the administration.
Early frustrations about the Booker case stemmed largely from the city’s nearly ten-month refusal to release the videotape showing deputies fatally piling on top of Booker, Tasering him and choking him.
“Never, ever should a family have to wait like we were made to wait to see how our brother died,” Booker’s brother, Spencer Booker, told The Independent.
Now the city is refusing to release another video – this time of a November 11 incident during which sheriff’s deputies restrained inmate Michael Marshall until he reportedly went limp and lost brain function in the jail. His family ended his life support nine days later.
Marshall, like Booker, was slight, homeless, mentally ill and black. Both had been hauled into jail on petty offenses.
In the three weeks since Marshall’s death, Denver’s alliance of black pastors has amplified calls by Marshall’s family to view the videotapes, which the city won’t release despite Hancock’s promises of transparency.
When pressed by pastors during their meeting Wednesday at Kingdom of Glory Christian Center, Hancock and his staff cited what they call “best practices” as their reason for keeping the videos under wraps. In these types of cases, they said, witness testimony can go askew if tapes are released too early.
“It’s important that we don’t release little pieces of things,” said Patrick Firman, Hancock’s newly appointed sheriff. “People will look at something and draw conclusions.”
“We cannot do anything to jeopardize the integrity of our case, as well as the family’s (case),” Hancock said. “You don’t want to stain the integrity, impugn the integrity of this investigation.”
Bull, the pastors countered.
“There’ s no legal barrier that prevents the release of the video. … I don’t see how it hurts the case,” said Pastor Del Phillips, president of the Ministerial Alliance.
“The longer you wait, the better the potential is for a cover-up. From a community standpoint, we see stretching out (the) investigation (as) actually a cover-up,” Holmes told Hancock. “When you hold back the video, it makes it appear as though the video is incriminating to officers.”
Holmes – who serves on The Independent’s board of directors — pointed out the irony of Hancock’s interest in using “best practices.”
“Best practices? Wouldn’t it be a best practice not to keep killing people in the jail. Wouldn’t it be a best practice not to repeat the mistakes made in the Booker case all over again?”
Hancock defended the city’s handling of Booker’s death, noting that the deputies involved “were cleared of any wrongdoing.”
That comment infuriated several attendees, including Timothy Tyler, pastor at Denver’s Shorter AME Church and a longtime friend of Booker’s family.
“Do you understand that as long as you keep trying to defend yourself in Marvin Booker, we can’t trust you with this case?” Tyler sniped at the Mayor.
The room went silent. Hancock, clearly shaken, clenched his jaw.
“I cannot force people to trust me,” he said. “But I’m going to continue to do the job I have to do.”
The pastors spent the rest of Wednesday’s meeting listing ways Hancock could improve his job performance as it pertains to his dysfunctional Sheriff’s Department.
One is to overhaul Denver’s Career Service Board, which keeps reversing decisions by the administration in the rare cases when it disciplines or fires violent deputies. A case in point was the board’s decision earlier this month to reinstate Thomas Ford, a deputy who was fired after The Colorado Independent published a videotape of him clobbering a man being booked at the jail.
“There’s obviously something wrong with your board when they’re going against everything that you stand for,” said Pastor Terrance Hughes of Denver’s New Covenant Alpha Omega Ministries.
Hughes has served on a subcommittee Hancock promised would reform how deputies deal with mental illness – a major factor among the jail’s inmates, including Marshall, who had paranoid schizophrenia. Hughes decried the administration for stalling those reforms.
“We’re on hold. We’re disbanding,” he told Hancock. “If you’re telling me things have changed in the mental health aspect, this man is dead.
“This has everything to do with a dead man who had mental health issues who needed special handling.”
Hancock and his staff went on the defensive, suggesting that Marshall had been placed in the jail’s special housing unit because of his mental health issues. Asked if the staff on that unit had, before Marshall’s death, received the special mental health training that’s part of the administration’s reform efforts, they said they didn’t know.
Several pastors rolled their eyes as Hancock explained how fearful sheriff’s deputies are for their safety and how tough it is to undo the decades-old culture of violence in the jail. They took particular umbrage with his comments about the recent controversy around the city of Chicago’s handling of videotape in an excessive force case.
“I’m good friends with Rahm Emanuel. … I feel for Mayor Emanuel,” Hancock said.
Some pastors, in turn, questioned if Hancock’s concerns about the Marshall case are merely political.
“In light of what we’re trying to accomplish here in Denver, compassion for Rahm Emanuel and the fallout he’s facing in Chicago isn’t exactly what we wanted to hear,” Holmes told The Independent.
One after the other, pastors told Hancock that his reforms aren’t working fast enough.
“The same folks who killed Marvin Booker and their mentality are still in the jail,” Acen Phillips said. “Nobody has taken the mindset out of the jail.”
Added his son, Pastor Del Phillips: “We need an assurance that nobody (else) is going to get arrested for something as mild as vagrancy and end up in the morgue.”
Neither Hancock nor his staff offered up any such assurances.
Photo: Jeffrey Beall, Creative Commons, Flickr.