Community groups to Denver Police: Count Latinos in new accountability effort

jimmy thomas


The Denver Police Department’s decision to once again collect data on the race of individuals its officers stop is raising a key question among several community groups and at least one Denver city councilman: Will Latinos be counted?

Traditionally, Latino— or Hispanic— has been defined as an ethnicity, not a race. Latinos can be of any race, though in Colorado most are categorized as white. Community groups such as the Colorado Latino Forum are raising the question of how the DPD, which will collect the data again after a 14-year lapse, is going to classify Latinos. Government agencies can choose not to include ethnicity when collecting demographic information, says Lisa Calderon, co-chair of the Denver chapter of the Forum.

“Unless there is a thoughtful and intentional way to count Latinos, we may come up with an undercount,” she says.

A little more than one-third of Denver’s population is Latino, and some of the victims of the city’s most controversial officer-involved shootings have been Hispanic. In 2000, police shot and killed  Ismael Mena, a 45-year-old father of nine after a “no-knock” drug raid on his home. Officers had the wrong address.

In 2014, Denver police shot and killed 20-year-old Ryan Ronquillo after serving him a warrant for felony auto-theft charges. After receiving the charges, police said that he backed up his car into a police vehicle, and then tried to pull forward, prompting them to open fire.

A previous effort to collect similar data in 2001-02 showed that while people of color were not stopped at higher rates than whites in Denver, the length of stops was longer for Latinos, and Latinos were searched more often.

Chief Robert White and Executive Director of Public Safety Stephanie O’Malley did not return calls seeking clarification on how the department plans to classify Latinos, but O’Malley’s office issued the following statement:

“We have listened to the community’s concern regarding data collection and recognize the importance of moving toward doing so. We will explore ways to meet expectations while considering the impact of acquiring personal information from residents during their interactions with police officers.”   

Calderon says she is not optimistic about the department’s commitment to pursuing that information. “There is no plan as of now,” she says. “In my conversations with DPD, there’s no conversation about how to accurately count Latinos.”

The department long has resisted such data collection, saying it would be too cumbersome and that it lacks sufficient resources to collect such information, a rationale City Councilman Paul Lopez, who represents west Denver, doesn’t buy.

“They’re gonna say it’s time consuming, it takes up valuable resources,” Lopez said. “Well, you know, the urban camping ban is choking up a lot of our policing time, and no one’s talking about reducing that.”

Chief White told The Denver Post last week that he wanted to improve accountability and maintain the department’s image. “Without [data], we can’t prove anything one way or the other,” he said. “That does not benefit the transparency or the credibility of the department.”

Another flashpoint is how involved residents will be in data collection. “I believe that the community should be a part of determining what that process looks like,” Denver Justice Project organizer Roshan Bliss said. “I hope that the chief and safety manager will consult [with community members].”

But in his interview with the Post, the chief expressed reservations about creating an outside committee to give the department input, again citing concerns about resources.

Lopez says he would use the power of City Council if necessary to ensure that residents’ and council members’ perspectives are considered.

The move to collect data came in the midst of a new wave of national outrage over a pair of recent high-profile shootings of black men. On July 6, Philando Castile was shot to death in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, while his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds live-streamed video footage. Just four days later, on July 10, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Sterling was fatally shot by police officers who had pinned him to the ground.

Calderon noted that some aspects of Denver’s policing challenges don’t fit into the national narrative. “When you talk about racial profiling or excessive force, it’s usually in a black/white dichotomy,” Calderon says. “Latinos and Native Americans don’t get counted.”

But Denver is not immune from disparate treatment of minorities by law enforcement, Lopez says. “When I go to traffic court, all I see there is people who look like me.”

[Photo credit: jimmy thomas via Creative Commons on Flickr]