Guest Post: Militarized police force sends wrong message to protesters and police alike

Protesters with arms raised in front of a line of police near Colfax Ave. in Denver on May 31, 2020.
Protesters with arms raised in front of a line of police near Colfax Ave. in Denver on May 31, 2020. (Photo by Abby Armstrong)

The protests in downtown Denver come from a place of fear, anger, and distrust. The narrative during the first four days of protests seemed to frequently be blaming the protesters for vandalism and destruction of property without examining the behavior of police. Watching both sides of the protests there is something that is very troubling.

What is truly troubling here is the initial government response. Last night we saw a more subdued police presence and an overall much more peaceful demonstration, which is a sharp contrast to what was happening over the weekend. In those earlier protests, in coverage by the media and by individuals on the streets who are in the midst of the protests, risking their own safety to make sure that these images are seen, images were shown of large numbers of police officers in body armor, wearing helmets and face shields, carrying arms.

A militarized police force is problematic for several reasons. First, it sends the wrong message to the people. Police officers are supposed to be sworn to protect us and our communities. When a populace sees police officers (even if they are from other jurisdictions) committing acts of violence, they need assurances that their police officers are interested in serving the community. Seeing officers on sidewalks and in the streets dressed as though they are ready for combat sends a message to the community that their relationship with police is a subservient one. The message is that they are trained, equipped, and ready to do violence against anyone who does not do as they are told.

Also, a militarized police force sends the wrong message to the police officers themselves. In order to do their job, officers have been trained to fight and to kill. They are also taught to be suspicious and to be on the lookout for wrongdoing. Sending police officers en masse to a protest armed and armored gives them the impression that they are not there to assist the protesters nor to protect them, but rather to resist them. As one young Denver police officer posted to social media this week: “Let’s start a riot.” That’s the mentality that this form of militarization breeds. These officers go out ready for a fight.

What this means is that a militarized police force creates violent situations from otherwise peaceful ones. When an angry group of protesters is confronted by an angry, militarized police force, someone is going to be attacked. Who throws the first stone may differ, but the situation is adversarial at its core. What is needed in our community and our country is a dialogue, not confrontation. Instead, we have police officers gassing citizens. A protester throws a rock, and now a crowd is indiscriminately shot with “less than lethal” weapons.

From these protests there has been video of police officers shoving a veteran of the United States Marine Corp, while in uniform. Video of police officers shoving someone into a fire. Video of a man who was only filming a group of police officers — in broad daylight — and then had one officer with no provocation raise his gun and fire pepper rounds at him. There is video of another man doing the same, but he was in a crowd at night, being shot repeatedly with rubber bullets or pepper rounds. That man’s blood on the concrete was clear as day, though. There are also stories of tear gas being deployed without warning on peaceful groups of protesters. Even children have been gassed. There is also at least one person whose leg was cut open by a bean bag round.

This is troubling to me.

The use of “less than lethal” ordinance by the police during these protests appears to be done without a single thought of the consequences. These weapons are capable of inflicting awful injuries and can certainly be fatal. Every time I see one of these weapons being used, it is appalling.

Tear gas has been widely used during these protests. Multiple canisters of tear gas have been used on numerous occasions. Tear gas itself is a chemical agent, specifically a nerve gas, that targets nerves and triggers a pain response. The desired effects include coughing, sneezing, crying, temporary blindness, and panic. However, when used in an uncontrolled manner, such as being indiscriminately deployed on a large group of people, there is the possibility of individuals developing severe, ongoing health problems, and sometimes death. The use of tear gas is banned in warfare under the Geneva Conventions and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. However, this nerve gas has been used with impunity to control civilian populations around the world.

Every time one of these weapons is fired, there is the risk that someone will die. This is troubling to me.

What we need is a community that can air its grievances and a government that will listen with compassion and understanding. We have seen police officers join protesters peacefully in other cities around the country, but that did not happen here until Monday night, when the Denver police chief joined marchers.

Until yesterday, we had only had protesters being met by militarized police forces. We have had the mayor give a speech expressing his anger at the citizens of this city. We have seen our freedom stripped from us as we are told to spend a week living under curfew. The response of the government has been tailor-designed to target the First Amendment rights of the citizens of the city. This is not the way.

I am tired of wondering why my city believes it is acceptable to use chemical weapons against an unarmed civilian population. Or why the implementation of a curfew seems to serve no purpose other than to do violence to a citizen’s right to assemble and to curtail our freedom of speech.

We can have a dialogue if both sides come to the table with peace in their hearts. We are all capable of that. We are all better than what we experienced over the weekend. A continued protest, with police that take a calm and measured approach while listening to and working with the protest organizers is possible. We saw the beginnings of that yesterday. It is also what has the greatest chance of letting us have a meaningful conversation so that we can truly improve things. We are Denver, we are Colorado, and we are strong. It’s time we show that to the world.

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact tips@coloradoindependent.com or visit our submission page.

Robert Houton is a criminal defense attorney working in the Denver-metro area.

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