Police Brutality in Colorado Springs, the Community’s Response, and the Path Forward
by Kimberly Boatwright
Across the United States, there has been an increasing awareness of the acuity of racial injustice. The historical atrocities of the enslavement of African-Americans and other people of color, the oppression of the Jim Crow era, are all at the root of racial injustices in modern day. Police brutality against people of color is one manifestation of this history and has come under heated inspection by the public eye in recent years. Black people were 28% of those killed by law enforcement in 2020, despite being only 13% of the population (Mapping Police Violence). The disproportionate use of force against people of color has inspired movements such as Black Lives Matter, advocating for police reform and bringing cultural awareness to this issue. The tension between police and their communities continues to rise, while oversight and reform lags slowly along. This paper will examine these issues on the local level of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The death of De’Von Bailey at the hands of Colorado Springs police in 2019 shook the local community, protests surged and anger rose against the law enforcement system that claims to “protect and serve”. The young man was attempting to flee from the officers when he was shot multiple times in the back, raising important questions about the protocol and procedures for such situations. Reverend Promise Lee, pastor of Relevant Word Ministries, expressed deep concern for the integrity of the investigation (Boyce, 2019). He became the spokesperson for the Bailey family and advocated strongly for an impartial investigation into De’Von’s death, though sadly no charges have been brought against the officer who killed him. Reverend Lee pointed out that there were no attempts made to use less than lethal force and that the body cam footage was extremely edited in favor of CSPD (Roberts, 2019). Justice has not been achieved for De’von, and while this story of shuffling bureaucracy covering up the wrongdoings of police officers is not uncommon across the nation, it highlights how entrenched systemic racism is in our country. The question of how to move forward becomes increasingly pressing as this pattern is unsustainable.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, protests surged once again in Colorado Springs despite this event occurring in an entirely different state, indicating a rising intolerance of the community for such violence. Reverend Dr. Stephanie Rose Spaulding provides an insightful connection on these instances, pointing out that the Colorado Springs community remembers what happened to De’von Bailey, stating “It’s very fresh in their memories” (Rivera, 2020). If every town across America is remembering their own De’Von Bailey when another instance of police brutality occurs anywhere in the nation, it would begin to shed light onto the intensity of the reactions seen in the streets. A collective anguish, building like steam, unresolved by ineffectual investigations and a hollowness where justice should be. To gain a clearer understanding of the nature of this problem, Dr. Spaulding once again has an answer.
Police brutality and racism are not mutually exclusive issues, they’re linked through the disproportionate violence committed against people of color by police. Racism can be seen through Rev. Dr. Spaulding’s framework of four levels: individual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic (Beedle, 2020g). The systemic and institutional levels of racism require the complicity of the state, especially the arm that possesses the authority to wield force against civilians. Yet even if that is more of a passive acceptance rather than an overt discrimination, it is the interpersonal and individual levels of racism that can perpetuate it within the macro levels. The way that the police have responded to community protests against police brutality is indicative of how these levels of racism function, even within Colorado Springs.
Overreactions Against Protestors
The momentum among the general public is intensifying and while these issues are not necessarily new, the societal understanding and perception of them has shifted noticeably. During the protests in Colorado Springs last year, citywide curfews were implemented temporarily during what was seen as the “longest sustained social protest in the Pikes Peak region in recent memory” (Beedle, Swartzell, & Miller, 2020). This crescendo of public reaction against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement is the logical outcome to the mounting pressure of so many echoing tragedies. Yet the institutional reaction has not been hospitable, even in small ways such as the swift removal of a Black Lives Matter art installation, despite Trump stickers being left in public places for weeks (Beedle, 2020b). The difference in how these symbols were treated by an official body was palpable in the community. Even comparing the consequences of two drivers who drove their vehicles into crowds reveals a strange discrepancy, the individual who drove into a pro-police rally received multiple charges while the individual who drove into a BLM rally was not cited at all (Beedle 2020d). While there are likely many details to all of these situations that are variable factors, the compilation begins to indicate a deeper problem. Violence against protestors by Colorado Springs law enforcement certainly does not quell the tension, and was observed throughout last year.
The measures of tear gas, rubber bullets, and aggressive police tactics were part of the rising conflict in Colorado Springs last year. Between May 30th and June 3rd, police and protestors clashed near the Police Operations Center with many “less than lethal” measure being used by CSPD (Beedle, Swartzell, & Miller, 2020). Journalist Heidi Beedle reported that ten minutes after she left a peaceful protest, police used tear gas and pepper balls against the crowd (Beedle, 2020f). Even people who did not participate in such protests were affected. Protestors were inaccurately identified through social media by law enforcement, such as Olivia Romero, a UCCS graduate student, and treated rudely by inquiring law enforcement (Beedle, 2021). The repeated authoritarian responses by official entities does not contribute to deescalating the strife between law enforcement and the community, and raises the question of whether or not these systems are prepared to face the internalized racism within their ranks. Further examples can be seen of what could be considered an overreaction by local law enforcement.
While there may be occasions to use force, the authorities granted the power to do so should be held to the highest standards of conduct. Yet when a warrant was executed by the Denver Police Department for Lloyd Porche, allegedly for taking part in a protest in Colorado Springs, Denver police fired foam bullets through the windows of his home while a toddler was present (Beedle & Seers, 2020). This surely could not have been the only possible avenue to make contact with the individual, posing such great risk to innocent children in the home, yet somehow this was justifiable to law enforcement. Another horrific example of poor conduct against civilians associated with left leaning movements occurred during last year’s protests, when a transwoman was sexually harassed and abused by CSPD officers after being arrested for “obstruction of a peace officer” (Beedle, 2020a). This callous and cruel treatment of those that are perhaps deemed “the enemy” by police officers is fuel to the fire of conflict surrounding this issue. It is unacceptable regardless of context, yet the wider scope only emphasizes the apparent skew between law enforcement and the community. This divide is apparent, especially after a CSPD officer made a comment online saying “KILL EM ALL” in response to a Black Lives Matter livestream (Beedle, 2020c). This officer saw protestors as “terrorists”, and it is likely that he is not alone in this view among others in law enforcement. These instances leave the community wondering where the oversight and accountability is for such behavior.
Lack of Oversight
It is no secret that discrimination still occurs from within government, though the public is often left to speculate regarding the true extent. Shirley Martinez, the vice chair of the Pikes Peak Diversity Council, explains that “there are lots of unconscious biases playing out in cities, states, and the government” (Bordelon, 2020). Unconscious biases stem from how individuals are socialized, and unfortunately systemic racism has been an influence for every American. Boards or committees comprised of citizens that offer a diverse perspective has been a highly advocated solution for oversight, specifically for interactions between police and civilians that result in violence or death. In Colorado Springs, the Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission was created last year to fulfill that goal, though it is not without criticism from activists (Beedle, 2020e). Not only is there a need for the commission to have greater authority, but there is skepticism on whether the appointment of Luis Velez will help or hinder. His background as the former police chief in Colorado Springs has caused many to wonder if this poses a conflict of interest, especially in light of such sociological division between those striving for racial justice and those who unequivocally support police actions.
Need for Comprehensive Reform
Repairing the division between law enforcement and local communities require more comprehensive reform of the way that laws are enforced and communities supported. Many cities have been conducting pilot programs to experiment with alternative branches of emergency response teams, and this appears to be an effective step towards unification and healing. Denver began the STAR program, which stands for Support Team Assisted Response and sends one mental health professional and one EMT to nonviolent emergency calls (Schmelzer, 2020). This approach allows for a calm interaction between civilians and emergency responders, they do not carry firearms and so far have not needed to call police for backup. This program should be granted additional funding for more staff and resources, as well as replicated in other cities like Colorado Springs. Another possible step towards reform is the SB20-217 Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity bill, which will make a number of necessary changes to all local law enforcement agencies in Colorado. Requiring body cameras, more comprehensive data collection/tracking of officer conduct data, prohibiting chokeholds, and requiring an officer to intervene when another officer is using unlawful physical force are only a few of the changes but are absolutely necessary (Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity, 2020). The question of whether these steps will be enough to quell the building pressure remains to be seen, as this legislature will not go into effect until 2023.
Once reforms are implemented, perhaps healing and repairs to these divisions can begin. Until then, it isn’t possible because harm continues to be inflicted upon communities of color by law enforcement. It seems a threshold has been passed, and what was once considered the reluctant status quo, is now being actively shaken by an energetic youth and seasoned activists. Even the more moderate can no longer deny the reality of police brutality and the endless hashtags of victim’s names. The pressure will not relent without change, and so the question becomes how many more innocent lives it will take for Colorado Springs and every town in America to embrace that change.
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