Colorado Springs, Colorado 2020-09-16 15:54:15 –
COLORADO SPRINGS — On the last Saturday afternoon in May 2020, a group of protesters assembled in front of City Hall in downtown Colorado Springs.
Days earlier, a Minnesota police officer had pinned George Floyd by the neck, ultimately killing the man. The incident set off a sequence of civil rights-minded events and protests, which occurred in cities across the country and, eventually, around the world.
“Black people are people too,” one woman told a FOX21 reporter that first weekend, her voice muffled by a mask meant to protect her from COVID-19, another danger lurking amidst the crowds of people. She clutched an umbrella, but moved it out of the way for the interview. Drops of rain splattered onto her glasses.
“White people, call out your friends!” She cried. “Call out your family! We cannot do it alone!”
Protesters returned to City Hall again and again in the days that followed. Groups of protestors organized, named themselves, and marched to Acacia Park, down Tejon Street, over to the Pioneer’s Museum, and gathered in front of the Police Operations Center at Nevada Avenue and Rio Grande.
There, after a chaotic first night, they were greeted by the sight of cement barricades and officers clad in riot gear.
“They’re passionate about their message and they want people to pay attention to what their message is. I think there’s a perception that people aren’t hearing them,” Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski told FOX21 News, in a sit down interview more than a month after Floyd’s death.
The crowds, who returned, day after day, asked CSPD officers to take a knee, to condemn the manner in which George Floyd was killed, and to show their support of the Black community.
Eventually, a few officers, Sergeant Jason Newton among them, did kneel with a handful of protesters.
He said it was an opportunity to connect with members of the community he works to serve.
“There are people who were grieving,” Newton said. “It wasn’t about the protestors, it was about individual connection. I saw pain. I saw fear.”
The backlash, he said, was swift.
“People defriended me,” Newton said. “Sending messages saying, ‘you tarnished the badge.’” And, though several protesters thanked him, he said others argued the move wasn’t genuine.
And the unrest continued to grow.
“We’re telling them things that they don’t want to hear,” Niski explained. “What they want to see is action. I think once we can get the data out, that will help.”
In mid September, a first look at that data — the department’s use of force in 2019 — was offered to FOX21 News.
According to CSPD, officers were dispatched to 337,147 calls last year. Of those calls, they said 532 involved physical force.
Here’s a closer look at how CSPD defines “physical force”:
According to a CSPD spokesman, each of the use of force tactics listed above are thoroughly documented and reviewed with each occurance.
Chief Niski says the department’s Use of Force Policy itself has been treated as a living document of sorts, and has seen numerous revisions over the years under the direction of a Use of Force Committee.
>>TAP HERE TO VIEW CSPD’S CURRENT USE OF FORCE POLICY
“Across the country there’s two groups,” Niski explained, noting he was part of the Use of Force Committee until he became chief. “There’s the International Association of Chiefs of Police that puts out policies and best practices. There’s also another group called the Police Executive Research Forum, who does the same thing. We kind of looked at those and melded them in with our policies – what worked for us – and we’ve really modified our Use of Force Policies over the last three years – significantly.”
Although at this point, data surrounding CSPD’s use of force in the years before and during those modifications are not available, plans to organize and release that information are in the works.
Those numbers, the implementation of de-escalation training for officers, and a civilian review board are among the list of demands issued by protesters over the summer.
“CSPD has been practicing de-escalation training for years – even in our formal training,” said Sergeant Newton. He’s assigned to Community Relations for the department. “Every time we go through a use of force, every time through a call for service with supervisors, we talk to our officers about [what] we could have done differently.”
That’s why, Newton and Niski agreed, CSPD’s response during the wave of protests this summer, was different each night.
“We’ve been trained that maybe it’s okay to let yelling and screaming go for a little bit, as long as they’re not damaging property,” Newton said. “People get frustrated, but it’s a very — it’s a technique that really works.”
Proof of that success, Newton mentioned, is the communication now in progress between groups of protestors, CSPD, and the city.
Chief Niski said that conversation is ongoing and of utmost importance – because it addresses a deficit created by the department.
“We have not done a good job of communicating with community members about what we do,” he said. “But we’re dedicated to fix that… and we’re committed to start having those conversations and, hopefully, having two-way conversations. Really hearing more about what the community’s looking for us to do and how to do it.”
Even now, change is being made.
Renae Alexander and Robbie Johnson both live in Colorado Springs and both helped to form a nonprofit called The People 719.
“The media had actually started calling us ‘The People’ and once you go to Google and start typing that in, it pulls up other nonprofits that are also named ‘The People,’ so we just added the 719 and ta-da!” Johnson said.
The two spoke highly of meetings held with Chief Niski and Mayor John Suthers.
“He started to open those lines of communication and understand the community is,” Johnson trailed off for a minute. “We want more,”he said, “and for him to to actually sit down and listen, I felt like that was just a barrier coming down right there. He’s never made us feel smaller than him.”
Alexander listened, nodding her head.
“It was just a moment,” she said, referring to the idea for a police accountability board. “I think the moment was – ‘wow, we just got the mayor to back the accountability proposal, and when that happened, that’s when it was just… alrighty!” She exclaimed.
“Working off of good goes a long way.”
Mayor Suthers says he was provided minute-by-minute, at times, updates during the recent protests. It was a local event, he said, that mirrored – as they often do – the national civil rights movement.
When asked about the city’s attempt to communicate with minority groups, Suthers was enthusiastic.
“Actually – ongoing,” he said, confirming he’d met with several groups of protesters. “A constant attempt. I know when I became the mayor I reached out to a variety of minority organizations, committee and all that kind of stuff, one of the – quite frankly, frustrating things to me – was they didn’t seem to be very unified.”
But that seems to be evolving, with the creation of The People 719 and other like-minded groups.
And more change is on the horizon.
The assembly of the Colorado Springs Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission is well underway. A vote to finalize its members is set for September 22.
“They want civilian oversight,” Chief Niski acknowledged. “I’ve said it and I’ll say it again – I’m not in favor of that.”
Niski said there is no statistical data that shows civilian oversight of a police department changes anything.
However, he said City Council’s commission could work.
“If you can get – 11 – enough neutral people to sit on there, that will legitimatley evaluate CSPD as compared to other agencies, I have no concerns over that whatsoever. None,” he said.
Niski is protective of the department with which he’s spent the near entirety of his decades-long career in law enforcement.
“I will never, ever say that there is systemic racism in law enforcement,” he said. “I won’t say that. I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it’s true.”
He pointed again to forthcoming statistical data.
“The biggest thing we have to look at, I think, is getting our data out there. Getting data to people so they can look at it. Again, it’s not an overnight fix,” he said.
Alexander and Johnson said they have been encouraged by the conversations, the changes now in the works, and the people who are walking alongside them.
But, they say, there is still work to be done.
“I think that – as the chief of police – you have to be well educated,” Alexander said. “That privilege blinder can be a death sentence in a lot of cases. And, so, if you’re not seeing that there is a problem, you can’t address the problem properly.”