Tuesday, June 2, 2020

George Floyd's death reverberates in Colorado

Posted By and on Tue, Jun 2, 2020 at 7:37 PM

click to enlarge Protesters gathered outside City Hall midday on June 2, eight days after George Floyd died while being restrained by a Minneapolis police officer. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Protesters gathered outside City Hall midday on June 2, eight days after George Floyd died while being restrained by a Minneapolis police officer.

In remarks delivered June 2, Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski addressed mostly peaceful local protests against police brutality against black people.

Protests kicked off nationally when Officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department pressed his knee against the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old security guard, for nearly nine minutes. Three other officers also pinned down Floyd, The New York Times reports.

The incident, which was captured on video, sparked national anger against Floyd's death and the deaths of other people of color at the hands of law enforcement.

(We'll have more coverage of Colorado Springs protests in tomorrow's issue of the Indy, which you can read in print or online at csindy.com.)

Niski, who released a statement on the killing of Floyd on May 29 and then on May 31, apologized for not addressing the incident earlier.

"I can tell you that what I saw in the video was not only tragic, but it was wrong, unjustified, and was not in service to the people those officers swore to protect," he said at a news conference June 2.

click to enlarge Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski apologized for not addressing George Floyd's death earlier. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski apologized for not addressing George Floyd's death earlier.

Niski said he hesitated at first to condemn the Minneapolis police officers' actions because it was based on a short video clip — which recalled, for him, memories of other police departments judging CSPD based on footage of the August killing of De'Von Bailey, who was was armed with a concealed handgun and was shot while running from police.

Eventually, he arrived at the conclusion that these were "two different instances."

Niski hopes to improve communication to better understand the needs of people of color, he said. Part of that, he said, has been having regular conversations with community members.

The plan is eventually to create a more formal group, he suggested.

"We were having discussions before the De'Von Bailey incident, about creating a community group that would be kind of our liaison to the community, and the community's liaison back to us," Niski said. "I think what we're really looking for is two-way communication with our community...We're looking for people to ask questions on what we're doing and why we're doing it. We're still in the development stages of that."

While the protests have been "overwhelmingly peaceful," Niski defended the department's use of tear gas and rubber bullets when some people were throwing large rocks at police officers and firing at an armored vehicle late on May 30.

"Saturday was the worst night we had," he said. "I can tell you as a police department and as a staff, we were concerned. We were concerned for our city, because in my 31-year career, I have not seen that type of disorder in Colorado Springs."

A video circulating on social media appears to show CSPD officers hitting a protester and pinning him on the ground during an arrest at a Colorado Springs demonstration.

After the news conference June 2, Niski watched the video and provided the following statement through a spokesperson:

I am aware of the video circulating around social media of our officers using force to effect an arrest during the recent protest. This incident will be reviewed to determine if any laws or department policies were broken.

Preliminary, the video appears to show officers attempting to take a suspect into custody after protestors were given a lawful order to disperse. The suspect seems to be resisting, which is when officers use force to gain compliance and take him into custody.

This video shows a small snapshot of that arrest. The full review will reveal all the events that occurred leading up to this incident, during this incident, and what happened after the video stops. Once that is complete, if the officers have been found to have violated our policies or the law, the appropriate action will be taken.

While protests in Colorado Springs have been overwhelmingly peaceful, we have seen violent and unlawful acts take place, especially during the night. We stand in solidarity with our community and we will continue to protect our community’s right to protest, but when a crime occurs we have to take action to ensure an escalation of violence does not continue.

While Niski unequivocally denounced Floyd's killing, County Commissioner Holly Williams suggested there might be a reason Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd's neck until he passed out.

"I watched the video but there's something that happened in the hour or two hours beforehand," she said during the Board of County Commissioners' June 2 meeting. "So often in the ... video, we don't get the whole story."

She noted deputies and officers face the difficult task of making spur-of-the-moment decisions that must endure analysis by lawyers, judges and the public.

"I'm not going to say this George Floyd [incident] wasn't a mistake," she said. "It was upsetting to watch that."

She asked protestors to follow the lead of the late Martin Luther King Jr., who advocated for peaceful demonstrations. Other commissioners also urged protesters to do so safely and without violence.

During a news briefing June 2, Gov. Jared Polis said, "What happened to George Floyd was not only wrong, brutal and inhumane, it was murder."

Polis noted that one reason the nation's focus is trained on the Floyd incident stems from knowing "in our heart of hearts this is not an isolated incident. This is a pattern. We see it starkly. It's something many Americans of color live in fear of."

"We need to listen to those crying out for reform and take action," Polis said. "I hear you. I see you. I grieve with you. I want to work with you to make Colorado better and America better."

Those who demand a violent crackdown on demonstrators drew Polis' ire.

"This is not China, Tiananmen Square. It's not leadership. It's creating more division."

Asked to respond to President Donald Trump's accusation that governors are weak, Polis said a threat to deploy federal troops is counterproductive and "would only stoke worse violence and destruction."

He also said Trump is isolated in the White House and "doesn't know what's going on on our streets."

He said he would work with the Black Caucus, the Legislature, cities and counties to "promote equal treatment under the law." But he didn't name specifics.

The County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police also called for change.

“We are shocked and disgusted by the indefensible use of force that led to George Floyd's recent death in Minneapolis," Broomfield Police Chief Gary Creager, chair of the state police chiefs association, said in a joint statement from the three organizations. "We are equally appalled, however, by the lack of intervention displayed by the other officers who were on the scene."

The three organizations jointly urged state lawmakers to pass a state law requiring officers to intervene when a fellow officer uses force unreasonably, and to report such instances to a superior.

The "Duty to Intervene" is already expected in most Colorado law enforcement agencies, they said, but passing a state law would mean officers could face criminal prosecution in cases like the Minneapolis killing.

In a June 2 statement, a coalition of activist groups condemned "the appalling violence and use of force perpetrated at the hands of law enforcement in Colorado," and called on state lawmakers to hold officers accountable for their actions.

The coalition — including groups such as the NAACP CO–MT–WY State Conference, ProgressNow Colorado and the ACLU of Colorado — accused law enforcement of using aggressive tactics against people gathered peacefully to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other murdered black people.

"On several occasions, these officers met nonviolent congregations of Coloradans and clearly-identified members of the press with volleys of tear gas, pepper balls, and flash bangs," the statement says.  "This is more than just an egregious misuse of force. It is a serious public health concern, especially during an ongoing pandemic."

The statement notes that tear gas "h
as a long history of being utilized to silence communities of color," and is known to cause chemical burns, respiratory problems, miscarriages and stillbirths.

Other organizations signing the statement included the ACLU of Colorado, Women's Lobby of Colorado, The Marigold Project, New Era Colorado, The Bell Policy Center, Cobalt, Denver Young Democrats, Colorado Civic Engagement Roundtable, The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, One Colorado and the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.

"There is no excuse for using tear gas on nonviolent protesters, let alone those blameless citizens who’ve found themselves in the crossfire," they wrote. "...Our organizations stand together in calling on our lawmakers to pass effective legislation right now to hold law enforcement accountable and to ensure the public is kept safe from police violence."

Stephen Meswarb, interim executive director of the ACLU of Colorado, also voiced anger.

“The protests happening all over the country are an outpouring of rage and grief at the endless, relentless examples of unarmed Black people being brutalized and murdered at the hands of police," Meswarb said in a statement. "George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just the latest deaths. Here in Colorado in 2016, Michael Marshall was killed by jail deputies who held him down until he aspirated. In August 2019, Elijah McClain, 23, died after a prolonged encounter with Aurora police officers. That same month, De’Von Bailey, 19, was shot in the back while running away and killed by Colorado Springs police. ACLU of Colorado is united in solidarity with protestors across the country demanding an end to violent, racist policing."

Meswarb condemned Denver police for “shooting rubber bullets and pepper balls indiscriminately into peaceful crowds and using tear gas and other chemical irritants to disperse protesters."

Also on June 2, state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, introduced a bill to increase police transparency and accountability in Colorado.

The legislation appoints the state's attorney general as an "independent investigator of all instances where law enforcement’s use of force results in death or serious bodily injury," according to a statement from Herod.

It also would remove "immunity for prosecution from law enforcement found to have acted unlawfully, allowing peace officers to be sued in their individual capacity" and "require all law enforcement to use body cameras and to collect and report data on the individuals that are stopped and searched."

“Of course, the great percentage of police officers operate with the utmost integrity," Herod said in the statement. "They need not fear. This legislation isn’t about them. It is about holding accountable those that take for granted the public trust; those that need policing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that Niski had not released a statement on George Floyd's death until May 31. In fact, he had issued two statements on Facebook, one May 29 and one May 31.

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