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June 03, 2020 News » Cover Story

Colorado Springs sees ongoing protests after Minneapolis police kill Minnesota man 

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click to enlarge Protesters in Colorado Springs laid in front of City Hall with their hands behind their backs. - @HEYAYYONE
  • @HeyAyyOne
  • Protesters in Colorado Springs laid in front of City Hall with their hands behind their backs.

Protests have erupted nationwide over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. Olympic City USA has not escaped the unrest. When rocks and bottles starting flying, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at citizens for the first time in 17 years.

Mayor John Suthers praised the protesters for remaining peaceful on Saturday, May 30. He also said Colorado Springs Police Department officers responded to the protests “appropriately.”

But he lashed out at about 200 people “who clearly had a different agenda” and threw rocks and bottles and broke windows in public buildings, triggering the police response.

Follow-up protests on Sunday and Monday, May 31 annd June 1, didn’t escalate like Saturday night’s, and Suthers didn’t impose a curfew as Mayor Michael Hancock has in Denver, which initially sparked thousands to defy the curfew and pack the streets.

While several theories have emerged about possible interlopers fanning the flames of protests into violent episodes, NAACP official Rosemary Lytle of Colorado Springs refuses to search for who to blame.

“None of this would be happening if there had not been a culture of police violence long before George Floyd [was killed],” she says. “It’s about the cumulative effects of police killings in this country.”

Suthers vows to focus on recruiting only the best officers, assure training is carried out to remove racial bias and follow up incidents with thorough investigations to root out bad actors.

But repairing broken relationships between police and minority communities will take fundamental change, some experts say.

Protests broke out in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, causing him to beg for mercy, saying, “I can’t breathe.” Three other officers did nothing to stop Chauvin.

Though video of the incident immediately went viral, Chauvin wasn’t arrested until four days later, May 29, when he was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Meantime, protesters rioted and burned a police station in Minneapolis, while other cities also erupted in violence.

click to enlarge screen_shot_2020-06-02_at_1.59.36_pm.png

In Colorado Springs, protests started peacefully Saturday, but as night fell, a rowdy portion of the group threw rocks and bottles at police, busted windows at the Police Operations Center and El Paso County courthouse, as well as on some private vehicles. By Tuesday, police had cited or arrested 47 people for vandalism and related charges, according to the department. The city reports no serious injuries.

Protests continued Sunday, and police dispatched smoke canisters that night. CSPD also made an announcement to the crowd that someone, not police, had discharged a firearm. Witnesses observed several people who had guns during the protest.

On Monday and Tuesday, citizens gathered at City Hall to further trumpet their outrage over police brutality against people of color. 

“I’m very appreciative of the fact that the vast majority of the protesters are protesting peacefully, cooperating with the police in terms of crowd control,” Suthers said in a phone interview on Sunday. “They don’t have permits so they’re technically not supposed to go out in the street. I’m very complimentary of the police performance in terms of crowd control yesterday and this morning.”

click to enlarge On Saturday, May 30, protestors joined together in the afternoon, maintaining momentum well into evening. - JONATHAN NISHIMOTO
  • Jonathan Nishimoto
  • On Saturday, May 30, protestors joined together in the afternoon, maintaining momentum well into evening.

Though property damage was minimal compared to that in other cities, Suthers supported CSPD’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets. “In light of a group of people who were clearly not content to protest peacefully, I think the police did a very good job,” he said.

It’s believed to be the first time since 2003 that CSPD has used such deterrents against citizens. In February that year, they deployed tear gas and rubber bullets against a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 people gathered at Palmer Park and Academy Boulevard to protest the Iraq war. That incident led to the arrest of 13 people for “failure to disperse.”

Suthers said the troublemakers Saturday night appeared to be a different group than those who marched during the day.

Asked to elaborate, he said, “There are some folks who would have an anarchist agenda, who are jumping on the bandwagon and utilizing this situation. The police department definitely thought the group that hung around after dark last night [Saturday] were very different than those who were exercising their right to protest through the day. I think there’s a group of folks of a different ilk in terms of what their objectives are.” 

Asked if he will order an investigation of the incidents, Suthers said, “I assume people complained that officers used inappropriate force. They’ll look at it.”

But City Council President Richard Skorman wants more information.

“You want to use tear gas as a last resort,” he says. “I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t able to understand from the mayor or anybody else what happened. We need an explanation. We have a work session [June 11]. I wouldn’t mind having the police chief [Vince Niski] there. I’m going to request that. I would like to at least have an explanation of what happened and why and what we could do in the future to make it not happen again.”

It’s worth noting that as of the Indy’s press time, CSPD had yet to issue any type of news release recounting the arrests and the deployment of force used over the weekend.

Lytle, president of the NAACP state conference for Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, says she’s not interested in debating who those disruptive people were.

Noting President Donald Trump blames Antifa groups and others finger white supremacists, Lytle says, “I’m really slow to debate whether or not it’s this or that, whether there were peaceful protesters or nonpeaceful ones unless we talk about the original bad actors in the whole paradigm and their killing of George Floyd, unless we talk about all the other police officers who have killed people with impunity. Even in these recent weeks there have been several.”

Those include Dreasjon Reed, 21, killed in early May in Indianapolis while he livestreamed cops chasing him; Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery, 25, gunned down while jogging Feb. 23 by two men who weren’t arrested until last month; and Breonna Taylor, killed by police in her apartment on March 13 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lytle adds to that list De’Von Bailey, killed last August by police as he fled on foot with a gun in his pocket.

“There wouldn’t be any demonstrations, no looting, no public property being destroyed,” she says. “We wouldn’t be agonizing over how our city looks on the outside if these lives hadn’t been taken. I think the chaos is cumulative.”

Lytle calls for more involvement from the community in police matters, including a citizen oversight board.

“I think once you have red paint thrown all over the entrance of the city, defacing with words on public monuments, that tells the story in one place of who you are,” she says. “Once that happens, it’s time to call a time out and have community conversations that are genuine, or otherwise it’s never going to be ‘city beautiful’ and Olympic City USA.”

Suthers says the city will always accommodate peaceful protesters but will “take appropriate action to deter threats to persons and property.”

Apparently preparing for the worst, he said on Sunday the city had placed the National Guard on notice that they might be needed if violence escalated.

Suthers didn’t respond to a question about why police reportedly drove into the crowd and sprayed tear gas at a 6-year-old, saying he hadn’t heard about those incidents. “I just believe when people are throwing rocks and things like that...,” he said, not finishing, then adding, “First of all, I would recommend anyone with a 6-year-old get outta there when people start throwing rocks and bottles. I just know only after people resorted to violence ... there was a police reaction using tear gas.”

Asked if he worries CSPD has its own Derek Chauvin as a ticking time bomb among the ranks, Suthers said, “You’re always concerned when you’ve got 800-some police officers.”

click to enlarge Gatherings downtown have brought hundreds of citizens out to protest the death of George Floyd. - LORING WIRBEL
  • Loring Wirbel
  • Gatherings downtown have brought hundreds of citizens out to protest the death of George Floyd.

His goal is to recruit highly qualified people who, “to the extent possible, reflect the community.

“You train them as best you can, anti-bias training, use of force,” he said. “Then you examine each and every incident that occurs. If police acted inappropriately, you impose appropriate sanctions, including getting rid of them. If they acted appropriately, you stand by them.”

But it’s been impossible until just recently for citizens to monitor the police’s internal affairs actions, because CSPD and El Paso County Sheriff’s Office often withheld them from the public. Only since passage of a bill in 2019 are law enforcement agencies mandated to release internal affairs reports after investigations are completed.

Suthers noted police launched the Illumination Project several years ago to bring minority residents and others to the table to discuss policing matters, and more meetings begin next week.

“But if the sole purpose is to yell and scream about we should have disciplined the officers in the [De’Von] Bailey incident, it’s probably not ultimately going to be very constructive,” he said, noting a grand jury found no grounds to charge the officers, as did the FBI. “I’m not going to send police officers into meetings that won’t be civil.”

How the latest violent outbreaks will impact communities and policing in the long run isn’t known. Many demonstrations continue to boil in cities across America.

But a study published in May 2019 by Michael Arthur Simmons Jr., a doctoral candidate at Northcentral University, San Diego, reviewed the impact of riots and looting after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

He found that officers exposed to Black Lives Matter demonstrations came away frustrated and with weakened relationships with black citizens, though he found no heightened sense of racial bias.

“In order to prevent events such as Ferguson from happening again it is essential that communication and expectations by both sides are immediately established following a critical incident,” Simmons wrote.

Daniel Nagin, professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, an expert in criminology, public policy and statistics, notes the relationship between police and minority communities, particularly black people, needs to fundamentally change.

“This relationship, which on both sides is creating rancor and distrust, defeats the purpose of policing for both sides,” he says. One way to bridge the gap is to make an officer’s assessment and basis for promotion hinge on improving community relations, he says.

“That has to be part of the culture and reward system of a police department,” he says.

The Police Use of Force Project devised by Samuel Sinyangwe found a correlation between less aggressive use-of-force policies and fewer instances of police killings. In other words, agencies that impose more barriers to officers’ use of force tallied fewer force incidents.

CSPD didn’t respond by the Indy’s press time to questions regarding those cited on Saturday and the number of rounds of rubber bullets and canisters of tear gas used. 

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