Columns » Between The Lines

It's fine to look forward, but not just yet


Let's set aside, if only for a moment, the moral issues that have so divided, embarrassed and frustrated Colorado Springs for the past generation.

This will not be about intolerance, accepting or rejecting homosexuals, pro-life vs. pro-choice or evolution vs. creationism.

All of those debates matter, obviously, and they may never go away at least in Colorado Springs. Whether or not you want to admit it, our city and region are polarized.

Today, the Independent is taking a new direction.

Now is the time for citizens of all political and moral persuasions to defend Americans' most fundamental right, which in our view is being slowly undermined:

Citizens have the right to question our government and its policies, openly and directly, at any level.

Too many warning signals have popped up in recent years for this concern to be ignored any longer. The prevailing mood across too much of the nation has become this: Our government can't be challenged on many issues. Our law enforcement certainly can't be questioned, ever.

That conclusion had been evident in recent years, going back to 2003. But it was obvious again this week.

New police Chief Richard Myers told City Council that his officers did nothing wrong at the St. Patrick's Day parade. Yet, during the public response Tuesday, clips of videotape and comments by people about their treatment blatantly contradicted the police's internal review. The Independent has since uncovered that parade organizers, contrary to prior presentations, received direct financial assistance from the city, meaning that all taxpayers subsidized this event (see page 14).

The discrepancies cry out for more followup, even a fast but thorough, independent investigation to determine (a) whether any police officers should be disciplined for their actions, (b) what changes the police department should make in its operational guidelines and protocol, and (c) whether parade organizers should be forced to follow revised procedures in the future.

Yet, the council has focused on the need to look forward, saying everyone shared in the blame on St. Patrick's Day. While we applaud and accept the need for better direct dialogue between peace groups and the police, it is critical that before charting future reforms, we delve into the past to answer questions still left unanswered.

For example, why did officers drag a hobbled, 65-year-old woman so quickly off the street, as the video shows? Why were they so physical with others who posed no threat, even handcuffing several? Why did some officers refuse to identify themselves when asked? Why did one officer forcibly break a banner? And a side note: Just what group (from the city?) asked the Hooters girls to come along?

All of those questions and more should be addressed if the city and the police truly want to learn from this nightmare. The mayor and council members are sincere in noting that we need to think about the future, but that's just not enough.

We seem to have room for selective disapproval. It's fine to chide the city for enacting a stormwater fee/tax without voter approval. It's not fine to suggest the police overreact on occasion. And if that means sacrificing rights, as it seems to many, so be it.

This traces to the aftermath of Sept. 11. First came the Patriot Act, parts of which clearly were an assault on our basic freedoms, especially as the reactive measures moved from temporary to permanent. Amid the War on Terror, a new dynamic took shape. No longer was it acceptable to question government. Instead, our leaders told us sternly that to raise objections was un-American. Time and time again, we've heard we can't let down our guard because the terrorists will take full advantage.

The feeling started coming home as world events began having a larger impact on the Pikes Peak region. Thousands of local troops geared up for war, as many spouses and children either left to be with relatives elsewhere or hunkered down for the first deployments that would lead to more, as well as so many tragic endings.

With that as the backdrop, when 3,000-plus doubters gathered at Palmer Park in February 2003 to peaceably protest the looming war, Colorado Springs police mishandled the situation. They used tear gas and made arrests. After another group was broken up outside Peterson Air Force Base, police entered a nearby Dairy Queen and arrested a dozen people improperly, as authorities later admitted.

Yet, no lessons were learned. Nobody was held accountable. Ideas for avoiding a recurrence were never enacted and soon forgotten until after this St. Patrick's Day parade. Now we're told that neither a policeman's arm under a man's chin, nor an officer's hand on a woman's throat, constitutes excessive force. Also, it's "irresponsible and inflammatory" to suggest otherwise, because police were totally within their limits in dealing with nonviolent citizens, mostly seniors.

Are we wrong to disagree? This has happened too many times to continue shrugging it off. We feel a different voice must be heard. This is about stopping the erosion of freedom and rights in our own city. This is about reminding Colorado Springs that government officials and police are not immune to criticism, and we should never feel subservient to them.

They protect and serve us, not the opposite. They must be answerable and accountable to us at any given moment. They must remember America is about us, not them.

We, the people, don't have to bow down, cave in, cower and live in fear that raising our volume of discontent might be bad in some twisted way for the nation or Colorado Springs.

We might not all feel compelled to march down a city street or take part in a demonstration. But we all have to care enough to ask questions or allow others to do so and demand that our government, just people like the rest of us, listen and respond. We do need a special commission to conduct an independent investigation, and we're pleased that a majority of City Council has agreed to participate in an Independent-sponsored special town-hall meeting.

When the police chief and city councilors say they will take steps to make sure this doesn't happen again, we'll be watching. And we'll hold them to their word.

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