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Policing the police

Citizen board sought to review officer actions


Mark Lewis addresses City Council - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Mark Lewis addresses City Council

A string of shootings involving Colorado Springs police officers, rising Taser use and lawsuits alleging that cops have prevented demonstrators from expressing their views have renewed calls for a citizen oversight group.

Mark Lewis, chairman of the Freedom of Assembly Committee, a small local watchdog organization, says whenever members from his group ask for details about the city's police policies or how officers are disciplined, they are denied access.

"They operate under a shroud of secrecy," Lewis said.

He is urging the City Council to create a police oversight board similar to those in other cities that review police and monitor their actions. Lewis outlined his concerns at the Dec. 14 council meeting.

Since then, the council has not followed up with any formal discussion about creating such a citizen review board. Police spokesman Sgt. Bob Benjamin said the city's police are opposed to such oversight.

"It's been brought up in the past," he said. "Usually we disagree."

A major reason, Benjamin said, is that many officers fear such a board would politicize internal investigations of police conduct.

Lingering questions

The Freedom of Assembly Committee says a board would also give citizens a say in how police use Tasers, which emit a 50,000-volt electrical shock and have caused controversy across the nation. The Colorado Springs Police Department began using the stun guns last year and Chief Luis Velez just weeks ago told the council of plans to eventually equip all of the department's 677 sworn officers with them.

Last summer, Amnesty International released a report advising that additional testing of the weapons was needed in the aftermath of several deaths where Tasers could have been a factor. Meanwhile, Taser International, which manufactures the stun guns, has maintained that its weapons are safe.

Lewis said the controversy is enough to warrant a closer look -- one that police have so far avoided.

A local citizen's board could also address lingering questions regarding the department's handling of political protesters, he added.

Last year, police established a "security zone" that extended two blocks around The Broadmoor hotel during a NATO conference, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit on behalf of six peaceful activists. The activists were prevented from standing on the sidewalk near the hotel, and were unseen by the delegates they were protesting, according to the suit.

Bill Durland, a local lawyer who co-founded the Freedom of Assembly Committee, has filed a separate civil lawsuit on behalf of a client arrested by police outside the security zone during the same demonstration. After criminal charges against his client were dropped, his client now wants damages for lost work and time.

"Ultimately it's not the way democracy should have been working," Durland said.

Continuing the pressure

In November, Denver voters approved a civilian review board after several officer-involved shootings, including the 2003 shooting death of a 15-year-old developmentally disabled boy, Paul Childs.

The new civilian board will replace the city's existing Public Safety Review Commission, which community activists charged was too weak. The new board -- which some critics claim still will not have substantial teeth -- will utilize two independent investigators to identify any abusive officers and patterns of police bias, said Rose Ceja-Aragon, who currently directs the commission.

"We've had calls from people in Colorado Springs because they think we can help them," she said. "Unfortunately we can't. We direct them back to Colorado Springs police."

Meanwhile, Lewis and Durland, joined by other organizations such as the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, say they will continue to pressure the City Council to consider a board.

"It's an uphill battle," Lewis said. "It might take something really bad happening before anyone responds. The trouble is, we don't know exactly how bad it might be now."

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