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Will this happen again?

After years of conflict between the city and its citizens, history threatens to repeat

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Colorado Springs police Chief Richard Myers shows City - Council photos of police officers dragging St. Patricks - Day parade marcher Elizabeth Fineron off the street. - Though Myers says Fineron sat in the street, forcing - officers to remove her, video screened the next day - appears to indicate otherwise. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY-RUTT
  • L'Aura Montgomery-Rutt
  • Colorado Springs police Chief Richard Myers shows City Council photos of police officers dragging St. Patricks Day parade marcher Elizabeth Fineron off the street. Though Myers says Fineron sat in the street, forcing officers to remove her, video screened the next day appears to indicate otherwise.

One step forward, two steps back.

So it goes for the citizens of Colorado Springs who care enough, and have the nerve, to question their government in a public way.

Those who raise issues in the light of day have come to realize they risk arrest, and even nasty scrapes and bruises, like those suffered by a handful of anti-war marchers during a St. Patrick's Day parade partly funded by the city.

And in spite of the Constitution, or exactly because of it, the city is mired in an impassioned debate over the meaning and practice of free speech.

The rollercoaster of this past week has provided a perfect microcosm of the tumult.

Wednesday, May 2: Leaders of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission emerge from police headquarters with a smiling Mayor Lionel Rivera, after discussing the St. Patrick's Day parade with the mayor, Colorado Springs police Chief Richard Myers and others.

The PPJPC had unwittingly stepped toward the city's center stage when president Eric Verlo, who obtained a permit for his Bookman van, invited friends along to march for peace.

At the request of parade organizers, dozens were ousted from the parade, leading to seven arrests and allegations that police used unnecessary force in the process, including dragging a 65-year-old woman on the asphalt, causing large abrasions that were later treated at Memorial Hospital.

Police Chief Richard Myers says he regrets his officers - being thrust - into an emotionally charged situation, but adds they - acted appropriately. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY-RUTT
  • L'Aura Montgomery-Rutt
  • Police Chief Richard Myers says he regrets his officers being thrust into an emotionally charged situation, but adds they acted appropriately.

Rivera joins with the PPJPC's Jeff Briggs in saying that though the meeting was heated, progress was made. In a different camera shot, Rivera, reiterating what he said at a City Council meeting in late March, maintains he doesn't believe police acted inappropriately.

Friday, May 4: Another event, another opportunity. Some citizens who were arrested in the aftermath of an anti-war demonstration on Feb. 15, 2003 wrongfully, as officials later acknowledged have secured a public forum to discuss free speech alongside police.

Their ultimate aim in the court-ordered forum is to determine why some activists were arrested in a strip-mall restaurant after demonstrations against the Iraq war near Peterson Air Force Base and Palmer Park, and how to avoid such problems in the future.

But Eric Doub, a Boulder contractor/activist and member of the "Dairy Queen Dozen," walks out of this forum, ending it before it begins, for all practical purposes. He complains the city has refused to let activists take part in editing a video of the discussion a breach of good faith, he says, although such terms are not specified in the agreement. Many citizens also walk out in support of Doub.

The forum goes on as planned, with assistant city attorney Thomas Marrese saying the city has fulfilled its obligation. Doub threatens legal action.

Monday, May 7: Chief Myers presents an after-action report on the parade to City Council. The report follows "hundreds of hours" of internal-affairs interviews with officers, though arrestees have chosen not to take part in the investigation, out of concern for their pending court cases.

Myers says the city can avoid spectacles such as what happened on St. Patrick's Day in the future. He urges "frank dialogue" and "buy-in" for a plan that calls for improved advance communication between police and demonstrators about their intentions.

"I deeply regret that this incident happened," Myers says, noting that police officers are called "peace officers."

He also references a little-known "consensus" document between police and activists from March 2003 that, had it been enacted and followed, might have prevented history from repeating itself.

Local police deal with different people in different ways - as the - Bookman group was removed from the St. Patrick's Day - parade.
  • Local police deal with different people in different ways as the Bookman group was removed from the St. Patrick's Day parade.

But his insistence the police did nothing wrong at the parade provokes a confrontation at the City Council meeting the following day.

Tuesday, May 8: Myers repeats his report in the formal council session, this time followed by public comment. Several citizens, some PPJPC members and some not, respond negatively. They insist they saw and experienced police brutality and mistreatment at the parade.

Elizabeth Fineron, the woman who was dragged in the street, contests the account of her arrest as told by Myers and documented in a police report. Video evidence supports her claim that she did not sit down in protest, but fell because she couldn't keep pace with the two officers who were removing her from the parade route. Those officers subsequently dragged her off the street.

Although Myers did not specifically name Fineron, he showed photos of her and later stated that a woman "struck an officer." Fineron takes exception with that characterization. She admits that she wanted to be arrested, to ensure police documentation of what she considered brutality. She says she asked an officer what she could do to be arrested. Upon being told that assaulting an officer would do it, she says she tapped that officer on the shoulder.

Molly Eaves, a former lieutenant with the Colorado Department of Corrections, did not belong to PPJPC but came to the parade to celebrate St. Patrick's Day and to exercise her opposition to the war. She is seen on video with what appears to be an officer's hand on her throat.

"I know excessive force when I see it," she says.

When asked after the meeting whether they think the discrepancies in accounts warrant independent scrutiny of the police's actions, three council members say no.

Vice Mayor Larry Small: "Not with the information we have now."

Councilwoman Jan Martin: "Still, either story could make a good case."

Yes, they can get along, as a Springs police officer talks - amicably - with demonstrators outside Monday's council meeting.
  • Yes, they can get along, as a Springs police officer talks amicably with demonstrators outside Monday's council meeting.

Councilman Jerry Heimlicher declined to comment on the specifics, noting trials upcoming to involve the arrestees.

Bill Durland, a St. Patrick's Day arrestee who also co-chairs the Colorado Springs chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, wraps up the marchers' appeals to council. Following his arrest, the 76-year-old civil liberties attorney and retired logic professor received treatment for spiked blood pressure and bruised fingers.

Durland tells the council that a police officer pointed a Taser stun gun at his wife. He says police escalated the situation by siding with parade organizers who determined on the spot to boot marchers with anti-war signs from the parade.

"Is this the way we want our public-safety officers to act in an American democracy, and would we want our children to emulate them as role models?" he asks. "These are the deeper-than-legal the philosophical questions of truth we all need to ponder.

"Must decency and dignity die in the streets of Colorado Springs? Or can we work together ... with decency and civility?" Rewind briefly to 2003 when the former police chief, Luis Velez, explained to council why police had used tear gas during a massive anti-war demonstration near Palmer Park.

Velez acknowledged at that meeting there were "peaceful demonstrators who also got a taste of that gas" on Feb. 15, 2003, a day of worldwide action. Velez added that the department would try not to let the same happen again.

Then, much as his successor Myers did this week, Velez defended the arrests made that day and emphasized that his words did not constitute an admission that using the gas was inappropriate.

"There's no concession to anything," Velez told the council.

In the aftermath, the department sat down with local activist leaders for a meeting. Out of it came a summary document entitled "Items of Consensus."

Protesting can be rough, as seen in 2003
  • Protesting can be rough, as seen in 2003

It stipulated first that "communications issues should be worked on," identifying the need for rally coordinators to work with police. They were to tell police of plans in advance and maintain the ability to "communicate immediately with each other" during rallies.

Among its many other provisions, some specific to the 2003 demonstrations, the document suggested that event coordinators be stationed with a police liaison from the beginning of an event to the end.

Had these measures been in place on St. Patrick's Day, the conflict between parade organizer John O'Donnell and friends of the PPJPC's Verlo, whose parade application did not stipulate anti-war demonstrators, probably would not have occurred, Myers told the council. He added that police were unexpectedly caught in the middle.

Myers' staff distributed the 2003 document this week during the council meeting, prompting confessions of fading institutional memory from both the PPJPC and police.

The undated, unsigned two-page document in Durland's view appears to comprise mere meeting minutes. He notes they show an obvious lack of consensus in places. In the absence of any other guidelines, however, this imperfect document is now considered a possible building block toward a better future by both sides.

And despite ill feelings that brought some St. Patrick's Day marchers to the brink of tears in recent days, everyone seems eager to get there.

"There is a long road ahead of us," Fineron said late last week, arms folded as she sided with Doub in boycotting the forum at the senior center. "I want to get there, really I do."

Martin, the newest councilmember, agreed with Myers' statement that police training needs improvement.

Independent publisher John Weiss, at Tuesday's council meeting, called for the creation of a citizens commission and added that he would pay for a forum to discuss the broader issues at hand.

At an Iraq war protest in February 2003 in Palmer Park, - police used tear gas and, in this case, pepper spray to - quell demonstrators.
  • At an Iraq war protest in February 2003 in Palmer Park, police used tear gas and, in this case, pepper spray to quell demonstrators.

A majority of the members of council indicated during and after the meeting that they would attend such a forum.

For his part, Myers was eager to move forward in a continued dialogue with activists, particularly the PPJPC.

He also pushed for better coordination with activists and within the police department, saying event command centers, for example, could be used to tap experienced officers when the police have to respond to unexpected incidents such as those encountered during the parade.

Heimlicher, worried that such disputes harm the city's reputation, is pushing, along with Myers, for clarification of the city's parade-permitting process, which is now handled by police. Heimlicher says city officials, perhaps a member of the council, should participate.

In an interview, Heimlicher said if he had that job, it would be clear to him that even the Ku Klux Klan could march, although the idea turns his stomach.

"If it is a city-sponsored event and it's on city property, which streets are, I don't think we have the rights to exclude them," he said, adding that democratic participation is what distinguishes the United States from communist countries.

And while several members of the council, including Rivera, repeatedly intoned that the parade was privately organized, it was partly paid for using city dollars, according to Mike Anderson, an assistant city manager.

The parade is a nonprofit, he said in an e-mail Tuesday, and organizers received a subsidized rate for police services, paying only half the cost. There are a few problems raised by all of this, and members of the council and activists have barely come to terms with them.

For one, most protests aren't conveniently confined to a parade, with established start and end times and locations.

Protesting can be rough, as seen in 2007
  • Protesting can be rough, as seen in 2007

Second, much of the focus has been on the PPJPC, and not the citizenry at large. Many local activists are not members of that group, and may not even communicate with the commission. Yet the city's efforts at conversation to date have largely targeted only that group.

That goes hand in hand with a third issue: Activism can't always be predictable in a democracy. The idea of asking the PPJPC, if not all citizens, to alert the police department before every protest, as suggested by the "Items of Consensus," seems to require an omnipresent sort of role for activist leaders. In addition, they are sometimes hard-pressed to gauge turnout beforehand.

Heimlicher acknowledges such concerns, calling them "Catch-22s." He notes that protests have a spontaneous element, often blossoming by word-of-mouth communication, which is impossible to track.

Then there are sticking points, such as the disagreement over whether there was police brutality, or if that characterization is a misrepresentation, as Myers says. And as far as additional police training, neither Myers nor anyone else has yet provided specifics as to what officers will learn and how their approach to activists will change.

Then comes the other obvious issue: the pending trial against the seven St. Patrick's Day marchers.

The minor charges of obstructing the parade will beget a drama almost certain to see police officers hauled into court to testify in front of a jury.

It is unclear how the case will end. But if things evolve as they did in 2003, when the charges didn't stick against the Dairy Queen Dozen and the cases were dismissed, it's not hard to imagine a pro bono lawyer surfacing to file a civil lawsuit on behalf of the arrestees. The suit, like the one stemming from the 2003 incident, would probably allege that arrests were made to retaliate against those who held anti-war views.

And perhaps, after several more years in court, a settlement would come, and then a formal city apology, and with it, a citizen-police forum. It's not difficult to see that much-needed forum falling apart amid the city's attempt to dictate one detail or another.

Finally, perhaps in that future another group of activists maybe a cagey group of even-grayer seniors will come with allegations that a City Council made up entirely of Republicans is biased against any speech they disagree with.

That's what everybody has said they want to avoid. We'll see if their actions back up their words.

Myers visits ACLU

Police Chief Richard Myers will speak on "The Challenge of Policing in a Free Society" at the annual meeting of the Colorado Springs chapter of the ACLU

Colorado College's Gaylord Hall, 902 N. Cascade Ave.

Monday, May 14, 7 p.m.

Free; hors d'oeuvres and refreshments will be served.

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