Police look to construct constructive relationships in Denver’s Westwood, a neighborhood that has a sophisticated historical past with policing | Native Information

Driving on the main commercial corridors through Westwood reveals a lot about the southwest Denver neighborhood. On Federal Boulevard, check-cashing businesses, auto shops, taquerias and pho restaurants meld into the Little Saigon Business District, where the stone and red-painted archway of the Far East Center stands as an anchor near Federal and Alameda Avenue.

On Morrison Road, bright murals decorate the sides of buildings on seemingly every block. Businesses hawk tax and legal services in Spanish. A blue-and-red facade announces the Denver Indian Center, where flags in the center’s gym stand for the tribes represented in the city.

On recent summer afternoons, Denver police have hosted events at some of these cultural hubs in Westwood. Community resource officers hand out backpacks filled with school supplies at the J. Churchill Owen Boys & Girls Club on Kentucky Avenue. At the Capitol City Mobile Home Park, they give out more backpacks they received as a donation from A Precious Child. A food truck idles nearby and R&B music plays.

Westwood has a fraught history with policing, a combination of violent crime in the neighborhood, poverty and a large racial minority population.

According to a 2020 survey of Westwood residents done by the OMNI Institute, a nonprofit that partners with the police department for research, 71% of respondents said they don’t feel safe walking alone at night. More than two-thirds also said they believe gun violence is a “big problem” in the neighborhood.

People who identify as Hispanic or Latino make up the largest racial and ethnic group in Westwood, at more than 75% of the neighborhood overall, according to early 2020 Census data. Westwood also has much smaller but visible Asian, Native American and Black populations.

Some find the police’s current outreach efforts frustrating, because from their perspectives, healing historic harms done to communities of color by policing isn’t about wanting individual officers to be nicer to them. Approaches to addressing root causes of crime using social services and outreach that still center on police miss the mark, they say.

And this trauma among people of color of color highlights an inherent tension about whether police should have a role in communities beyond law enforcement.

A woman who grew up in Westwood, who asked not to be named because of her current job, believes police holding community events and doing charity work to build positive relationships is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

“If police officers are there to serve the community to ensure safety, then what are they doing engaging in this charity work? And some people might think that they’re doing it so that they can better their relationship with the community. … But that trust has been broken, and giving kids backpacks is not going to fix it.”

Sgt. Chad Kendall, who coordinates community outreach for District Four of the Denver Police Department —which includes Westwood — said the community events they hold in Westwood offer an opportunity for police to find out what types of social services people in the neighborhood need. They also have a goal of giving people positive interactions with police and changing their perceptions, he said.

“A lot of what the Westwood (resource officers) are doing is really kind of fun, because it’s never really been tried. It’s a lot like throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks,” he said. 

District Four’s leaders come across as sincere in their desire to build relationships. And people at some community-based organizations in Westwood say they believe the police leaders genuinely care about healing law enforcement’s relationships with residents.

‘Hot-spot’ intersections

In the mid-2000s, Denver adopted a broken-windows policing strategy, which is based on the theory that signs of disorder in a community — such as a broken window in a building that goes unrepaired — can encourage more disorder and crime. In practice, it translates into cracking down on nuisance and disorder crimes with the intention to help prevent more serious ones.

Denver used Westwood as a pilot for its broken-windows strategy after gang members attacked a group of young women and stabbed a man who tried to defend them as they left soccer practice at a church. The girls advocated for then-Mayor John Hickenlooper to implement the strategy. 

The Denver Post reported in 2006 that crime in Westwood declined 21.5% in the first five months of the year over the same period in 2005.

But broken-windows policing has long had its critics as well. Around the same time, professors at Georgetown and the University of Chicago argued it was an unproven theory, with no evidence to suggest broken-windows policing reduces crime.

According to an article in the Colorado Justice Report, the Rocky Mountain News reported data in 2006 showing the Denver Police Department’s implementation of broken-windows policing in Westwood led to a 50% increase in arrests and 70% increase in police-initiated calls for service, while resident-initiated calls dropped by 10%.

But the strategy has come with a cacophony of criticism from communities and researchers, not least that it largely targets people of color, and Denver police leadership say their collaborative strategy is not broken-windows policing.

Police now say they recognize reducing crime in neighborhoods with high rates requires a combination of social outreach to address root causes of crime and enforcement for the most serious incidents. In late May, the Denver Police Department and Mayor Michael Hancock announced a new strategy they have termed collaborative policing.

The department pinpointed five intersections leaders called high-crime “hot spots,” centers of areas a few blocks in each direction. According to Police Chief Paul Pazen, the spots accounted for 26% of homicides and aggravated assaults and 49% of nonfatal shootings in 2020, even though they only make up 1.56% of Denver’s geographic area.

The intersections are:

  • South Federal Boulevard and West Alameda Avenue (which borders Westwood)
  • Colfax Avenue and Broadway
  • East Colfax Avenue and North Yosemite Street
  • East 47th Avenue and North Peoria Street
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and North Holly Street

Police planned to increase patrols around those areas, the leaders said, and also focus on building relationships within the communities to prevent crime.

Cmdr. Mark Fleecs oversees District Four. He said the revelation that the crime “hot spots” police identified make up such a small fraction of Denver’s geographic area but a proportionately large share of murders and shootings created new urgency for prevention strategies that tackle crime at its root causes.

“It may be a bit of a wake-up call. We use that information to try to mobilize people into action. So a little bit of the context, I’d say, has changed,” Fleecs said.

Westwood’s crime reduction grant

Fleecs said the department started to look a few years ago at social factors that tend to correlate with crime, and found the factors classified Westwood as a high-risk neighborhood. A study of those social predictors the department has embraced doesn’t contain any crime statistics, he said, but instead looked at a combination of data from the Census and the state health department to predict a neighborhood’s likely propensity for crime based on risk factors such as rates of substance use, mental illness, health insurance, personal capital and environmental factors like street lighting.

Fleecs said officers, as first responders, have the capability to spot underlying sources of distress in a household that may lead to them calling police. So he recognized a plan to address the social predictors of crime needed to center on resources to tackle the underlying problems.

“When this was first presented to me, my first reaction was, how can we as a police department affect these things? Because it’s out of our realm, right? But what we can do is partner (with) organizations that can affect these things,” Fleecs said.

In 2018, the Denver Police Department was awarded about $1 million from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance’s community-based crime reduction grant program specifically for Westwood.

The police department distributes funding from the grant to community-based organizations that do social outreach and economic development. Fleecs said District Four worked with organizations it already had relationships with in developing the grant proposal, and also formed some new partnerships for distributing the funding.

“So it was community-based. We liked that part about it. It wasn’t just the police department or law enforcement going in and conducting enforcement. It really was about identifying partners within the community organizations,” Fleecs said.

The grant was supposed to last three years, Fleecs said, with one year of planning and two years of implementation. But the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the implementation, so that phase has just gotten underway. Fleecs said the department received a one-year extension.

The organizations the police department has partnered with on the grant include: Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver; BuCu West; Denver Housing Authority; Denver Indian Center; Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver; Little Saigon Business District/Denver Streets Partnership (originally WalkDenver); Mi Casa Resource Center; OMNI Institute; Southwest Denver Coalition, and Westwood Unidos. 

The Denver Streets Partnership looks at crime reduction through the lens of environmental design — such improving lighting on streets and around businesses, for example — aimed at reducing the need for police presence. The initiative brings together police and urban planning, said Cindy Ambs, a community liaison with the Denver Streets Partnership who works as an advocate for the Little Saigon Business District.

“It still has to be inviting for their customers. Nobody wants to come into a business and see bars (on the windows) and security cameras all over the place. It’s really improving it so that there’s less of a police presence needed to be there,” Ambs said.

She said she has gotten approval for some of the grant funding to go to businesses in the Little Saigon district to pay for those types of design improvements.

For Ambs, it’s important the police department views its work implementing the grant as more than just a box to check to show its efforts to build community relationships.

She believes the best approach to implement the DSP’s portion of the grant is to work with just a few businesses to start. It could establish a proven model of environmental design changes and benefits derived.

“For me with this grant specifically, I do see value in it. I do see value in helping the police department see a different narrative when thinking about safety in main streets and communities, and if I can help with that and with other perspectives in even this part of the grant conversation, I want to be a part of it as much as possible.”

Echoes of broken-windows policing

But the police department’s announcement of their plan to increase patrols at the high-crime “hot spots” in the city has some suspicious that what the DPD calls “collaborative” is just broken-windows policing rebranded with a new name.

“It feels gimmicky in terms of a marketing term, like broken-windows policing, and community policing, and precision policing. Take your pick of the labels. But fundamentally, it’s still just policing,” said Lisa Calderón, former chief of staff for District 9 Councilmember Candi CdeBaca.

Calderón, who has a long background in community organizing, has been a vocal opponent of broken-windows policing, which she said led to over-policing of people of color since Denver implemented the strategy.

Pazen insisted the collaborative strategy is not broken-windows policing in a presentation on Aug. 9 to a City Council public safety working group. A key difference, he said, is the collaborative approach focuses enforcement on the most serious crimes rather than arrests and citations for low-level crimes as a means to catch bigger ones.

Calderón counters that disorderly conduct problems tend to get conflated with violent crime, and so the same policing approaches get used to address them, instead of taking into account societal underpinnings that accompany behaviors such as drug use and dealing.

“So (with) violent crime, the drug activity gets conflated into that, because there can be violence that’s attendant with drug deals, right? Someone gets hurt, but there also can be other factors that are related to drug activity. The lack of economic opportunity, self-medicating for being on the street or being mentally ill, and so all of those things are packaged together,” she said.

A 2020 study by economist Morgan Williams and a group of colleagues at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service sketched out a complicated picture of increasing the number of police officers patrolling a city.

Arrests for serious crimes tend to fall with expanded police forces, the economists found, and their research suggests visible police presence drives the reduction. But the report also found that expanded police forces tend to mean more arrests for low-level, victimless crimes, and these types of arrests disproportionately target Black people.

The woman who grew up in Westwood remembers heavy police presence in the neighborhood was “normalized.”

“People that are policed believe that they’re wrong; that something is inherently wrong with them or their neighborhood or their community, because of the police presence. And it’s tragic, because children — especially with resource officers inside the schools — believe that, ‘I go to such a messed-up school that there needs to be a police officer present.’”

Thomas Allen, a relationship guidance specialist at the Denver Indian Center, compared the balance of policing that avoids harsh over-policing to trying to hold onto a fistful of sand: Not clenching your fist so hard that the sand squeezes out, but not having too loose a grip that allows it to slip through your fingers, either.

“So having that balance is really hard,” he said.

The Denver Indian Center is a partner of the police department for the Crime Reduction Grant, and also participated in the Reimagine Policing and Public Safety task force that released 112 recommendations at the end of May for reforming policing in Denver.

Allen said when police respect the cultures and traditions of Native people, it goes a long way toward building respect among their communities for police. He grew up in Arvada, but he remembers hearing about experiences from friends who lived in Westwood and would get stopped by police, who would ask to see their IDs.

After hearing those stories, Allen said he got an ID at age 14 to make sure he wouldn’t get in trouble with police for not having one. He added that educating police on small details about Native people’s cultures can help reduce discriminatory policing. Members of the Denver Indian Center have worked with police to teach them about what tribal IDs look like so police understand they are a valid form of identification and don’t confiscate them, for example.

Police are “not going to go anywhere. We have to find solutions (for them to) work with the community in which they are,” he said.

To Jill Locantore, the executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, the most important piece of public safety is that the goal of any strategy remains to address root causes of harms to public safety and move away from purely punitive responses. Who leads the implementation matters less than the strategy, she said.

“There’s different strategies for achieving public safety, and what we all want to get to is a place where we’re not having to use punitive strategies after the fact when people are doing things that take away from public safety, but that we’re addressing those root causes that are harmful to public safety. And whether you call it police or whether you call it a peace enforcement department, the name is less important than the strategies that you’re pursuing.”

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