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Like many departments across the country, the Denver Police Department is plagued by a long legacy of racism. During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated Mile High City politics, counting Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton, Colorado Governor Clarence Morley, and DPD Police Chief William J. Candlish among its members at that time.
Racial injustice was so prevalent in Denver by 1947 that, during his campaign, mayoral candidate James Quigg Newton Jr. promised to commission a study on race relations if elected. He was elected, and a story in Rocky Mountain Life reported on the study’s findings: “A history of police brutality [against minorities] has developed a fear and a lack of respect for law enforcement to the point of becoming a serious factor in the increase in crime and juvenile delinquency.”
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In the past, this deep-rooted, systemic racism within law enforcement might have felt like it was unique to the Mile High City. But as the weeks of protests against police brutality across the United States are proving, incidents of violence against people of color at the hands of officers are disturbingly frequent. Thanks to technology, says Robert Durán, a professor of criminology and race at Texas A&M University, “People see it’s not just Denver that has a problem, or Phoenix, or Albuquerque. It’s the whole nation.”
Nevertheless, incidents of police brutality toward people of color continue to go largely unreported. The major exception is shootings. Here, we examine Denver law enforcement’s history of controversial officer-involved shootings and their repercussions—when there were ones.
1951: George Brown, the Denver Post’s first full-time black reporter, writes a column in the paper, declaring, “The minorities in Denver—and their cousins around the world—are turning more and more to the Communist lies for relief from daily oppression. I know because I have seen it happen—right here in Denver.” Brown goes on to mention the killing of an unnamed Black teenager in Denver, saying, “The hard fact that the minority races no longer are satisfied with a program of limited concessions, piecemeal adjustments, and tardy appeasement was brought into sharp focus recently after the shooting of a 15-year-old Negro boy by a Denver patrolman.”
1983: Lelani Lucero, a 25-year-old Latina Denverite, is killed by police officers serving a no-knock warrant on the wrong house. Their mistake results in a shootout between Lucero’s husband and DPD. Juan Lucero, Lelani’s husband, says he thought the officers were robbers, and, after seeing the uniformed officers, claims he dropped his weapon. No charges are filed against the officers who carried out the warrant.
1992: Steven Gant, 20, is fatally shot by DPD officer Michael Blake. Responding to a domestic disturbance, Blake claims Gant, who was Black, made “threatening moves.” Blake is charged with second-degree murder, but ultimately acquitted.
1999: While again executing a no-knock search warrant on the wrong address, DPD officers fatally shoot 45-year-old Mexican immigrant Ismael Mena after Mena allegedly brandishes a gun. The incident prompts then-Mayor Wellington Webb to “review” Denver’s no-knock warrant policy (which, despite much controversy, remains in Colorado today) and incites public outrage and demonstrations. One of the officers involved in the shooting is fired, and Mena’s family ultimately settles with the city for $400,000.
2003: Developmentally disabled teenager Paul Childs, 15, is killed by police outside his Northeast Park Hill home. Childs’ sister called the police after he was chasing his mother around the house with a kitchen knife. When police confront Childs, he approaches them with the knife. Police respond by shooting—and killing—him. Childs’ death gets national coverage and prompts local protests. His family receives a $1.325 million settlement from the city, and the city also creates the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) to serve as a law enforcement watchdog.
2004: DPD officers respond to a domestic violence complaint on 43-year-old Vincent Martinez, who escapes out of a window. Upon entering through a different second-story window, officers encounter 63-year-old Frank Lobato, who is ill in bed. Startled, a police officer shoots Lobato and claims to believe that Lobato held a gun, which turns out to be a soda can. The officer who killed Lobato is suspended for 90 days, and Lobato’s family receives a $900,000 settlement with the city.
2014: Officers attempt to arrest 20-year-old Ryan Ronquillo in the parking lot of a funeral home during Ronquillo’s friend’s funeral. As Ronquillo attempts to flee, police shoot and kill him. Although his family files a lawsuit against four DPD officers, the court decides that the police acted lawfully.
January 2015: Denver officers shoot and kill Jessie Hernandez, a teenager who was driving a car that had been reported stolen. Police officers allege that they shot in self-defense after Hernandez drove toward them. Eyewitness reports, however, dispute this. Her death sparks protests and outrage in Denver, and DPD changes its policy about shooting into moving cars, prohibiting the action. The city pays around $1 million to Hernandez’s family, but the officers involved in the shooting are not disciplined.
July 2015: Paul Castaway, a 35-year-old Native American man with a history of mental health and substance abuse issues, threatens his mother with a knife during a psychotic episode. She calls the police, and when they arrive, officers chase Castaway through a mobile home neighborhood. Cornered, Castaway approaches officers with the knife to his own neck, and they ultimately shoot and kill the man. No officers received discipline for the incident.
May 2020: 21-year-old William Lamont Debose is shot and killed by Denver police officers in the parking lot of the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch Library, after allegedly pointing a loaded handgun at policemen. On June 18, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann announces there will be no criminal charges against the officer who shot Debose.