White supremacist trolls tried and failed to derail an online Denver meeting about getting racism out of law enforcement

People at the first of several online meetups meant to inform a fundamental change in policing powered through.

Westminster Police Sgt. Alex Johnstone speaks to a man who asked to be taken to detox, Jan. 30, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Westminster Police Sgt. Alex Johnstone speaks to a man who asked to be taken to detox, Jan. 30, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photos

A virtual Zoom meeting led by a local police watchdog group, faith leaders and mediation experts was briefly bombarded by white-supremacist trolls playing racist songs and typing bigoted remarks against Black people in the chat.

After kicking out the disruptors, organizers kept the meeting going. But its purpose changed from a conversation about policy changes and drastic reforms to one about more immediate trauma, too, which Topazz Johnson said was apt.

“I’d like to make a suggestion that part of this time be dedicated to just giving people an opportunity to process the impact of what just happened,” said Johnson, a resident on the call. “I think when we just go forward with business as usual, we’re doing exactly what our system does. It’s not about giving space to the perpetrators, but it’s really about giving voice to pain.”

Tuesday’s meeting was a launchpad for a process aimed at fundamentally transforming Denver’s policing — something to which the city’s top law enforcement official, Murphy Robinson, has committed. The Citizen Oversight Board — a group that assesses the Office of Independent Monitor, which watchdogs the police and sheriff departments — led the meeting. The board aimed to gather specific wants from city dwellers and start the process of creating a resident-led task force to recommend specific policy changes down the road.

“What we’re trying to do is right. What we’re trying to do is help people through a very difficult situation and move us towards a more positive system, a better tomorrow where we don’t have these problems,” said Katina Banks, who heads the Citizen Oversight Board. “But as we can see as witnesses — we’re all witnessing right now —  these people are out there. This is the kind of world we have that we need to change.”

While all sorts of voices remain in the fight for change, the Citizen Oversight Board is semi-governmental. It is made up of private residents who are political appointees chosen by Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver City Council.

The Denver Police Department and its umbrella group, the Department of Safety, have been asked to join the task force, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Aside from the racist trolls, the dialogue on Tuesday was civil. Everyone echoed the broad-stroke reforms locals have been talking and hearing about for a long time, especially in the last month: less use-of-force and more attention to people’s mental and behavioral health, the end of racial profiling, demilitarization of law enforcement, and more oversight of and accountability for violent authority figures.

What’s less clear is how those things will come about, if at all, though some residents suggested new training methods and essentially disarming officers.

Pastor Robert Davis, vice president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, said the group hopes to name task force members sometime in August to get the ball rolling.

“I’ve never heard of racist firefighters … and that is because we don’t have as much interaction with them,” Davis said. “They’re there and they do their job when the time arises. And so … my dream, my goal, is that every aspect of public safety we view as an asset and as a partner with the community and not an antagonistic relationship. And I believe that the framework for that can be set now this task force, and we can move forward, by God’s grace.”

Advocates want the public — especially people who could not make the online meeting — to weigh in on ideas for police reform by filling out a questionnaire.

This article was updated to reflect the fact that the city’s law enforcement departments have been asked to join the task force after a spokesperson updated Denverite with the information Wednesday.

It was also been updated to correct the title of Pastor Davis, who is with the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, not the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.

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