by Doug Hrdlicka | Oct 9, 2020 |
A Denver police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest over the summer, Photo by Esteban Fernandez |Este.Fdez20B@gmail.com
Denver City Council voted on September 16 to expand funding and renew the contract for the Empowerment Program, an agency in Denver that provides mental, behavioral and physical health services to women, to continue managing cases for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion project.
The goal is to reduce recidivism and offer people stuck in the justice system a path out by diverting repeat offenders of low-level crimes to people and programs that focus on a harm-reduction approach. The hope is to introduce stability by addressing the needs of the individual, without requisites for participation.
Kevin Kelly is Denver’s LEAD project manager and works to see the program’s participants receive the needed benefits that could include housing, food and clothing.
“Being a harm reduction-based program, we are not asking someone to stop what they’re doing,” said Kelly. “One of the main goals is to keep folks out of jail and, especially because our target population is often dealing with those behavioral health issues, that’s certainly something we hope for our participants.“
In some instances, a participant won’t be a repeat offender but will be at risk of adapting for survival. This was the case for Kelsea Johnson.
In August 2019, Johnson gave birth to a baby boy. He was premature and had an intestinal infection, which became septic. The doctor treated and released her son and they took him home where he met his two siblings. Neither Johnson nor her husband were working. She was a stay-at-home mom and he was bitten by a black widow, resulting in an infection that left him immobile.
“At this point we were still living in our house, but knew that it was coming, that the day was coming that we were going to be evicted,” said Johnson.
The following November the family was evicted. They moved into a motel off Colfax with few possessions including tools, clothes and Johnson’s car.
They met a man, who was never named, that took an interest in Johnson. He would ask for rides, presumably for drug deals, she said. This man eventually requested that Johnson go with him alone, and treating her to meals and persuading her to leave her husband.
“Throughout that period of time he got me away from my husband, literally made me go and kick him out,” said Johnson. “I swear part of it was getting me separated from my kids, too.”
The man would degrade her and hint at the idea of her prostituting for him. He paid for everything and offered her a place to stay—a piece of cardboard laid out on the hotel room floor—when things were dire. He demanded loyalty and secluded her from the world by taking her phone and paying for a room in a transportation desert.
“It started with him saying, ‘I’ll pay for your hotel room, don’t worry, I got you, you’re my friend, I’m loyal to you.’ That’s a big thing, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty that he kept pushing,” said Johnson. “That was the part that stuck in my head, that I had to be loyal to him.”
He would tell her how the other girls would kill to be in her position and call her “queen.” This man took her car and proclaimed squatter’s rights and continued to compel her into prostitution.
A mutual friend of Johnson and the man she was staying with would tell her she is at risk of being pimped out, and if she stayed, things would worsen. This was hard to believe because loyalty was so important to him, but with no home, no car and no income she stayed.
“I remember just feeling this pit in my stomach, I had no clue,” said Johnson. “I just kept protecting him.”
This man left Johnson alone with his brother, who ended up raping her. The brother said, “my brother and I share everything,” and told her that to be Queen you need to listen. She covered her eyes with her hands and survived. After the man returned, he blamed her, questioned her loyalty and twisted what happened to make it seem like she caused it.
“Survival. That was the only thing in my head was survival. I wasn’t about good things or happy things, it was just survival,” said Johnson.
She was eventually given the contact information for the Empowerment Program and left to stay with a friend while working to mend her life.
Johnson was referred by someone from the Empowerment Program, but it mainly relies on officials in the criminal justice system and police officers for referrals. However, given the current climate around police, the responsibility of referrals will shift to community agencies.
Devin Richards, the LEAD project manager for The Empowerment Program, has worked with the program for nearly two years and wants to move away from police referrals due to negative associations, which could be a disincentive for people wanting to participate.
“Typically that’s why we don’t go out with police officers when they are referring to us. We don’t want our participants or potential participants to think that we are police officers ourselves,” Richards said. “We’re trying to make those very clear boundaries that ‘hey, while we’re still getting referrals from police officers we are not police ourselves.’”
LEAD first rose out of Seattle in 2011 as a response to the inequities against minority groups in the criminal justice system. It was introduced to Denver in 2018.
“As the program has spread, that’s been something that all the other LEAD programs have adopted,” said Kelly about the roots of LEAD.
Now that there is an anthem for change repeating in cities around the nation, Denver has responded by honoring the roots of the program and the calls from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although driven toward reducing recidivism and offering resources, LEAD has also dipped its hands into ordinance and law reform. Colorado has an ordinance that requires sex workers who are arrested to take an STI test or face punishment for non-compliance, which could include a warrant for not turning in the results.
“It’s an old ordinance. It was written in the ‘70s and it’s clearly written to target sex workers, and in Denver that particularly affects Black women. Black women make up 24% of people who are arrested for buying or selling sex. So we saw that very early on and started to work to address that,” said Kelly.
The effort has the combined support of the Public Defender’s office, the Denver District Attorney’s office and The Empowerment Program, to name just a few. But repealing the ordinance is only the beginning for stakeholders and representatives in the LEAD project.
“Where we’re coming in is really more along the lines of decriminalization,” said Richards. “And decriminalizing the issues that are more disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.”
Earlier this year, Chief Public Defender Alice Norman and attorney and research consultant Nathaniel Baca released a demographic study on the criminal justice system. The result was that Denver’s Black community is over-represented in low-level crime statistics.
For crimes like interference and resistance, Black community members are in court 36% of the time and those who were found guilty receive jail time 75% of the time. For perspective, nearly 10% of the population is Black and defendants of other races who were found guilty receive jail time for the same crimes 43% of the time. All areas of the study reflect these disproportionate numbers.
The study also looked at whether Denver citizens require too much from our police officers by asking them to intervene with mental health and behavioral issues.
The issue of police and criminal justice reform to reflect a more equitable system is a sprawling subject with many moving parts, but the LEAD program has begun to look at how change can happen soon and to our most marginalized community members.
“As long as we continue to criminalize the sort of behaviors and work that LEAD interacts with we’re still going to see this problem,” said Kelly. “What I mean by that is if sex work was decriminalized, sex workers would be far safer, they would enjoy the same workplace protections that somebody who works a white-collar job, like me, enjoys.”
Johnson was recently reunited with her kids and has her own place. The man she met still has her car, but it’s an issue she has let die.
“I can say because of LEAD, they’re actually trying to get me to this point of self-sustainability,” said Johnson.
I was the “black friend” that a lot of racists claim to have.
I didn’t come to terms with the experiences that formed my racial identity until my young adult life. My encounters with racial injustice were not as violent or as fatal as many of the police interactions I hear about nowadays. Most of what was said or done to me was in the form of racially-insensitive comments about how my perceived mannerisms did not reflect the race with which I identified.
I was born to well-educated black parents, and while we weren’t super loaded or anything, we led a comfortable life. As a child, I remember walking through the front door and telling my mom how my day at school went. I carelessly put my backpack near the front door, and when my mom objected, I responded with “my bad”, a phrase commonly uttered by my black friends at school. She gently discouraged me from ever saying this again, and when I asked why, she said that it made me sound uneducated. From that day on, I spoke “proper English”, the type of English that is commonly associated with “talking white”.
When I was in 7th grade, I had heard from one of my white friends that one of our black classmates had gotten assaulted by some other black students for “not acting black enough”. Her name was Melissa*, and although I did not know her too well, I had heard that she was popular amongst other students. At that moment, I felt a tightening in my chest, and I worried that something like this would happen to me someday. Almost as if reading my thoughts, my friend told me “You don’t have to worry about that, Devin. You’re not like the other black kids.” I don’t remember how I felt after I heard that, but I know it wasn’t a good feeling. I didn’t know it at the time, but this incident was the first step towards me realizing that my success, safety and “acceptance” in this world ultimately depended on the approval of white people, and that any attempts to connect with my heritage would be met with disapproval. I often think about this day, but probably not nearly as much as Melissa does.
I spent my high school years at a predominately white private school in Louisiana, and it was an experience to say the least. Here are a couple of those racial encounters that I had mentioned earlier:
• A white friend of mine said the n-word when talking to me about another person that she was displeased with, and when I expressed displeasure, she scoffed and said it “wasn’t a big deal”.
• I dated a white guy, and he would constantly make anti-black “jokes” at my expense, and like an idiot, I would chuckle awkwardly in response.
• While dating said white guy, someone wrote “n-word lover” on his locker in permanent marker. Wrote the full word with a hard “r” and everything.
• During my senior year, I was voted “Whitest Black Person You Will Ever Know”.
It was a weird space to be in, but if I had to describe it, it’s like a child receiving conditional love from their parents. As long as I did not “have an attitude” (i.e. display ANY degree of negative, even neutral, emotion), I would get compliments from adults saying how well-behaved I was.
I felt so powerless until a few years ago at my job, when someone had said the n-word to me in casual conversation. I remember it feeling similar to what happened to me in high school, and the session ended with me politely but firmly telling the person to leave. The feeling of power and self-love that I had for myself in that moment was indescribable.
I’m very lucky to work at a place that validates my experiences as a black woman in America. Until recently, I allowed people to say things to me that should have never been said. Sadly, bullies don’t go away after high school, so I’ve had to dig deep and learn a lot about myself over the past couple years, including how to love myself for all of my differences.
Black people: Please, PLEASE do not allow other people to police your blackness. Using “degrees of whiteness” as the standard for acceptable behavior is a common tactic that racists use to divide and alienate people of color. More likely than not, you’ll have to step outside of your comfort zone to call out people who don’t think you’re black enough. However, you must understand that some of these people won’t like it, and may leave your life forever. This will be painful, but know that you’re not losing friends. You’re only losing manipulators, narcissists, and liars that used to benefit from your lack of boundaries.
*names have been changed to protect the identities of people in this story
- Devin Tempton, Staff at The Empowerment Program, Inc.
I am a warrior and survivor of trauma and drug use, and when everyone had given up on me, Empowerment believed in me. Like the phoenix I rose from the ashes and have been soaring high ever since, not without a few bumps and bruises along the way, but still on track. So exciting! Only since December after seeing my friend get killed and watching another shoot someone. I saw a lot of deaths. 3 years ago, my life changed forever as I watched my brother get killed; I have lost all but one of my brothers and my grandma.
So life ain't always been good, but here I stand, mentally strong and staying drug-free. Thank you, Empowerment.
I am eleven years old sitting in the back of my family’s old Buick. We are driving through a national park after a long day of swimming. My sisters and I are exhausted, but happy. We’re driving slowly watching the deer grazing in the trees and enjoying the breeze. I am wishing I had a hair tie that I could use to keep my hijab out of my face. As I’m wondering if such a product exists, blue and red lights fill my vision. A cop car has pulled up behind us and its flashing lights reflect through the crooked rear-view mirror. My father, a dark-skinned Middle Eastern man, pulls over.
At age eleven, I still had the blissful idea that the adults would handle this situation and it would be over soon. I turn my attention to my father telling my older sister that they probably wanted to make sure we were okay. I look out my window and am faced with a police officer standing outside my window. There are three officers in total. Two on the driver’s side, where my father and I are sitting, and one on the passenger side, where my sisters are seated. I am not tall enough to see out the window properly and my only view is of this officer’s belt. I am transfixed by the contents surrounding his belt. The thick leather secures a handgun, handcuffs, a taser, and other things my eleven years old self could not identify.
“How can I help you officer?” my father asks. He is using his polite, kind voice; I recognize something is wrong. The officer next to my father’s window doesn’t answer him. She stares in silence for a second.
“Do you have an weapons on you or in the vehicle?” the words were said with such authority that I became terrified that we had an entire arsenal in the car, even though I knew the contents of this car by heart. But this officer also knew; she had to know. There was so much confidence, so much authority in her voice that I was so sure that she knew something we didn’t.
“No, ma’am.” My father said still using his polite voice, “We’ve just drove down here for a swim and now we’re enjoying the deer.”
“What is in your trunk?” the female officer asks. Was this normal? Was it normal for police to surround your car as your enjoying a drive through a national park? I thought they just wanted to make sure we were okay? These questions never left my mouth. I knew this was not a time or a place to say anything. My father was still using his polite voice.
“Our swimming clothes, our cooler, a few Frisbees, food…” my father didn’t know how detailed the officer wanted him to be.
“We need to see your trunk.” She states. It is not a question nor a request. It is a demand. My father does not refuse. Our car is old. My father has to manually unlock the trunk and put a certain amount of pressure in just the right place for it to open. My father explains this to the officers and asks if he can step out of the car to help them open the trunk. The officer says he can exit his vehicle, but they keep their distance and their hands rest on their belts. My father leaves the car and opens the trunk. My sisters and I wait. I peek around my open window and see one of the male officers holding my wet swimming clothes. I feel a pang of shame and humiliation. Those were not his to see or hold. I wanted to rip the clothes out of his hands and hide them away.
They rummage through our trunk, pulling out clothes, trash, floaties, a beach ball, Frisbees, our cooler, and many more items. Were they still looking for weapons? What did they want? Eventually, they haphazardly shove everything back into our trunk.
“You shouldn’t be driving so slow.” The female officer says.
“I was trying to let my kids see the deer a little bit better.” My father states.
“You shouldn’t be driving so slow. We’ll let you off with a warning this time.” With these parting words, the three officers walk back to their car. My father stands by our open trunk. He tucks some of our belongings into our trunk and closes it. He gets back into the car and drives off. We no longer stop or drive slowly to see the deer.
by Leta Calvert
BEAUTY IN CHAOS
THERE'S BEAUTY IN CHAOS
LOOK AROUND THE WORLD AND SEE
BLACK KINGS & QUEENS RISING
WHILE WHITE PEOPLE HUMBLY BOW THEIR KNEES
IS POSTURE IMPORTANT?
AT THE END OF THE DAY
ONE MUST LOOK BEYOND THE SURFACE
IT WILL REVEAL WHAT THE HEART SAYS
OUR YOUTH ARE CRYING OUT
WE HEAR YOU LOUD AND CLEAR
YOUR TEARS HAVE REACHED HEAVEN
AND GOD ALMIGHTY HEARS!
TO EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON
AND A TIME TO EVERY PURPOSE UNDER THE SUN
WE ARE A STRONG BLACK PEOPLE
MAKING BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN DANCING AND HAVING FUN
WE ARE ONE OF MANY CHOCOLATE HUES TREATED LIKE DIRT
BUT IT’S A NEW DAY BLACK LIVES HAVE ALWAYS MATTERED
FOR WE ARE THE ONES THAT POPULATED THIS EARTH
IT’S TRULY A PRIVILEGE TO BE BLACK & I’M PROUD
I HEAR J.B.’S SPIRIT DECLARING SAY IT LOUD
I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD
BLACK IS NOT WHO WE ARE
IT IS THE COLOR OF OUR SKIN
WE WERE BORN UNIQUE INTELLIGENT BEINGS
FROM THE VERY BEGIN!
NO NEED TO FEAR US WE JUST WANT TO BE FREE
FREE TO BE A PROUD BLACK PEOPLE
NO LONGER WILL WE HANG FROM YOUR VISIBLE INVISIBLE TREES
WHAT’S BEEN DONE IN THE DARK
WILL CONTINUE TO COME TO THE LIGHT
JEHOVAH SHAMA HEARS
HIS ARMY IS PREPARED FOR THIS FIGHT
WHAT’S GOING ON I HEAR MARVIN ASK?
BLACK BEAUTY IN CHAOS
OUR ANCESTORS GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES
SPEAKING FROM THE PAST
THANK YOU GEORGE FLOYD, BREANNA TAYLOR, ARMAUD ARBERRY
AND THE NAMES YET TO BE TOLD
WE HAVE BEEN THROUGH THE FIRE
AND SHALL COME FORTH AS PURE GOLD
THANK YOU COLEN KAEPERNICK FOR TAKING A KNEE
YOU WERE BLACK BALLED AND PERSECUTED
BEAUTY IN YOUR CHAOS,PAVED THE WAY
NOW OUR FREEDOM RINGS AND RINGS AND RINGS….
-Leta Calvert, Staff at The Empowerment Program
by Delsia Brown
On November 15th, 2018, my life changed forever hearing the news that my only son and the youngest of my two children had died. In moments, my son had become another statistic.
From an early age, Allen had always been a family person who was overprotective of his family, with an extremely generous heart, strong work ethic, goofy laugh, and an ever-present smile.
I remember that morning vividly driving home getting off the I-25 highway and getting a phone call from one of his friends, asking me had I spoken to Allen. They heard a rumor that the person killed an hour ago by the Arapahoe PD was Allen.
I never received a formal notice/call from the Sheriff’s Department notifying me that my son had been killed. I do not know why that still bothers me presently but it does. Maybe because I felt like they (the police) never viewed him as a victim or had enough respect to find me and tell me what they had done to my 18 yr old son.
I have read/heard several different versions of what happened that morning, most of which is erroneous and insulting to who he was. They allowed the initial press release that was put out to fuel the justification of their actions. (He was in a love triangle—he was waving a gun around at the tire shop—accompanied by his female companion—he was possibly the aggressor of the situation that transpired between his female companion and her ex.)
Unfortunately, because society at times will base their judgement from what they read or hear within the first 24/48 hours, the actions of the officers were justified, in the news and public view, and his name was tarnished even more.
After a video surfaced online more light was shone on the situation. Upon the subsequent car chase involving my son, which was him going about 5 miles over the speed limit, they boxed in his vehicle. The officers gave him directives again, and at some point one of the officers involved proceeded to try and break the drivers side window open with the butt of his gun (At one point the clip fell out of the officers gun). After a couple minutes, based on the body cam footage of one of the officer, Allen’s hands went up. It is said to be unclear to the officers whether he had a gun in his hand, but the windshield wiper was hit, the blades started moving and the officers started shooting. Allen was about 130 pounds standing at best 5”9”/ 5”10”. Of the over 35 bullets that were fired by the officers, 5 of those bullets hit my baby.
My mind frequently goes to how frightened he must have been surrounded by the police cars and then to have officers approach the vehicle and yelling at him. My heart breaks for him each time I relive that moment in my head. The bullets tearing through his tiny body.
The body cam footage finally given to us months later are inconclusive because we can make out what looks like the outlining of his car’s rear-view mirror, which they claim is the outlining of a gun. There is so much to the story that I cannot wrap my mind around.
I was informed by witnesses that Allen was the one telling people at the tire shop to call the cops. Officers went on the aggressor’s version of the story as one of the reasons to pursue him after he left the tire shop’s parking lot. The need to fire upon his vehicle within minutes after him pulling over when they could have called for someone to talk him out the car. The body cam footage lacks clarity, so we only have officers’ word of them seeing a gun in his hand.
Allen was a teenager, who had made his own share of mistakes in the past. But they were learning lessons he was going to grow from. I’ve read the stories about other black men who have been killed by police and their past mistakes immediately being dug up and released to justify their death and summarize their life. But we all have a past and have made mistakes. My son did not have the life you can google and judge based on what you read of the last hour of his life. He had family members that loved him tremendously and he had a right to correct his past and live for his future.
The victim’s family are shamed with the possibility of people digging up the past of your loved one’s life, as if this summarizes their life in entirety, when they are killed by the hands of the police. The goal is to demonize our loved ones, when they are killed by the people who have sworn to serve and protect us.
It is emotionally, physically, and financially draining to fight for the truth. The trend of victim shaming and victim blaming has to stop. We must now organize for reforms and changes for the people that are paid to serve and protect us and work as a unified community.
I will never experience any more firsts with my son, no grandchildren, no wedding— no mother and son dance. His first home and first business. I remember growing up and hearing that a parent should never bury their child because the hurt and heartbreak is a different kind of pain. I never thought I would be that parent and he would be that child. I know I will miss and need my son for the rest of my time on this earth.
Will Smith put it best, “there are not more incidents of racially based police use of excessive force, people are just filming it now”.
-Delsia Brown, Staff at The Empowerment Program, Inc.
Article By: Joycee Kennedy, LCSW
Gail Woods Waller, Editor and Chief of Social Work Advocates