Colorado Politics: In your mind, what is the purpose of policing in the United States?
Carla Havard: The purpose of police in my mind is to ensure a safe environment for all — to make sure laws are followed and boundaries are respected.
CP: Has that evolved since you’ve been on the force? Did you come in with a different interpretation?
Havard: Yeah, absolutely. I believe I came in with an impression, like most, to save the world. Understandably, that cannot happen. I believe there’s two ways to change something: on the outside and on the inside. So we certainly have to be on the inside of this institution that wasn’t actually designed to include us so we can affect policies and procedures and practices.
The biggest revelation that I’ve had is that we can’t do it alone. It just can’t be police that’s changing the world. We’re one piece of the pie.
CP: When you think about equity in policing, can you talk specifically about what that concept looks like?
Havard: Certainly 2020 has highlighted some inequities, some appearance of unjust interactions between police and communities of color. I think we have to be honest and acknowledge that almost weekly we are exposed to a video where seemingly law enforcement gives an appearance of overly-violent behaviors when they’re interacting with communities of color.
I believe that most of that is engrained in our need to be superior over someone. In policing, where we have an extremely high measure of power, it’s easy for that to be abused if there’s not strict rules and management and supervision in place.
CP: In the year 2021, what types of people are going to make the best police officers in your opinion?
Havard: We’re certainly looking for people who have a high level of emotional intelligence. People who are well rounded. People who have a range. People who can go from left to right, top to bottom, and bounce back very quickly. I believe we’re looking for people who can be extremely flexible. People who can be understanding and compassionate to others and open to training, so that they can learn about other communities or nuances with communities that perhaps are misunderstood.
There’s a time that we have to be extremely firm, and there’s a time that compassion and empathy will get the same result that others think force would get. So we need someone who’s adaptable to the situation.
CP: It’s interesting you mention that. I’m thinking of a crime scene where potentially the officer might be interacting with the suspect who is belligerent and cursing him out, then in the next moment the officer has to turn to interact with the victim and show compassion and empathy. I imagine most people wouldn’t think themselves capable of doing that.
Havard: Here in Denver, we have a very progressive leadership, which includes a different philosophy of policing, looking at root causes. Looking at systems where we may be responsible for these folks ultimately being pushed into a corner and, in their minds, having nothing else to do but commit a crime. So we are certainly well trained.
I believe it’s like anything else: you can have the training out there, but you have to ensure that the officer accesses that training and you certainly have to ensure they are adhering to that training. And sometimes that’s the disconnect.
CP: You mentioned you can’t do your job without the help of other entities. Prosecutors are also an important part of the system. In April, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann released a report showing disparities in criminal justice outcomes for white defendants compared to Black and brown defendants. To the report’s finding that sometimes officers are bringing cases supported by flimsy evidence, is that something that’s true?
Havard: You know, the DA has a high level of criteria to move forward on any case. I think what’s important about that question is we ensure that the officers have as much evidence as they can to present to the DA. If they don’t, we need the system to work and say, “we don’t have enough and can’t move forward on this.” But we present the evidence that we have. The DA shouldn’t accept it if it’s not up to their standards.
CP: The report made it seem like some prosecutors, speaking anonymously, found a small number of officers were coming in repeatedly with cases based on maybe a grudge or nothing at all, and prosecutors have to dismiss the case because they have nothing to go on. Is there a culture between prosecutors and the police to say, “we noticed a pattern. We’d appreciate if you stop it because it’s making our job harder?” One person said they don’t file cases from an officer who’s a noted problem. Is that healthy?
Havard: I think it is healthy. Another thing that should happen is there should be follow up to see exactly what’s going on with that officer, to see if it’s a training issue or a new officer or they don’t understand something. If it’s not a training issue, there certainly should be an in-depth investigation.
The justice system has to work together. And I think it’s important that when we highlight issues or concerns or deficits, we call it what it is, but we also have follow up to get to the root cause. Let’s not just say, “we’re not going to accept the case.” Let’s go a little bit further and report it to that person’s supervisor or commanding officer and say, “we’d like for you guys to address it.” I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to weed out any possibly where we could be accused of some sort of malfeasance.
In Denver we’re actually really, really progressive in conforming to best practices and changing the philosophy of policing. We were on board with body-worn cameras long before everyone else. We’re pretty much leading the pack. We have our co-responder program. We found out years ago that we were responding to situations that didn’t necessarily need a police officer, but they have some component of mental health.
Our leadership and our chief want to ensure that if an officer is called to a situation, that they have that flexibility, that emotional intelligence, that range to assess the situation and continually assess it. If it’s something that’s not within our wheelhouse, we should have the training, the ability to identify that and call in others.
CP: From 2020, a couple of catchphrases arose like “defund the police” or “blue lives matter.” Do you think there’s a more helpful way to think about policing reform than those polar opposite ideas?
Havard: We’ve had in the Denver Police Department significant relationships with organizations calling for transparency, accountability, for access and equitable processes in policing. So we understood when phrases like “defund the police” would come up. Defund the police means the reallocation of some of the funding that historically been for police.
From our conversations, those people wanted to take some of the moneys and put them toward more community-involved organizations. And I can’t say, as the president of the Black Police Officers Organization, that I disagree.
As far as “blue lives matter,” I can tell you that personally I was offended that our symbol we use to honor those who have given their lives, who made the ultimate sacrifice, was hijacked by a political party and used as rhetoric to spew everything that we are against, that my organization is against. I believe the insurrection on Jan. 6 where there were a lot of “blue lives matter” flags, I think it highlighted that those weren’t true supporters of the ultimate philosophy of policing. Those were people who were trying to insinuate that this group shared those sentiments.
CP: Amid the 2020 protests, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 217, one part of which involved abolishing qualified immunity, which can shield police officers from civil liability for their conduct. How has the elimination of qualified immunity affected officers’ attitudes toward their job?
Havard: Once again, here in Denver, we weren’t surprised by SB217 and we did not have to make too many adjustments to be in compliance with 217.
With qualified immunity, for myself and my organization, we understood what that means. I believe people don’t understand that police officers individually have always operated under the risk of being sued personally. Certainly, there’s going to be a different perspective from our police union. But from a common sense accountability issue, if you operate within the confines, you’re good.
I hope that when officers are out there contacting the citizens of Denver, I hope they’re not thinking, “Can I be sued for this?” What our chief and our leadership want them to be thinking is of our mission statement. I hope they’re thinking about our decision making process. “Is this thing that I’m doing, is this contact that I’m making, do I have the authority to make it? Are my actions reasonable?”
And more importantly, in my eyes, “Are my actions necessary?” Because we hope all of them would be doing the right thing for the right reasons.
CP: Obviously there is trauma inflicted by police on communities of color, but does that reflect back to the officers themselves? Is there any trauma that officers of color are carrying around with them as they do their job?
Havard: Absolutely. I can tell you 2020 was hard. Some would actually say we’re “too Black to be blue” and we’re “too blue to be Black.” We see the seeming over-aggression, over-abuse, over-policing of communities of color.
But also we know there are hundreds and thousands of women and men who are in this job for the right reasons. And they get lumped into the pot of people you do see in those awful videos. What you want to say is, “I’m not that person. I understand what you’re saying. I’m working on the inside of this to help you.” But a lot of times that gets lost.
I was angry every time I would see another video of a police officer seemingly abusing his or her power and treating, oftentimes, a person of color poorly or roughly or even ending their life. And I was hurt because I understood the pain that family was feeling. And then I was offended that it was allowed to happen in the profession I love and I am working every day diligently to change from the inside. So it was a lot of emotion.
We had to come to a realization that although a lot of efforts have been put in place, we still very much have racism and sexism in the United States. Everyone wants to have power over someone. Power, privilege, position and practice, that’s what policing is about. We have to ensure that the officers on the street, the ones who are interacting with the folks who are in crisis and have generational trauma, that we’re teaching them about microaggressions and cultural sensitivity so they can understand, it’s not you personally.
We need to be understanding and not take it as a personal attack on our power, on our bravado or machismo. Emotional intelligence, well-rounded officers — that’s what I meant earlier about the type of officer that we’re looking for. Because only then can we do our part to minimize the likelihood of all these awful videos that we continually see.
I know that if I’m incredibly sad and incredibly angry that they’re still happening, I can’t imagine what others might think when they seemingly may not be in a position to change it.
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