DENVER (CBS4) - A defaced memorial to fallen police officers has led to major backlash that includes the president of the police union, the police chief and a community group said to be responsible for the vandalism.
On Saturday more than 100 people marched down Colfax Avenue from Lincoln Park to the Denver Police Department headquarters located at 1331 Cherokee Street. Some marched in support of Jessie Hernandez, a 17-year-old who was killed when she was shot by police during a criminal incident in January.
During the protest a memorial dedicated to fallen police officers was vandalized, which has led to a controversy involving police administrators and the head of the police union. The union is now calling for Denver Police Chief Robert White to resign.
Some protesters poured red paint over the memorial, which is located in front of Denver police headquarters and lists the names of police officers who have died in the line of duty. Police say the vandalism was disrespectful. Some officers were seen with tears in their eyes after the memorial was defaced.
Police arrested two men for criminal mischief in relation to the vandalism. They've been identified as Matthew Goldberg, 23, and Robert Guerrero, 25. They've been charged with criminal mischief-vandalism.
Denver firefighters were later seen cleaning the paint off of the memorial, but Denver Police Union President Nick Rogers said the damage had been done.
Rogers spoke exclusively to CBS4's Lauren DiSpirito following the incident. He said officers monitoring the protest were told by their superiors to not to interfere and to let the vandalism happen. Rogers said he and officers are so upset about that decision that he's calling for White's resignation.
"There is no reason to allow someone to desecrate a memorial," Rogers said. "There is no reason to allow that to happen, it's wrong … we have a breaking point, and we are there."
Rogers said many officers take serious issue with the orders coming from the top.
"I will ask all 1,400 police officers to rally, and we will respond to the mayor's office in unison to hand him a letter asking for the chief's resignation," he said.
CBS4 obtained a letter from Officer Danny Veith to Chief White. Veith told White that having to watch the memorial be vandalized "without being able to intervene, is inexcusable and unacceptable."
"Before the next protest occurs, we need to hear from you. We need to know that you will enact and enforce a policy preventing these anti-social activists from damaging our police memorial and facilities in the future. We need to hear from you that you support our active and retired officers, and the memories of our fallen," Veith said in the letter.
Chief White visited the memorial Sunday morning and issued a statement about the incident to the department.
"Like most of you, I found this behavior to be not only disrespectful but abhorrent. Obviously this choice was not a legal expression of free speech and is not consistent with the values and expectations of the Denver community," White said in the statement. "However, no matter how disgusting I find what these protestors did, I cannot allow emotion to guide the decisions I make in regards to the safety of our officers and that of the community."
Protests against the Denver Police Department have become more frequent in the last year and White said his department evaluates their response after each protest to develop an appropriate strategy.
"We have learned that providing route security at a distance and intentionally avoiding direct confrontation prevents injury to officers, limits liability, and minimizes the criminal actions of many protestors," White said.
White said given the fact the damage to the memorial wasn't permanent and police were able to arrest the suspects, he believes the decision not to stop them from defacing the memorial was appropriate.
"I absolutely understand the frustration and disgust that some officers felt. I am also incredibly proud of the restraint and professionalism displayed yesterday and the fact that other officers quickly identified and then arrested the suspects," White said.
The Denver Community Defense Committee, which organized Saturday's march, also responded to the incident with a statement released on Sunday.
"This single action has gained the most attention in the media, and has become a rallying call for Denver police and those who defend their actions," the group said in the statement. "We, as the members of the Denver Community Defense Committee, the organization that planned the March against Police Terror, voice our unwavering support and solidarity to all those who participated in the protests and March yesterday."
The group believes the attention given to vandalism is misplaced.
"It is telling that at this moment, local media and the Denver Police Department are more offended over red paint being splashed on a piece of stone than the very real red blood that continues to stain our streets because of unchecked police violence. Although the paint was easily washed off the memorial, the scars left by police terror can never be washed away."
The group said "it is an act of extreme injustice that two people will face charges in court, accused of throwing paint on a piece of stone, and will face more jail time and harsher punishments than any police officer who has killed an unarmed suspect in this city."
Denver Director of Public Safety Stephanie O'Malley also released a statement Sunday showing support for the decision not to stop the vandalism.
"Some have expressed outrage that police did not immediately confront the protesters and arrest those responsible for the damage. They have even gone so far as to demand Chief White's resignation. I wholeheartedly disagree," O'Malley said.
She said she agrees with the department's "non-confrontational strategy when dealing with free speech protests."
"When it is appropriate (to prevent injury and to prevent escalation of the protesters), the Denver Police Department prefers to identify suspects and arrest them after the protests conclude," O'Malley said. "This is far safer for the officers, the suspects, and the community. I applaud Chief White and the members of the police department for their restraint and response yesterday. These strategies are considered a model for other cities as they respond to a growing wave of protests across America."
O'Malley said her department is "working diligently to collectively address frustrations, identify areas for improvement, and continue to make Denver one of the best communities in the nation."
Mayor Michael Hancock showed his support for Chief White in a statement as well.
"I stand in full support of Chief White and the command staff's handling of Saturday's protest, as well as the numerous protests that have occurred in Denver the past few months," Hancock said in a statement. "While I condemn the repulsive defacing of the Fallen Officer Memorial, the decision not to engage with the protesters and escalate the conflict was the right one. I trust this crime will be punished accordingly, and that our police officers and our community will continue to work together respectfully to find solutions that lead to a more just and united Denver."
- By Matthew J. Buettner, CBSDenver.com
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