Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca is pushing ahead on major city reforms, but not in a way that is transparent, nor provides enough time for debate, revision and public input, local decision-makers say.
A handful of councilors told Colorado Politics they were caught completely off guard when they learned late Thursday, and some not until Friday, from the Denver City Council’s Monday agenda that CdeBaca had direct-filed three major proposals that would change the city’s charter and therefore require voters’ approval on the Nov. 3 ballot.
The most controversial of the three would, if passed by voters, abolish the Denver Police Department and replace it with a largely unarmed “peace force” focusing on preventing crime — not responding to it — by taking a “holistic, anti-racist, public health-oriented approach.” CdeBaca says the proposal is a direct response to community outcries to defund the police, following the May 25 death of George Floyd, who died in the custody of Minneapolis officers.
“We have made it impossible for [residents] to run a citizen-led ballot initiative, and Council has the power to refer something to the ballot and give the voters the choice,” CdeBaca said. So, she told protesters and other community groups, “I will happily sponsor that for you.”
Mayor Michael Hancock, who has characterized CdeBaca as "someone who wants to just try to be disruptive,” is staunchly against her plans.
“This is a reckless and irresponsible proposal, the details of which have not been shared, and ignorant of the reforms we have already undertaken in Public Safety,” Hancock said in a statement to Colorado Politics on Friday. “City Council should reject it soundly, and the Councilwoman should exercise greater transparency and public accountability before putting something of this magnitude forward for a vote again instead of springing it on the public.”
CdeBaca’s proposal has not yet been formalized into a bill. Instead, she direct filed the proposal by title, with a memo that outlines the forthcoming legislation — a tactic Councilman Kevin Flynn called “completely inappropriate and, frankly, insulting to the body.”
Historically, he said, the council has had filings by title only as a rarity, “never for a charter amendment intended for a ballot that is only 80 days away on a fundamental structural change proposal that has had absolutely no outreach, engagement or transparency,” Flynn said in an email to Colorado Politics. “I don't believe the concepts outlined in the memo can even be formed into an actual bill and ballot question by Monday.”
CdeBaca told Colorado Politics the bill will be finalized by Monday. But whether it’s ready by then or not, it likely won’t matter: Council members aren’t prepared to back it.
“I can't view this as a serious proposal when it's brought up at the last minute for ballot access and cuts out a community-driven process that just got underway,” Flynn said. "It doesn't even exist in writing yet. We don't legislate by concept, but by words. There's a complete lack of transparency and engagement on this, which violates our stated intent to be inclusive.”
Councilman Jolon Clark, who served as City Council president for two years, said he wouldn’t support the measure because there has been “no process, no committee, no opportunity for public input, no opportunity for our constituents to look at it, digest it … it’s just very outside of our process, and I think our process is there for good reason to provide that transparency and to provide access to government.”
Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who often votes alongside CdeBaca, called the lack of process “dangerous, especially when we’re talking about the charter of the City and County of Denver, our governing document, the single most important thing we have in our city,” she said in a phone interview.
Councilman Chris Hinds, who also tends to side with CdeBaca, said he’s interested “in theory” in funding addiction, mental health and social worker professionals “as a humane response in situations that don't need law enforcement,” but that it’s “very late to be discussing this substantive a proposal” with his constituents before the council is up against the deadline to refer a measure to the ballot.
CdeBaca says this is what constituents want, which has been reflected in the thousands of emails each council member has received about reimagining policing, as well as in public comment before meetings and protests in the streets.
"It's a privilege for my colleagues like Flynn to say, 'Why not wait until next year?' It's a privilege to not feel the sense of urgency that I feel watching people that I know and in my community get brutalized and murdered for simply being Black, for simply being brown, for simply being an immigrant," she said. "These are things that I don't feel we should be acting slowly on. We've acted so slowly on housing that we have what we have in the streets right now."
Dr. Apryl Alexander, a forensic psychologist and Black Lives Matter activist who was recently appointed to the Citizens Oversight Board — which acts as a watchdog over the police — said CdeBaca’s initiative falls in line with what the community is requesting, and that it's not revolutionary either.
“Proposals like this have been around for decades,” she said.
Alexander pointed to the city’s co-responder program that pairs social workers with police officers, as well as the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program as examples that Denver is already taking similar steps.
Kristina Cook, the chairwoman of the Denver GOP, said CdeBaca's proposal would only exacerbate violent and property crime, which has been on the rise in Denver even before this year's spike.
"Councilwoman CdeBaca’s proposal to eliminate the police department would cause even more residents to flee for the suburbs and exurbs, repeating the destructive hollowing-out of the city that we saw in the 1970s and 1980s and leaving the poorest and most vulnerable to bear the brunt of ever-greater crime," Cooke said. "Useful reforms of qualified immunity and the use of force can and should be accomplished in the context of the existing police department."
CdeBaca also direct filed bills that would grant the Denver City Council appointment power over the Independent Monitor, which oversees law enforcement-related complaints and investigations, as well as a bill that would create a nominating commission for the city attorney.
All three bills are expected for a first reading on Monday night. A final decision is anticipated the following week, on Aug. 24. If approved by the majority of council members, the measures will be referred to the ballot and up to Denver voters on Nov. 3.