As community members filtered into Denver’s Shorter Community AME Church on Sept. 26, Robert Davis was busy putting fliers on tables and hugging anyone who walked through the door. The community conversation, which he was about to co-moderate, was centered on a topic that Davis has dedicated much of his career to: reimagining society’s approach to public safety.
Attendees were asked to answer a series of questions on their phones. “How effective is the Denver Police Department at preventing crime? At healing community harm?” Two questions read. The crowd heard from current and former elected officials working to reform the city’s criminal justice systems, activists pushing for change, and a public health expert who spoke about the root causes of violence, which often stem from trauma and oppression. Those in attendance were asked to envision a different approach to public safety, one that didn’t solely rely on law enforcement.
“We’ve become very lazy and dependent on law enforcement to solve all of our problems,” said Davis, a former pastor who is now the project manager for the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, a coalition of organizations that formed in 2020 in the wake of the killings by police of George Floyd and Elijah McClain. “I think we’ve been asking the right questions. But we’re asking the wrong people.”
The group’s goal is to challenge the premise that more policing leads to safer communities. In May 2021, it published a detailed report that outlined ways to invest in historically marginalized communities; minimize unnecessary law enforcement interactions; reduce crime by increasing access to social services; and ensure more community oversight and input in establishing public safety policies that don’t center on law enforcement.
If we can afford to spend $2 million on pickleball, we could have certainly found $1.5 million to fund an office of neighborhood safety.”
One of the leading recommendations in the report was to establish an “office of neighborhood safety” in Denver to house community-based violence prevention and mental health support programs outside of the criminal justice system. Numerous large cities have established similar offices across the country.
While some such offices are too nascent to evaluate, many older models have proven successful. For example, the Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond, Calif. helped reduce the city’s homicide rate by 62% over 15 years. (When the office was established in 2007, the city had the highest homicide rate in California, and nearly eight times the national average.) Similar offices have been established in cities such as Milwaukee, Newark and Baltimore.
“There’s an emerging body of evidence around the kinds of programs and approaches that these offices support and coordinate,” said Daniela Gilbert, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Redefining Public Safety initiative. (Gilbert participated on the task force, and was consulted throughout the creation of its 2021 report.) “And it’s not a coincidence that the number of offices practically doubled in 2020.”
The push to create an office of neighborhood safety
In response to the Denver task force’s recommendations and at the urging of city council members, the Denver Agency for Human Rights & Community Partnerships within the mayor’s office commissioned a six-month study in 2022 to explore the feasibility of establishing an office of neighborhood safety. The resulting report, which was released in April 2023, was written by Sheila Huss, PhD, a professor of criminal justice and public affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I think the language I used was a confident, but cautious, yes,” Huss said, referring to her recommendation to create an office of neighborhood safety in Denver.
But the decision to create a new office within city government is up to Denver’s new mayor, Mike Johnston. Davis had met with Johnston before he was elected to talk about the proposed office of neighborhood safety. Johnston appeared interested, Davis said. He felt hopeful after the newly elected mayor created the Community Wellbeing & Neighborhood Safety transition committee and tapped Lisa Calderón, MLS, JD, EdD, who ran against Johnston in the race and was involved in the creation of the task force, to co-lead it. Davis was also part of the transition committee.
After hosting three community meetings, the transition committee created a high-level implementation plan for the proposed office of neighborhood safety—including funding streams, structure and oversight—and submitted it to Johnston’s administration before he was inaugurated in July. The proposal outlined an office that would be three-pronged, focused on alternatives, partnerships and solutions.
But Davis says the committee never received a response from the mayor’s office. (Johnston was not made available for an interview for this story.) Instead, the committee and task force received an answer of sorts answer when the mayor’s 770-page revised budget for 2024 was released on Oct. 14.
The budget included a nearly 8% increase in the city’s public safety spending, but didn’t include any funding for a new office focused on community-led public safety initiatives. An amendment had been submitted by Denver City Councilwoman Sarah Parady to direct $1.5 million to establish the office, but it was rejected. Currently, 22% of the city’s municipal budget is funneled to the city’s Department of Public Safety (the umbrella agency for Denver’s police, fire, sheriff and other departments) totaling more than $659 million.
When Davis read Johnston’s 2024 budget, he said it felt like a “gut kick.” In an Oct. 13 letter to city council members, Johnston indicated that Parady’s amendment wasn’t accepted because it didn’t receive a supermajority vote from council members. (Eight council members voted in support of the amendment, one short of a supermajority.)
“We are actively looking at options for how to structure our safety services across the city including the option to create an office of neighborhood safety and we look forward to continuing our work on this with City Council,” Johnston wrote.
“If we can afford to spend $2 million on pickleball, we could have certainly found $1.5 million to fund an office of neighborhood safety,” Davis said, referring to the mayor’s budget item for the “implementation, enhancement, and maintenance of Citywide Pickleball.”
Advocates haven’t given up hope that an office of neighborhood safety might still be created in the future, and said community support for it is strong.
“We desperately need a safety agency that is outside law enforcement, to start thinking about how we reimagine safety and how to do it in an evidence-based, antiracist fashion,” Parady said during a budget discussion on Oct. 5. “We’re, bluntly, never going to get [that] through our safety agencies.”
The transition committee hosted a meeting on July 6 to hear from Denver residents about what they would like to see in terms of public safety. Committee members began the discussion by acknowledging history—including the killings by police of Paul Childs in 2003, Alonzo Ashley in 2011 and Paul Castaway in 2015—and explaining why an office of neighborhood safety could help save lives. Childs’ death sparked a movement that ultimately led to the creation of Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian oversight agency for the Denver police and sheriff departments.
“What if Denver had respondents—departments—who were far more capable, who did not have firearms, who had patience, who had the training to deal with these types of crises in our community?” Alex Landau, the co-founder of the Denver Justice Project, told the crowd. “We may still have these three community members.”
Calderón, a criminal justice professor and executive director of the nonprofit Women Uprising, spoke at a Sept. 19 press conference about the potential office and how it could help reduce law enforcement interactions with community members. The event was hosted on behalf of the family of Brandon Cole, an unarmed 36-year-old Black man killed by Denver Police on Aug. 5.
“This is part of our process to educate our community and bring them along to say there’s something here that’s worth fighting for, and this is an office that we want,” Calderón said as she sat outside the Denver Central Market in RiNo one day in September. “Not for the police, not for the mayor, but for you as a community to have other options. And we have the research to show that it is possible.”
The Denver feasibility study
Huss, who also serves as the interim co-director for CU Denver’s Center for Community Safety and Resilience, recommended in her final report that the new potential office be housed within the mayor’s office to give it more “authority and legitimacy.” (While the office might collaborate with the Denver Department of Public Safety or the mayor’s office on specific projects, Calderón and Davis want the office to operate and be funded independently.)
Huss suggested, if the office is established, to create a multidepartment action team to coordinate efforts between agencies to determine what work is already underway, what could be scaled up, and where potential partnerships could be. She stressed that initiatives should be tailored to meet specific neighborhood needs.
“Every neighborhood is not the same in their experiences with historic racism, with their perceptions with the police. Neighborhoods need to be the ones who define what public safety means to them and what they’re willing to do in terms of response,” she said.
“Obviously, if there’s a violent crime in progress, that’s a police response,” she added. “But… when you don’t need an armed officer to respond to something, what does an effective response look like?”
There are already a few alternatives to policing in Denver, including the city’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, which was established in 2020 as a pilot program and has since expanded to more neighborhoods. The program sends clinicians and paramedics to low-level 911 calls like mental health crises, substance use or issues related to poverty, homelessness and basic needs. (The program got an initial funding boost in Johnston’s 2024 budget; at its Oct. 30 meeting, some City Council members indicated they wanted to allocate even more money for the program.)
“It’s meant to get people connected to things that they need and things that will support them,” said Vinnie Cervantes, the executive director of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response who helped establish the STAR program.
While Cervantes ultimately agrees there needs to be more alternatives to policing in Denver, he’s wary that a new office of neighborhood safety would duplicate efforts already underway. He said that many of the potential programs he could see within such an office might be better situated within the city’s Department of Public Health, where STAR is housed.
Calderón said there is no intention to move existing programs over to the potential new office. She doesn’t want to get into “turf battles,” and wouldn’t want a new office to be bogged down by bureaucracy within an existing agency.
“We tend to look at public safety in very strict criminal legal system terms,” she said. “This office would look at the things, the initiatives that we know are bringing good to our community, and find ways to help build their capacity.”
Gilbert, with the Vera Institute of Justice, said the main challenges of establishing offices of neighborhood safety are often funding streams, reporting structures and expectations.
“These offices are often working within highly politicized environments, and that can generate unrealistic expectations around the scope or timeline for impact,” she said. “These offices are often held to a very different standard than police departments are held in terms of allocation of resources.”
Typically, programs focused on violence intervention can yield positive results between one and five years, Gilbert said, while programs focused on prevention or community transformation can take anywhere from five years to decades. Ultimately, an office’s success depends on how well-resourced it is—and how much community support it has.
“There are policing leaders that understand and value this work,” Gilbert said, pointing to when the mayor of Newark, N.J. redirected 5% of the city’s public safety budget to create the Office of Violence Prevention & Trauma Recovery. “It’s important to recognize places where there is a recognition of the importance of multiple approaches.”
At the community event on Sept. 26, Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins, who was in the crowd alongside Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas, said he would support the creation of an office of neighborhood safety in Denver—as long as it was designed and operated in coordination with the city’s law enforcement agencies, not antithetical to them.
“Of course, we need more resources to address what the community is experiencing,” he said.
Gilbert said that in order for a new office to be successful, its leadership needs to have adequate authority to make decisions and leverage funding. It’s one of the “biggest lessons learned” she’s seen in other cities.
“Having the director be a mid-level manager doesn’t set it up for success,” she said. Having a director in a cabinet-level position, with the same authority or power as the chief of police, would likely increase its effectiveness, she added.
Davis has been cautiously optimistic since Thomas and Armando Saldate, the executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, assumed their respective roles in 2022. They’ve worked to implement many of the recommendations laid out in the task force’s 2021 report, but there’s still a long way to go, Davis said.
“They are law enforcement first, it is what it is,” he said. “But they have been intentional in trying to have conversations with us and other community voices.”
But change is not possible unless there is more engagement from community members, which, to Davis’ dismay, he’s watched wane since the summer of 2020, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets nationwide in protest of police brutality and systemic racism.
“We have a community that responds to only the most heinous of situations, and that’s not sustainable,” Davis said. “If we don’t continue to apply the pressure, we start going backwards.” He pointed to Denver Public Schools’ decision to bring back armed school-resource officers, despite research showing that they often disproportionately target students of color.
Still, Davis hasn’t lost hope.
“I don’t know what’s next, but there is still a community desire to make something better, to build something different,” he said, “and that’s not going away.”
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